Every year I like to write about the Oscar’s shortlist for the Best Feature Documentary category. To lead up to the official nomination list, the Academy Awards like to narrow it down in a few fields and every year their list for the documentaries throw me for a loop. Usually they ignore the most popular and critically acclaimed picks and find some really random choices.
There are 15 on the shortlist that will be narrowed down to 5. At this point I have only seen 9, but three more will be available to me in the next few weeks so I’ll be sure to catch up with those soon.
Now let’s breakdown the 15 and I’ll even be nice and tell you how you can find them…
--Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. This is one of my favorites of the year. I’m ashamed that I have never heard of Ai Weiwei before. He is a Chinese artist and activist who uses social media to inform the world about the unjust Chinese government. Powerful, inspiring and has one hell of a third act. Now available on DVD and Netflix Instant.
--Bully. This got plenty of headlines for combating his R-rating because the MPAA were trying to protect children from the language children use. That topic is better argued than this expose on bullying that was never able to capture what it wanted to capture and focused more on parents than the kids. There will one day be a better documentary on this topic.
--Chasing Ice. I’m still not sure how much this works as a full story, but the visuals of this movie are incredible and well worth seeing. A photographer has the ambitious goal to record some of the largest glaciers of the world for years to see their decay. The results are mesmerizing especially when a team tries to capture a glacier collapse in real time. Currently in theatres.
--Detropia. Here’s one of the six that I haven’t seen. This is an acclaimed look at Detroit and how it has started to crumble with the decline of the automobile industry. Once I return to Indiana, I will have the opportunity to review this film.
--Ethel. This is a personal project that is charming for people outside of the family. The eleventh daughter of Ethel Kennedy, Robert’s wife, makes a movie highlighting the powerful woman who raised her. It’s not the most substantial documentary, but the enthusiasm her kids have for their mother makes this very likable. Currently on HBO Go.
--5 Broken Cameras – Another one I’m missing. This is about a non-violent struggle in the west bank through the point of view of five different people, each with their own camera. This is currently on Hulu Plus, but I don’t want to use my free trial just yet when I’m in a house with no wifi. (I’m tired of watching movies on my phone.) If it gets the nomination, I’ll check it out sooner.
--The Gatekeepers. This is the one I really want to see, but it’s not available anywhere I can see yet. It has appeared on a lot of Best of the Year lists and tells the compelling story of six former heads of the Israel’s internal security service. If anyone has access to this, let me know!
--The House I Live In. Another I haven’t seen, but I’m so close to! This is a documentary about the War on Drugs and if I’ve learned anything from The Wire, it’s that this is a really successful war that will probably end any day now. (I don’t understand The Wire.) This will be on iTunes and (probably) OnDemand on January 15th.
--How to Survive a Plague. The plague they were surviving was the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. This is the very powerful story of the people who were furious at the politics, pharmaceutical companies and religious organizations that were letting people die from AIDS. Every time I thought they were going too over the top, the numbers of how many people were dying sobered me up. Currently available on Netflix Instant and OnDemand.
--The Imposter. Every year there’s one documentary that is just nuts. Meet this year’s entry. A French man escapes the multiple warrants on him by posing on a Texas teenager who has been missing for years and moves into their home. The film is creepy and strange and mesmerizing from all accounts. So many twists and truly bizarre moments. Currently available on OnDemand.
--The Invisible War. To be the most depressing documentary on the Oscar shortlist is a real accomplishment. Boy oh boy. Possibly the only thing worse than rape in the military is the covering ups of rape in the military. Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) still isn’t the most consistent of documentarians but the subject matter is important enough to look over any flaws. Currently on DVD and Netflix Instant.
--Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. This may beat The Invisible War for more depressing, but I haven’t seen it yet. I really want to despite the fact it looks completely draining. Past Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) looks at the sexual child abuse amongst the Catholic Church. Critics say that even though there have been plenty of good documentaries about this subject like Deliver Us From Evil, this is still one of the best of the year. This will play on HBO on February 9th and will be on HBO Go the next day.
--Searching for Sugar Man. Here’s the most beloved of the entire list and for good reason. There once was a musician similar to Bob Dylan named Rodriguez. The few Americans who heard his two albums in the 60s loved them, but he only really took off in South Africa where he was more popular than Elvis and The Beatles. Two men go out to find the elusive Rodriguez who dropped off the face of the Earth many years ago. Worthy of all its acclaim. Currently in theatres.
--This Is Not a Film. This isn’t a film and it definitely wasn’t directed by Jafar Panahi. For Jafar is under house arrest, is going to serve jail time and forbidden from making films in Iran for decades. What this movie is a single day in Jafar’s life where he calls his lawyer and talks about his now-unfilmable screenplay with his cinematographer friend. It brings you right into what is happening to Iranian filmmakers in an uncomfortably personal way. I want to know more about what has happened since they smuggled this movie out of Iran. Currently available…somewhere on the internet.
--The Waiting Room. Final film I haven’t seen and the only other one where I don’t know how to see it. It looks like a creative look into all the aspects of a hospital in California, especially the titular waiting room. Seems cool, but I don’t know how to see it.
So What’s Missing? Not as much as typical years. Sure one of my favorite films of the year, The Queen of Versailles isn’t on the list or other great ones like Samsara, Brooklyn Castle, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Indie Game: The Movie but I’m starting to expect that from the Academy Awards. It would have also been great if some Heartland docs made the shortlist like Erasing Hate, High Ground, Trash Dance and Lemon. If it’s a movie you can actually sit down and enjoy, it will not be on their shortlist. These 15 are amongst the most critically acclaimed documentaries of the year with only a few random movies like Ethel and 5 Broken Cameras.
So Who Will Make the Final Five? I think the two guarantees are Searching for Sugar Man and The Gatekeepers based off the number of awards and attention they’ve garnered. I think that How to Survive a Plague has a strong following behind it from critics and other nominations. The last two slots are trickier. I really wish I have seen them before making this prediction, but from buzz alone I think the Academy will pick Detropia and Mea Maxima Culpa. Find out tomorrow how wrong I was!