The LAMB Devours the Oscars – Best Documentary Feature

by Dylan · February 15, 2008 · LAMB Devours the Oscars · 9 Comments

Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourteenth of a multi-part series dissecting the 2008 Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every weekday leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category (or more) of the Oscars (there are 24 in all). To read any other posts regarding this event, please just click on the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!

By Daniel of Getafilm.

The average movie-goer is seeking entertainment and/or artistry from their two hour venture, not insight and information. Nevertheless, the documentary feature has been an increasingly popular fixture in movie theaters across the country, in part thanks to Michael Moore, in part thanks to daring filmmakers exposing scandalous stories in recent years, and in part, hopefully, to an increasingly interested public. It may surprise you, then, to learn that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has been way ahead of the curve, honoring documentary features since 1942. This recognition is not without controversy – many people would like to see the category removed all together, and it doesn’t help that Hoop Dreams, generally regarded as one of the greatest documentaries ever made (perhaps the best, in my opinion), was completely ignored by the Academy in 1994. In recent years, new rules have been instituted. For example, a feature is no longer eligible if it is composed entirely of archival footage, which is why 2005’s chilling Grizzly Man was missing from the list of nominees. Still no excuse for Hoop Dreams

Before I preview the 2008 nominees, I’ll just list a few others that stood out last year but won’t be heard about on February 24. I won’t try to convince you now of the importance of documentaries, but if you agree that they are enriching, add these to your Netflix queue: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Manufactured Landscapes, In the Shadow of the Moon, The Devil Came on Horseback, God Grew Tired of Us, Nanking, Manda Bala, and My Kid Could Paint That.

On to the 2008 Best Documentary Feature nominees, in alphabetical order:

No End in Sight, directed by Charles Ferguson: Based on the title alone, you can get a sense of both the topic and slant of this sharply arranged analysis of the U.S occupation in Iraq. Charles Ferguson was incredibly successful at gaining access and interviews from top administration officials, few of whom are shy about admitting the shocking lack of a plan for life after Saddam Hussein. An excellent documentary, in large part because it has a singular, unstraying focus on the first month after the fall of Saddam’s regime.

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, directed by Richard Robbins: The only one of the nominees I haven’t seen, Operation Homecoming features reenactments and animation of the Iraq war experience, along with soldier interviews and readings of actual letters by a host of famous Hollywood actors. The trailer paints a disturbing picture, but also tells me this is an interesting, provocative way of telling these stories.

Sicko, directed by Michael Moore: His breakthrough documentary Roger and Me (ignored by the Academy) showed that Michael Moore is really good at making you not like certain people, and making those certain people know that you don’t like them. Bowling for Columbine (for which he won Oscar) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (the highest-grossing doc of all time) established him as a unabashed critic of not only George Bush, but also logical reasoning. Sicko is his most extreme feature because of the incredibly poor case he makes against health care in the U.S. The French go on vacation! Whaaaa…? British doctors drive really nice cars – and are happy! Imagine that….Canadians (his favorite) only have to wait a half hour in the emergency room! Can’t be…Finally, Moore humbly finishes the movie by telling of his $12,000 donation to one of his critics, and then rubbing all of our faces in it with his creepy voice-overs. Exactly what new insight was I supposed to get out of this again?

Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney: Also nominated in 2005, for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney is known for taking on larger-than-life subjects. In this case, the U.S. military and its use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. Horrific stories (including that of murdered Afghan taxi driver Diliwar – hence the title) are framed by interviews with U.S. military personnel, psychology experts, journalists, and Gibney’s own narration. Plenty of smirking clips of Rumsfeld, Bush, and Cheney are featured, along with a disturbing number of graphic images. It’s no secret that Gibney is an opponent of torture, so look elsewhere if you’re seeking an unbiased opinion – which of course would be almost impossible with a subject like this.

War Dance (War/Dance), directed by Andrea Nix and Sean Fine: Certainly the most encouraging of the five nominees this year, War Dance tells the story of a group of Ugandan school children preparing to compete in the national music festival. From their war-torn region of the country, these extremely likable kids are subject to humiliation and low expectations from their competitors. Will the underdog come from behind and win? Well you can’t write documentaries (unless you’re Michael Moore), but sometimes life seems too good to be true. But not always, and not always in the way you expect. Watch and be inspired.

Tough prediction here. Iraq has been all over the screen this last year, possibly to the point of viewer exhaustion. For that reason, three of these nominees may potentially cannibalize each other. On the other hand, are Academy members really going to give Michael Moore another soapbox opportunity? If he wins, it will be for his weakest work to date. This leaves War Dance, which, while captivating and uplifting (like 2004’s winner, Born Into Brothels), just might not be “relevant” enough to pull off the win. Sadly, most people don’t even know where Uganda is, let alone care about its war-orphaned children. In contrast, last year’s winner, An Inconvenient Truth, basically changed the whole discussion on climate change, so voters may hope a similar phenomenon happens again this year. This brings us back to the Iraq trio. If none of the three win, that would be the second 0/3 year in a row, meaning 6 out of the last 10 documentary nominees have focused on the war, and none of them have won. I just don’t think that’s going to happen, but I’ve been wrong many times before. The strongest of these three, in my opinion, was No End in Sight, and I think it will ultimately end up taking the top prize. The longest shot is Operation Homecoming, but each of the other three have had bursts of momentum recently, so who knows…

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9 Responses to The LAMB Devours the Oscars – Best Documentary Feature

  1. Fletch says:

    I’ve been pretty bad about seeing the Docs out this year. Taxi, No End and Kong are all on my short list, for sure.

    “It’s no secret that Gibney is an opponent of torture, so look elsewhere if you’re seeking an unbiased opinion”

    I weep for the people that would admit to being “proponents of torture.” 😐

    The only nominee I’ve seen is Sicko, and I must be a Moore lover, because I liked it. Harping on the guy for wanting a better health care system (and having the audacity to show aspects of other systems that might work better than ours) seems petty, especially when it’s the only film you really got personal about, as opposed to just giving a synopsis.

    Still, a good writeup, and it seems you were an ideal and informed candidate to take on this category.

  2. Pat says:

    This is a great article – very informative – and makes me wish I had seen more documentaries this year. (In my mainstream, multiplex-dominated part of the suburbs, finding these on theatre screns is pretty challenging. You’ve given me some great suggestions for my Netflix queue.)

    I liked “Sicko” myself, although I understand why some people hate Moore. He always starts out making a good, compelling case, but at some point just goes so overborard that you stop taking him seriously. In “Sicko,” that point came when he went to Cuba, touting it as some sort of benign. misunderstood paradise. Given Cuba’s very poor record on human rights. that’s a little hard to take.

  3. Nick says:

    Nice article.

    I’m just highly disappointed King of Kong didn’t make the list. It deserves the award hands-down.

    The only Michael Moore doc I’ve seen is Bowling for Columbine, and I thought it was pretty good.

  4. I have been annoyed by Michael Moore in the past, but I really liked Sicko. I hope that it changes the conversation about healthcare the way An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming.

    No End In Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side were also pretty great… I didn’t get to see War/Dance, but I do think it would be nice if an uplifting story won the prize.

    My vote still goes to Sicko, though.

  5. Daniel G. says:

    Fletch – Lots of people feel “bad” about not seeing the docs, I’m not sure why. I think they’re always worthwhile, but I know they don’t make the usual rounds, and even then you’re lucky if you catch them during their short week. Kong was the most entertaining and my favorite for best of the year, but I guess it’s a little too out there for AMPAS – most of the members probably missed it anyway. Regarding torture “proponents” – well, they are plenty of them out there. I’m not one of them, but there are definitely people who see it as “justice.” Look how popular the TV show “24” is with the American public.

    Pat – Thank you. As I say above, it’s not always even a possibility to see a doc in the theater, but Netflix is a good option for these.

    Nick – Thanks, and as I mention above I share your love for Kong. It sounds like it’s getting its due credit with DVD rounds, though.

    Nayana – I think you would enjoy War/Dance. It’s a little break from the Iraq war, even if it involves war anyway.

    All – I was a little hard on Sicko, but mostly because I don’t feel it accomplished its purpose in effectively contributing to the health care discussion. Like you, Pat, I thought it really went downhill in Cuba. He could do so well but he uses such polarizing examples and methods that the subject is pushed aside in his quest for … I don’t know what, another chance to make a speech?

    Ok, I didn’t mean to write another article here – sorry!

  6. Marilyn says:

    Daniel – Thanks for a great review of the nominees.

    I’ve pretty much loathed Michael Moore since Roger & Me, which took cheap shots at people who didn’t deserve it and never made up for his failure to actually meet Roger Smith. His movies are incoherent to me, especially Bowling for Columbine that had no point at all and didn’t deserve to win a free meal at Chili’s, let alone an Oscar. (Nick Broomfield runs aground similarly in the lousy Kurt & Courtney.)

    I didn’t see many docs this year, which is unusual for me, but I didn’t make it out to the theatres much at all this year anyway for anything but film festivals. I didn’t see any of the nominees, but think you’re probably right in assuming that an Iraq film will win. My favorite Iraq film in recent years, The War Tapes, was overlooked by everyone, including the Academy.

    BTW, Grizzly Man was not 100% archival footage, so perhaps the disqualification was for being substantially archival. I don’t really know this rule and, frankly, I think it’s kind of stupid. (Perhaps that’s why Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing wasn’t nominated–it was a great, great film, IMHO.)

    I actually think docs are becoming more popular because it’s the only way a lot of people can get news on events mainstream media won’t cover or give unbaised treatment to.

  7. I liked Sicko as well, but I do agree that it’s his weakest work so far. This one was more entertaining than informative.

    To be honest I am a little tired of the war docs now. War Dance looks amazing. I have to see that. I have not even heard of that one before, so thank you for this great article Daniel. Putting it in my to-watch list.

  8. Daniel G. says:

    Nice, Marilyn. The War Tapes was one of my Ten Best of 2006, and is still, I think, the best insight into the soldiers’ experience. Too bad it was completely ignored last year by the entire universe.

    Soundtrackgeek, you might enjoy the music in War/Dance, too – some great percussion in particular.

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