Last year I wrote about the shortlist for the documentaries for the Oscars. It’s a subject that puzzles me every year much like way the foreign film category plays out. By the time the award show finally airs, most of the major categories are predictable but these remain unknown because not enough people have seen them including the journalists reporting on them.
So let’s breakdown the 15 documentaries. This year I’ve seen 10 of them due to availability.
--Battle For Brooklyn. Have not seen this one. It’s about a large protest by people living in Brooklyn trying to save their homes from being torn down to build a stadium and skyscrapers.
--Bill Cunningham New York. One of my favorites of the year and I’m not alone in it. It has topped a lot of critic’s lists because of how charming Cunningham is and how his view of the fashion world is genuine and wonderful.
--Buck. Another crowd pleaser. Buck was the inspiration for the film “The Horse Whisperer”. The way he’s able to calm the horses without violence is inspiring and fascinating to watch.
--Hell and Back Again. Another I haven’t seen, but something I got from the trailer is how visually impressive this one is. I don’t know if they used recreations but the cinematography is impressive as they deal with the struggles of war and PTSD.
--If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. There are a lot of activism movies this year and this isn’t one of the strongest. There’s an interesting debate in the center whether or not they are eco-terrorists but there isn’t enough questioning. Emotional ending, however.
--Jane’s Journey. Jane Goodall is a fascinating person who has done some wonderful things. This movie is just too…kind? It’s a very sweet movie but there is nothing pressing about it. Never feels definitive enough so it becomes just another look at a great woman.
--The Loving Story. Another one of the five I haven’t seen. The Independent Critic said it had a “refreshingly straightforward yet effective approach” to the civil rights case allowing the marriage of a while man and a black woman. It will play on HBO in February.
--Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. This is the conclusion of the decades long case of the West Memphis Three. It wasn’t as powerful of the first two entries because it tries to go back to tell a complete story instead of moving forward. Still well worth watching.
--Pina. This is also on the foreign film shortlist and for good reason. It’s a dance documentary that is so beautiful and abstract yet very watchable. Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire”, “Paris Texas”) perfect captures Pina Bausch’s vision of dance, all of the pain and curiosity. My version was great, but I really hope the 3D version comes to Indiana soon.
--Project NIM. As a scientific experiment, a chimp named NIM was raised in a human home. It’s a perfect parallel film to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” as the treatment and results of this decision is rightfully questioned. James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) uses too many documentary gimmicks that worked better in his other films.
--Semper Fi: Always Faithful. Newly available as part of Sundance’s streaming project, this is one worth watching. Improper toxic dumping poisoned the water causing irreparable harm to a large number of US Marines, including giving the soldiers breast cancer and death to small children. Their legal fight is hard to watch because of how little seems to be changing.
--Sing Your Song. I haven’t seen this one, but it’s one I would like to. It’s the story of Harry Belafonte, a popular singer who became a civil rights activist. Looks like a well made documentary with a lot of people speaking on his behalf.
--Undefeated. More of a teacher movie than a sports movie. The struggle to connect with a group of inner city kids to get them to succeed at a sport they love makes for a dramatic story.
--Under Fire: Journalists in Combat. Last one I haven’t seen, but this looks fascinating. It’s a look into the emotional and ethical difficulties of being a journalist in a warzone.
--We Were Here. A look at the AIDS epidemic from the men who survived it creates such a personal account of a devastating time. The filmmaking is simplistic, but luckily the speakers are powerful enough on their own.
So What’s Missing? A lot. Again! The reason why I keep writing these articles is because of what films they leave off. I enjoyed movies like “Jane’s Journey” and “We Were Here” but they never matched the results of Errol Morris’s “Tabloid”, Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss”, “Page One”, “Senna”, or even Herzog’s other film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”. All of those films were beloved by critics and have been nominated and won a number of other awards. The one that is getting a lot of controversy is “The Interrupters”, a film I can’t wait to see. Those filmmakers faced the same omission when “Hoop Dreams” wasn’t on the shortlist for its year. Just strange what they don’t even list as the Top 15 of the year.
So Who Will Make the Final Five? It’s hard to say this year. Since they ignored the ones the critics are really responding to, it’s easy for them to pull out five more random films. I think “Bill Cunningham New York” and “Pina” seem likely. “Project NIM” and “Paradise Lost 3” are also likely since they are so professionally put together. The Oscars love issue movies and it almost depends on which activism/war film they responded to. If it’s as good as the trailer, I think “Hell and Back Again” could be that movie, but maybe the Oscars will change their ways and bring in a film like “Buck” which is more of a crowd pleaser.
The nominations come out Tuesday! What are the films you hope make the list? Or what films are you wanting to see soon?