Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Oscar Reviews: Best Documentary Short

Over the next few days, I’m going to shed light on Oscar categories that rarely get discussed. If for no other reason than I think it will be fun to give props to a handful of well regarded films that likely won’t get much play from the public.

Today I’m giving mini reviews for the five movies nominated for the Best Documentary Short Oscar. This was my first time watching all of the nominees in this category before the actual show, and damn, this was some heavy shit. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the quality of these docs. So, alphabetically, the nominees are…

Inocente, dir. by Sean Fire and Andrea Nix Fine
Let me make this clear right away: Inocente will win the Oscar. It wasn’t my favorite of the bunch, but given its subject matter, it’s destined to be an Oscar favorite.

The film tells the story of Inocente, a 15-year-old homeless girl who lives in San Diego as an illegal immigrant. For most of her waking moments, Inocente spends time crafting big, bold, colorful, confident and rather remarkable paintings. Her work has the abstraction of Frida Kahlo and the color of Andy Warhol, yet it’s always marred by emotional anguish. Once the film settles down from the meatiness of the subject (young, homeless, brilliant), it unveils a deep seeded pain within its subject, the cause of years of domestic abuse. The result is an honest film with plenty of depth; one that doesn’t shy away from pain. Late in the movie, Inocente says she’s, “Waiting for that one day that will change my life.” Feb. 24 may be such a day. B+

Kings Point, dir. by Sari Gilman
Kings Point starts as a seemingly innocent (if not too earnest) look into the breezy life of a Floridian home for senior citizens. There are numerous shots of old timers playing cards, tanning, tap dancing, and so on. The subjects Gilman chooses to interview wax philosophic about love, life, sex, friendship, and the fleeting absence of all those notions with age. And that’s when Kings Point changes. In an instant, it turns from an extended infomercial to a tiny testament of life lost. Some of the interviewees happily spend their days trolling the Point – they gossip, they flirt, they shuffle. While others remain stuck in apathy and irritation. The film slowly and resolutely shows the physical and emotion agony of age.

Toward the end of the documentary, four women walk by the large dining hall that is hosting a New Year’s Eve party. One woman peeks in and says,  “Oh, that’s a shame, you used to not even be able to find a table at that party.” That’s about as concise and definitive a recounting of age as I can recall. B+

Mondays at Racine, dir. by Cynthia Wade
The heaviest hitter of the nominees (by far) was this considerate yet unflinching look at several women living with cancer. Racine is a small salon tucked away on Long Island, and for one Monday every month, the two sisters who own the shop open its doors for free to women with cancer. They trim up their shaved heads, browse for new wigs, get their nails done, relax, etc. But they also talk. And they listen. They hear women in similar situations describe their experiences, a handful of which Wade elects to explore further. There’s the woman who has grown angry by her nearly two decade battle with cancer. It’s ruined her life, her marriage and now she’s decided to finally stop chemotherapy, consequences be damned. Another woman will soon have her left breast removed in an effort to combat her breast cancer. A couple happily reflects on their time together, and how they somehow have more of a spark than ever. (If anything, at 39 minutes, Mondays at Racine may take on a few too many subjects. But that’s a minor qualm).

In one of the film’s final scenes, an attractive young woman enters the salon for the first time, anxiously anticipating having her head shaved. Everyone stands around, holding her hands, giving her tissues. When the stylist is finished, the woman asks for her husband to come in the room, and I don’t know what’s more moving, the fact that the woman breaks down sobbing when she sees her husband, or the fact that the husband doesn’t seem to mind his wife’s lack of hair in the slightest. That’s love. A

Open Heart, dir. by Kief Davidson
Mondays with Racine isn’t the only documentary of this bunch to take on too much. In fact, one of my largest frustrations with many feature length documentaries is that they think more equates to better. As in, the more interview subjects they can cram in, the more validating their cause will be. I see that practiced all the time, and when you implement that notion into a 40-minute short, it may not necessarily work in your favor.

Now, just because Open Heart takes on a tad too much, that doesn’t mean its intentions are anything less than honorable. The film tells the story of several Kenyan children who require heart surgery after suffering rheumatic fever. Once a doctor gets the kids into a hospital in the Sudan, the film quickly shifts from children-in-peril to a doctors without borders fundraising commercial. “We do good work, we have no money…” that sort of thing. The footage of the surgeries is harrowing, and, again, Davidson certainly has earnest intentions, but I cared far more about the kids than the financial struggles of the hospital. B-

Redemption, dir. by Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill
The most aimless of the lot must be Redemption, a film that chronicles the hardships of several New York City canners. If you’ve lived in a decent-sized city, you’ve seen canners – the people who walk around all day collecting cans and other recyclable items in hopes of gaining a few bucks. Problem with Redemption is that it divulges not a shred of insight into the people it documents. It does, admittedly, spring for something new by occasionally having the canners interview one another, but I can’t honestly say it amounts to much. C+

Should Win: Mondays at Racine
Will Win: Inocente


  1. Doc Shorts are playing this weekend in my city. You've just convinced me to go see them. Thank you!

    1. My pleasure! Do yourself a favor and call your theater first. My local theater said they were playing all five, but actually only showed three. I had to request screeners for the other two shorts, which took a pretty long time to get. So make sure your theater is playing all five!

  2. Oh cool, I've never really watched shorts before, perhaps I should check them out.

    Thought I'd tell you the odds so I can see your shocked response, 1 short is a big favourite with the other 4 not really in the race.

    Open Heart: $1.25
    Inocente: $6.50
    Mondays at Racine: $11
    Kings Point: $11
    Redemption: $17

    Looks like Inocente winning would be an upset, I'd almost back your opinion though over the bookmakers! ;)

    1. Ha, well, first off, I am in NO WAY a worthy handicapper for the Best Short races. Me choosing Inocente was just my gut reaction. It really seems to play like an Oscar favorite. The other reviews I found for these shorts seemed to agree with me on the frustrating narrative shift that occurs in Open Heart, but yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if that won either. Sick kids, third world country, surgery, hope... that's got Oscar gold written all over it!

  3. Ha, does sound like a film the Academy would love! I may put a little on Inocente, and don't worry, I won't hold you responsible in any way if it doesn't win ;)

    Might check it out as well as Mondays at Racine as well :D

    1. Ha okay good, I don't want wanna screw up your odds!

      Mondays at Racine hit me hard. I really appreciated that one.

  4. Great stuff man. I usually don't see any of the shorts, but I might catch these next weekend. Inocente was my guess for the win, so I'll stick with that on my final predictions.

    1. I think it could go either Inocente or Open Heart... tough to tell. I've now seen all the Oscar shorts (Doc, Live Action, Animated), and if you have a chance to see one set, I'd definitely recommend the Docs. By far the best.