Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oscar Reviews: Best Documentary Feature

Singers and painters, journalists and activists, killers and the killed – this year’s five nominees for Best Documentary Feature are all bold explorations into some of the darkest aspects of human nature. And while the harsh life truths the subjects of these films face vary in terms of emotional weight, each film depicts said hardships in a wondrously compelling way. 

The Act of Killing
dir. by Joshua Oppenheimer

I’ve never seen anything quite like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. For those unaware, the film is essentially Hitler showing us how he carried out the Holocaust. He steps inside the gas chamber, describes how the Nazis securely locked the doors, and pretends to be an innocent Jew trapped inside, clawing to break free. And to push it even further, he recreates his murderous feats with the upmost glee. That’s Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing. Congo is an Indonesian gangster who contributed to the killing of more than 1,000,000 people in the mid-‘60s. For two hours, Oppenheimer follows Congo and his associates around Indonesia as they reenact the manner in which they executed thousands. There is no atonement in Congo’s voice, no impulse to apologize or express regret. And that’s what makes The Act of Killing so chilling – Congo’s utter indifference about what he’s done. The film was produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, two of the finest documentarians we have. How they and Oppenheimer talked Congo into participating in this film is enough to hail The Act of Killing as some sort of miracle of the macabre. A

Cutie and the Boxer
dir. by Zachary Heinzerling 

The worth of Cutie and the Boxer is fully realized in a brief sequence midway through the film. As famed painter Ushio Shinohara stands before his latest painting, his wife approaches and blankly stares at the large canvas. After a moment, she dispassionately tells him “I don’t think it’s good.” He chuckles under his breath and stares at his work with the shame of a boy who has let his father down. Then the film does something interesting. It jump cuts to Ushio several years earlier via home video footage. Ushio is sitting at his dinner table with some friends, deep in the throes of a hard night of drinking. Everyone seems pleasant and jubilant, but then that switch happens. That inexplicable shift from happy-to-violent that so often accompanies a chronic alcoholic. Ushio becomes enraged. He starts screaming and punching and crying, wailing in anguish about how difficult it is to be an artist. In this moment, Cutie and the Boxer became one of the most honest depictions of what it means to be a struggling artist that I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the finest scenes of 2013, and, if nothing else, would merit the film’s Oscar nomination in this category. A-

Dirty Wars
dir. by Richard Rowley

Dirty Wars is 86 laborious minutes of style over substance. The film follows veteran reporter Jeremy Scahill around various countries in the Middle East as he tries to uncover brutalities that American soldiers have committed against natives. It’s a compelling premise for a documentary, one that most definitely deserves to be explored. But throughout the film, I felt that director Richard Rowley stretched his story to the point of exhaustion. There should be more than enough material of Scahill working his story to fill the whole film. But Rowley continually relies on repetitive shots to convey his message. For instance, how many times do we really need to watch Scahill walking down a street, or entering a room, or writing in his notepad? It also doesn’t help that the whole film is over-edited and over-stylized to all hell. It looks like it was shot and cut by a Tony Scott protégé who is using a DSLR camera and Final Cut Pro for the first time. Scahill’s ceaseless narration is a sore spot as well – droning on and on, with a tone of Pity them, Pity me, Pity us that grows increasingly tiresome. But perhaps I’m being too hard on the film. Like I said, the story contained within Dirty Wars is an important one, and I’m glad it was told. But the film could’ve seriously benefited from exercising some restraint. C+

The Square
dir. by Jehane Noujaim

The Square is activist filmmaking at its most fierce. The filmmakers aren’t concerned with their safety, only with documenting the atrocities surrounding them. And there’s a certain level of respect I instinctually give a film that says Fuck it, shoot everything by any means necessary.

The film is a grassroots depiction of the Egyptian Revolution that began in 2011. At the center of the film’s narrative is Khalid Abdalla, a fine actor perhaps best known as the terrorist pilot in United 93. The danger surrounding Abdalla and his many fellow protestors is consistently terrifying. He’s the kind of guy who fights in Tahrir Square for several hours, then goes home and argues with his father via Skype about what he’s done all day. The horrors surrounding Abdalla make him human, but his perseverance through it all makes him heroic.

But with all that said, I can’t in good conscience give The Square my highest recommendation. A lot of bad shit went down in Tahrir Square during the protests, and some of it was at the hands of the people that The Square depicts as victims. For example, there were many reports of women being sexually assaulted by protestors in Tahrir Square (including CBS reporter Lara Logan), something that is curiously overlooked in Noujaim’s film. It’s almost as if the film is too concerned with painting its subjects out to be martyrs (the film’s word), rather than human beings. B+

20 Feet from Stardom
dir. by Morgan Neville

20 Feet from Stardom is a charming glance at one of the music industry’s most overlooked assets: the backup singer. Neville spends time with several such singers, including Merry Clayton, who blew her voice out crying “Rape! Murder!” on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Darlene Love, who reached rare, crossover fame when her track “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” became a massive success.

And while a portion of the film is spent detailing the singers’ adoration with fame and glory, most of 20 Feet from Stardom concerns itself with those long, dark, unforgiving feet that keep most backup singers out of the spotlight. The film makes the very wise choice to never let its subjects venture into pity-party territory, instead keeping the film rooted in heartbreaking truth. 20 Feet from Stardom was one of the great surprises of 2013 for me. A film I didn’t think I’d really enjoy, but ultimately loved immensely. A-

Will Win: Tough call. The Act of Killing (unless it’s too dark); The Square (unless it’s too obvious a choice); 20 Feet from Stardom (unless it’s too sentimental)

Should WinThe Act of Killing


  1. I'm incredibly happy that Netflix somehow got the rights for four of these streaming instantly. They have a generous selection of old docs, as well, so for the last couple months I've been catching up on ones I've missed in recent years.

    We're more or less in agreement here. I have to give The Act of Killing another view before I get too effusive in my praise, but it's operating on a level beyond the others. Dirty Wars is a good piece of journalism: I like to think I'm hip to current events, but it shed light on several events I had never heard about. As a piece of film, however, Dirty Wars fell short. The director went overboard with the color correction. Similarly, I felt it lacked the oomph, the drive, the narrative it needed to be a viable film.

    1. I love that Netflix got so many of these as well. Made it damn easy to track them down!

      You know, I'm kind of relieved that you agree with me about Dirty Wars. A lot of people seem to LOVE that movie, but it never worked for me. The color correction was horribly distracting and the narration felt flat throughout. Just not for me.

  2. I've read about 'The Act of Killing' in detail and I have to say I don't know if I can bear to watch it. It's just too much. I always hope that people eventually regret the terrible things that they do, but I'm beginning to think that this wishful thinking is naive romanticism on my part. In the end, I think most people somehow justify the terrible crimes they commit.

    All of these documentaries sound great, but I still don't understand how 'Blackfish' did not make this year's list. I just don't get it. 'Blackfish' was the best documentary I've seen in a long time.

    1. The Act of Killing is damn intense, so I understand your hesitation in checking it out. Really, the whole time I watched it, I couldn't believe that Congo guy. His behavior is just so goddamn bizarre.

      You liked Blackfish a little more than me, but I'm stunned that it didn't make the cut either. It was so much better than Dirty Wars, for example. Really odd.

  3. I've only seen The Act of Killing of all docs that were nominated so it's the one I'm going to root for.

  4. Great post! I'm behind on this year's contenders, as I've only seen The Act of Killing. I hope it wins, but Stories We Tell should've been here.

    1. Thanks! Stories We Tell would be my pick to win, were it nominated. I have no idea why that one was excluded.

    2. Ditto on Stories We Tell. It was one of the best films--nevermind docs--of the year. I think its non-traditional approach may have hurt it, but then again The Act of Killing had a similarly meta approach.

    3. Yep, a very puzzling exclusion. The Doc and Foreign Film categories are two I rarely, fully understand..