I wanted to knock out the watching of the Best Documentary Feature nominated movies and this post last week, but getting one of the films watched proved more difficult. I've only just finished watching it....it's left me numb.
In addition, this is usually my favourite category to watch each February and in four years there's not been one nominated movie that I haven't been moved by in some way...... that changed last week with one of this year's 5. This should be an interesting post then....
The reason I love the Best Documentary Feature category is each year it gets me watching a collection of films I wouldn't otherwise take the time to view.
Some of the very best from recent years have stuck with me and I continue to urge others to see them....How To Survive a Plague from last year particularly sticks out.
This year's bunch are an interesting 5: some stylised, some hard hitting, one horrific and surreal, a couple totally uplifting.
Anyway, I'm waffling and procrastinating, so let's get on with some quick thoughts on each, which I heartily recommend you finding (and where to find them) and my favourites vs. the usual 'this one will probably win'.
Onwards....and in no particular order:
Cutie and the Boxer
This documentary is about art and itself is art. It's beautiful. Telling the lives of two artists, husband and wife Ushio and Noriko Shinohara over decades living and creating in New York. I heartily recommend you watching this one if you ever feel the need for something beautiful and fulfilling to watch. They're real characters and though the hardships they've lived through make the watch a little bittersweet at times, their love and humour makes it worthwhile sticking to the end. It's lovely. Not going to win the Oscar, but lovely all the same.
Ugh. OK, full confession. This is the first nominated movie up for a documentary feature Academy Award that I've not been moved to watch or compelled to recommend to others. I almost couldn't be bothered to get to the end of it.
Why didn't I feel it? Because a story that has importance and should be seen and discussed has been ruined by how it's been told. Watch the trailer above and you'll see what I mean. It feels like a parody. It feels tabloid. It's been given a film noir investigative gumshoe meets 'Bourne' or 'Zero Dark Thirty' gloss that totally detracts from the subject matter......which is people being secretly killed by American special forces around the world in the war on terror. Rather than the letting the people affected tell their story (which would make it so much more powerful), the film makes a star of the journalist uncovering what's been happening. Ugh, there's barely a minute goes by where you don't see the central character journalist Jeremy Scahill looking pensive, Jeremy pondering in a car or a cafe, Jeremy pinning photos and maps and facts on his wall (you're expecting him to start joining them all up around the room with red thread to make him look even more like a conspiracy theorist). And the whole movie has Jeremy narrating in his husky film noir tones, describing everything that moves and lots that doesn't, talking over the people affected etc. The story of others' suffering is ruined by ego.
So anyway, I don't rate this movie at all......which probably means it will win the Academy Award.
20 Feet from Stardom
And breathe Tempest.....here's a better movie. Actually this is a delight and well worth a watch to give its subjects proper credit for their art and contribution to popular music over the decades. 20 Feet From Stardom turns the spotlight on some of the best backing singers (and most talented, adaptable, versatile singers around generally). You might not know their faces (although one bugged me for ages before I recognised where I did know her from), but you've heard their voices on hits over and over again. This is a feel-good, uplifting movie especially worth watching it you love pop music. It's not ground-breaking but I'm very glad it's been made and was nominated meaning more people get to see the women (and some men) who deserve some applause.
The Act of Killing
This is the one is the one that I'm still not clear what my thoughts are about it and was the most difficult thing I think I've ever tried to watch. It took me three attempts and a lot of procrastination over the last week.
I think this is probably the winner because it's unlike any other documentary I've ever seen and deals with some incredibly hard-hitting, terrifying matter. It's horrific, but not so much from what's shown, but what the main characters describe.....and more so in the matter of fact, throwaway, 'normal' way in which they're describing horrific killings, torturing, raping etc during the Indonesian anti-communist purge of 1965. I've seen some people say it was the best film of 2013 not just documentary but I've also seen people disgusted at these self-confessed genocidal murderers being given budgets and a platform to recreate their killings in a movie.......I can understand both points of view. I find it incredibly alarming seeing children crying in terror recreating the slaughter of their people (even if they get into it 'acting'), the burning down of a village and the pretend killing of their mothers and family. I know this is now acting, but I have to wonder how it will affect the children psychologically in the future. I don't find it surprising at all that grandchild of the film's central character has broken the leg of a chicken when his grandfather wakes him from sleep to watch him acting out being a torture and murder victim. Weird. Surreal.
This grandfather, Anwar, does seem to have a journey by the end of the film. The beginning of a realisation of what he has done, but this movie will change nothing....he won't be brought to trial by the regime still in power since 1965 and shown to be as corrupt as ever and still reliant on the 'gangsters', the movie isn't even being shown in Indonesia and the list of 'Anonymous' people who worked on the film in the credits is as long as your arm (they have requested not to be named for fear of reprisals in their country). So is watching this just for the shock value? I suppose the film does bring home to me that it these things happened in Indonesia......then similar cruelty, brutality and sadism must have happened in other genocides in former Yugoslavia, in the Rwanda, in Syria and perhaps I should be paying more attention to what's happening in the world. Sorry, as I say, this movie has left me numb, confused and I think it's going to take me 2 or 3 days to properly form my thoughts about the whole thing.
It's probably a movie most people should watch, but blimey it's really rough....but also, and I feel guilty saying this, funny and definitely thought-provoking.
Ok, finally there's my favourite, and the one I would totally beg you to watch if I was only allowed one choice from the five:
This is a fantastic documentary. One that Dirty Wars should learn from. The central characters are the people in the middle of the action, those affected by what's happening.....not the people making the record of what's happening.
The movie covers over 2 years of action from the original Spring Revolution in Tahrir Square in Egypt. If you ever need a perfect way to understand what's happened and happening still in Egypt and the different sides, this movie is a wonderful straightforward explanation. It follows a very varied group of friends, brought together by the revolution despite their different backgrounds, faiths, political persuasions. It shows how the army's position changed and how alliances were made with the Muslim Brotherhood and is incredibly relevant viewing at the moment with the trial of ex-President Morsi and the continuing action/revolution. It's compelling and fascinating, it reminds those of us who used to be involved in non-violent demonstrating and direct action that it does work and those who do it beyond student-years should be given all the plaudits and respect for their incredible sacrifices and determination.
This is a Netflix documentary and so I think only currently available on Netflix.....but seriously, take a couple of hours and watch it.
So to sum up: I'd especially like The Square to win, but The Act of Killing will probably win, Dirty Wars might win but shouldn't, Cutie and the Boxer will uplift you and 20 Feet From Stardom will inform and entertain you.
OK, I'd better get on watching nominated movies in some of the other categories now shouldn't I? Onwards.