Sunday, January 22, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: The Documentary Features

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 the 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:

With all due respect to Nate Parker and his commendable debut, 2016's most powerful rebuke to "Birth of a Nation" came from Ava Duvernay and her urgent documentary "13th". In this film about mass incarceration in the black community, Duvernary draws an insightful throughline through slavery, the 13th amendment, the influential D.W. Griffith film and beyond. Through her thesis of how slavery continues today, her extensive research gives an in-depth look at how racism pervades throughout society under the guise of campaigns like the "war on drugs". Indeed, Duvernay practically channels Nat Turner in the way the film acts as a call to rise up and be "woke" about the truth. And she does so with a style reminiscent of Spike Lee, creatively emphasizing key points in her argument. There's so much information to be gathered here that the early part of the film feels rushed. But if we can't get a full mini-series about this important issue, this is surely the next best thing. It certainly grabbed my attention. Rating: ★★★★

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: ★★★★

Earlier this week, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, the culmination of a campaign based on the slogan "Make America Great Again!". But as Raoul Peck questions in his solemn by fiery documentary "I Am Not Your Negro", was America ever truly great? Based on an unfinished novel by James Baldwin, Peck uses the author's dazzlingly intelligent words to examine the treatment of black people in America. The result is a full deconstruction of the lie that is "The American Dream". Using powerful images (including scenes from films), it pulls no punches as it meditates on American society, expressing blunt honesty about the individual culpability of white people in the racist DNA of the country. Watching this film is truly like seeing America through a new lens, leaving you with a lasting thought - "The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story." Rating: ★★★★1/2

If you thought you knew everything you needed to know about O.J. Simpson and his infamous murder trial, think again. In the monumental "O.J.: Made in America", director Ezra Edelman provides an in-depth exploration of a man who represented one of the greatest oxymorons in recent American society. This story of an elitist black athlete who became a symbol of racial injustice captivated the nation so many years ago, and still has that power today. And with the benefit of the comprehensive episodic TV format, Edelman weaves an intricate story about race in America and perhaps even more so, the abusive power of celebrity. It's a sprawling work that almost feels like overkill, but the way ultimately puts everything about the O.J. case into sharp perspective is nothing short of masterful. Rating: ★★★★

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

You don't often think about docs in terms of masterful "filmmaking", but that's exactly what Kirsten Johnson displays in her unique documentary "Cameraperson". Assembled from spare footage from her work as a documentary cinematographer over the years, Johnson takes a seat in the directing chair to craft one of the coolest documentaries of the year. Showing snippets of humanity from across the world, the subjects range from a boxing match in Brooklyn, to the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife. There's therefore no overarching narrative, but it's all linked by a Johnson's perceptive eye. Most notably, it gives the viewer a deeper appreciation for the filmmaking process that goes into documentaries, giving rare insight into the conversations between director and cinematographer. Rating: ★★★★

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

One of the most increasingly common topics in documentaries is gun violence in American schools, an issue that has plagued the nation for many years. In Keith Maitland's "Tower" we get to relive one of the most harrowing school shootings from 1966, when a sniper opened fire from the University of Texas tower. With the use of reenactments, Maitland captures the tension and fear of the crisis situation with startling immediacy. And he accomplishes this with an innovative style, converting these acted segments to vivid animation. Watching this film, you're likely to be riveted by its compelling artistry and inspired by this story of courage under fire. Rating: ★★★★

When you look at some documentaries, they really give credence to the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. That's certainly the case with "Weiner", which chronicles the fall from grace of Anthony Weiner, a former candidate for mayor of New York. Like something out of a scripted comedy, the congressman gets caught in a recurring sexting scandal that sparked a media frenzy. But Weiner still held his head high, carrying through with his mayoral campaign with his wife surprisingly by his side. It's entertaining as hell, like a trainwreck you can't look away from. And Weiner himself is one of the most amusing documentary subjects in years. Now that his political career is over, he could definitely consider acting. Rating: ★★★★

If you weren't convinced about the power of Disney already, then Roger Ross Williams's "Life, Animated" is here to get you in line. This documentary tells the incredible story of a young autistic man named Owen Suskind who managed to improve his communication skills through his fascination with Disney movies. As Owen comes of age, the audience is treated to a heartrending showcase of not just Disney magic, but the power of parents' love. This film exudes warmth and gives an intimate look at life with autism like we've never seen before. Rating: ★★★★

The curious murder of Kitty Genovese has puzzled minds for decades since that fateful day in 1964. According to reports, the young woman was stabbed outside her apartment building, screaming for help while 38 witnesses did nothing. But is this the whole truth? In "The Witness", her tormented brother revisits the tragedy many years later, hoping to get to the bottom of it and find peace. As he searches for answers, we get a perfect example of the all-consuming nature of obsession, as well as a thorough examination of journalistic integrity. But as the film shows how the truth was distorted, I couldn't help feeling like there was also some manipulation at play in the filmmaking. In particular, a late-breaking revelation about the killer proves that the circumstances surrounding the murder aren't as mysterious as they appear. Overall, "The Witness" is hardly groundbreaking, but it's worth a look. 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
Hooligan Sparrow
The Witness
Fire at Sea
Life, Animated
The Ivory Game
Zero Days
Command and Control

My prediction: 

Best Documentary Feature
O.J.: Made in America
I Am Not Your Negro

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