Editor’s note: This is part of a 32-part series dissecting the 85th Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read the other posts regarding this event, please click here. Thank you, and enjoy!
By Shane from Film Actually.
Hey there, it’s Shane from Film Actually. I’m here to give you a rundown of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature. By many accounts this was an outstanding year for documentary filmmaking. A whopping 126 qualified for Oscar contention through theater releases that allow for review by the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. These were then whittled down to 15 films for the shortlist. The members of Documentary Branch of the Academy (i.e. the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) then voted to choose the final 5 nominees. Here are the films that made the final cut, along my personal thoughts on each of them:
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of the search for a mysterious 1970s American musician Rodriguez, who unknowingly became a superstar in South Africa while remaining virtually unknown at home. Presumed to be dead, the film follows the fascinating journey of two South Africans who set out to find information on their beloved rock ‘n’ roller. What follows is a wonderful documentary filled with mystery and intrigue, as we get a sense of the man and his unusual legacy. Despite utilizing the “talking heads” style of documentary filmmaking, the plot is so rich that it fully engages you. It was amazing to find out about his mythology (record producers often compared him to Bob Dylan), his failures and his far-reaching influence.
This film is both entertaining (his music added a nice touch) and insightful and should certainly be a strong contender for the Oscar. It brilliantly shows the power of globalization and the ability of music to influence social change, as Rodriguez’ music provided inspiration for many within the anti-apartheid movement.
Chances of winning: 35%
Precursors won: Critics Choice, National Board of Review, Sundance World Cinema Audience Award.
The Invisible War is an investigative documentary about the prevalence of rape within the US military. The film looks into the traumatizing experiences of numerous women (and men), whose lives have been ruined by these vile acts. Since it relies mainly on their confessions, the visual storytelling isn’t as creative as other contenders in this category. However, their stories are so horrifying that it will certainly stir up your emotions. The military cover ups are seriously infuriating and I commend these brave individuals for exposing the truth. As this film clearly shows, there needs to be significant cultural and institutional changes in order to fight this issue. This is a timely and vital work from director Kirby Dick.
Chances of winning: 14%
Precursors won: Sundance US Audience Award
5 Broken Cameras tells the story of a Palestinian farmer and his nonviolent efforts to resist the occupation of Israeli settlers in his small village. This grassroots film is a shining example of the power of modern technology as it allows people to share their seemingly insignificant life experiences with the world. Although his situation relates to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s primarily a specific local concern.
Unlike most popular documentaries, there are no embellishments like archival footage or animation, so this film may not be as riveting to the average viewer. However, I found this to be a great benefit in this case as the sense of realism really hits home. It’s a horrifying reminder that peaceful resistance doesn’t guarantee lessened aggression from the other side. This movie slowly creeps up on you and delivers a huge gut-punch towards the end.
Aside from the land conflict, there is also a fascinating underlying family drama. The filmmaker gives us some great insight into his family and how the contentious environment affects his young sons. It adds another layer that is very compelling, reminding us of the optimism that children bring to our lives. This is quietly powerful filmmaking that should appeal to any discerning documentary lover.
Chances of winning: 9%
How To Survive A Plague is the fiery chronicle of the fight against AIDS during the early years of the epidemic. It’s a powerful documentary that takes us back in time to those terrifying years when sufficient treatment was unavailable and the disease was a sure death sentence. The film is very well-edited, using old footage to take us through 10 pivotal years in this crisis. You can feel the urgency as the death toll rises and you get a good sense of the politics hindering the development of treatment. Set during the 1980s and early 1990s, this film is as much about AIDS research as it is about gay rights and affordable health care. The blindness-inducing, lesion-causing manifestation of AIDS seems like a dated issue, but the underlying societal implications are still relevant today. One can just look at the debates around gay marriage and ObamaCare today and see a link to the setbacks that AIDS activists faced during this period.
We now know that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but this documentary is a great reminder of how we got to this place. The unwavering dedication of the activists depicted is admirable and made for compelling viewing. At nearly 2 hours, it’s quite long for a documentary, but it’s an engaging film nonetheless.
Chances of winning: 23%
The Gatekeepersis a documentary featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see this one (it doesn’t release in theaters until February 1), so I have no thoughts to share. I’ve heard great things though, so I suspect it will be one to watch for in this Oscar race.
Chances of winning: 19%
Tags: Best Documentary Feature, Film Actually, LAMB Devours The Oscars