Year after year, the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature provides us with a bounty of riches. Indeed, some of the most exciting filmmaking is happening through this medium, particularly as it taps into the zeitgeist. Race relations continued to be tense in America and around the world, prompting several documentarians to put a focus on this theme. But it wasn't only area of concern, as an array of subjects found their way onto the screen. I was fortunate to catch 14 of the 15 finalists and they all captivated me in different ways. Below are my thoughts on them all, followed by a personal ranking and my predictions:
It's no secret that Chinese society and government is full of corruption, as its system works to control its citizens. But even though the injustices that exist come as no surprise, it doesn't make situations like that exposed in "Hooligan Sparrow" any less depressing. Some years ago, six elementary school girls in southern China were sexually abused by their principal, a horrifying incident that was covered up by the police and government officials. As the criminal roamed free, a network of activists - spearheaded by Ye Haiyan (aka Hooligan Sparrow) - stood up however, working tirelessly to bring attention to the injustice and human rights violations that occured. Under constant harrassment and surveillance, director Nanfu Wang embarked on a daring venture to document their mission. The result is a gripping, probing piece of investigative journalism with the use of covert recordings, hidden cameras and testimonies. As the film progresses, it strays a bit too much from the child victims to Hooligan Sparrow. But ultimately, this is remarkable work, captured with awe-inspiring determination and courage. Rating: ★★★★
If case you didn't get the message from 2014 Oscar champ "Citizenfour"...the government is watching you. And just to reinforce this truth, acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney brings you the sobering "Zero Days". In it, he exposes the growing issue of cyber crime and the geopolitics involved in this growing phenomenon. The main focus is Stuxnet, a piece of malware that was used by the US in an attempt to destroy a key component of an Iranian nuclear facility, but ended up backfiring and spreading further. As we learn more about how powerful this technology is, it feels like something out of a spy thriller. Gibney's drab presentation however, caters more to geeky viewers and admittedly, a lot of it flew over my head. But even though it's not as engaging as I'd hoped, it's certainly effective and absolutely terrifying. Rating: ★★★★
"The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story."
Bluntly honest about race in America and hatred, and even more harmful - apathy and ignorance. The dazzlingly intelligent words of James Baldwin. Powerful images, including scenes from films.
Thoughtful meditation on American society.
A full deconstruction of the lie that is the American dream.
MAKE AMERICA GREAT...false.
Like a cinematic mic drop.
A damning comeuppance for those who say black people must get over it and deny their individual culpability in the racist DNA of American society.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
As human greed threatens the balance of our natural ecosystems, documentaries like "The Ivory Game" have become increasingly important. This film puts the spotlight on the illegal trade of ivory, harvested from the tusks of elephants across Africa, showing how this horrifying practice has become a global issue. Seen through the eyes of activists from the each side of the trade (Africa and China), the film gives inside access to an intricate network with far-reaching consequences. Of course, the most important concern is the survival of endangered elephants, which the directing duo Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani effectively conveys with urgency by highlighting the beauty and intelligence of these animals through scenic cinematography. But perhaps most riveting is the pursuit of a supervillain named Shetani who is responsible for the killing of thousands of elephants. It's hard not to get wrapped up in this globetrotting investigation, which smartly approaches its subject with passion and empathy. Rating: ★★★★
I have no shame in admitting that I love documentaries that "get me in my feelings" and boy, did "Gleason" hit the spot. This tremendously touching film follows former NFL player Steve Gleason who is diagnosed with ALS and decides to film his life in the aftermath to pass on the memories to his unborn son. As we follow his subsequent decline, a sense of irony pervades as we learn that his professional career was defined by his knack for being an overachiever. And yet, he is struck down by one of the most debilitating diseases known to man. It's truly heartbreaking stuff on its own, but the responses of him and others in the aftermath are what truly makes this film strike a chord. "Gleason" is a testament to the ways we clutch at life, whether through the birth of a child, religion, or preserving your legacy through charitable acts. And there's some impressive technique on display too. The home video style makes it all the more personal and there are some brilliant shots that juxtapose Gleason's fully capable newborn with his incapacitated self. Go see it and don't forget the tissues. Rating: ★★★★1/2
A woman sits with her grandson by a window, peacefully sewing as thunder roars outside. She explains to him that it reminds her of a stormy fishing trip his grandpa once made during wartime. As naval ships fired rockets, she says it looked like there was fire at sea. For most filmmakers, this anecdotal story would seem to be unimportant, probably to be discarded on the cutting room floor. But for Gianfranco Rosi, it gave him the title for his latest award-winning documentary “Fire at Sea,” an uncommonly observant film. Rating: ★★★★ Full Review
"Tower" Rating: ★★★★
"Weiner" Rating: ★★★★
"Life, Animated" Rating: ★★★★
"The Witness" Rating: ★★★★
There's a bit of irony to go along with the title for "Command and Control", directed by Robert Kenner. In this documentary, things get out of control during the 1980s, as nuclear weapons prove to be unpredictable. Of primary focus is an accident that occurred in 1980 in Damascus, Arizona. Through reenactments and accounts from those involved, the incidents surrounding the deadly explosion of a nuclear missile are recounted in meticulous detail. As we learn of the circumstances prior to accident and the cover-up in the aftermath, "Command and Control" acts as a cautionary tale that will transport you right back to the Cold War era and its state of nuclear panic. Although its near 2 hour runtime gets tiring, this is a well produced documentary overall. Rating: ★★★1/2
My personal ballot (in ranking order):
I Am Not Your Negro
O.J.: Made in America
Fire at Sea
The Ivory Game
Command and Control
Best Documentary Feature
O.J.: Made in America
I Am Not Your Negro