Sunday, February 15, 2015

Awards-Nazi Award Nominations: Best Documentary

True confession: I don't get out to as many docs as I should. Oh sure, when a buzzy Oscar frontrunner is playing somewhere I'll seek it out, but I always fall into the habit of playing catch-up with the year's other worthy titles (especially the Oscar nominees) in January and February.

Of course, access to those titles is seldom easy. Some of them come and go so fast you have to wait for months until they show up on some online platform. Wim Wenders' The Salt of the Earth won't even get a limited theatrical run until the end of March. (Hey, Sony Pictures Classics/Mongrel Media: If you want my money, release your Oscar-nominated movie BEFORE the Oscars! #BadForBusiness)

Since my viewing queue of 2014 non-fic pics has peaked at eight, I've made this post a one-stop shop for my capsule reactions to all of them, starting off with the five that I myself would nominate for my own Best Documentary distinction:

Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
While its bias is obvious and it doesn't ring with the same immediacy that this story demanded a year ago, Citizenfour still raises pertinent concerns about the state of privacy and freedom in post-9/11 America, and should be mandatory viewing for anyone who is uninformed about this ongoing debate. Could have done a better job at explaining its content, but it lands some moments that really stick with you.

The Internet's Own Boy (Brian Knappenberger)
This sleek, polished, and extensively detailed document of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, though occasionally erring on the side of posthumous hagiography, illuminates a fascinating socio-political issue through the tragic story of one remarkable individual. Knappenberger effectively breaks down complex legalese and technical info into digestible, captivating chunks.

Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy)
Though its structure clearly reveals it as a television doc, this is still a masterful curation of decades-old footage and eye-witness accounts. Usually for documentaries of this ilk, the best they can hope to do is tell the story as comprehensively as possible, but Kennedy goes above and beyond by presenting real emotional and moral context to the images that we're already so familiar with.

The Overnighters (Jesse Moss)
Candidly captured in raw transparency, The Overnighters interpolates from its broader themes – the struggle for opportunity and the facade of the American Dream – to reveal a story about something even more universal; People, broken and looking for a second chance. Moss smartly layers testimonials over montages of imagery that help illustrate the interviewee's point.

Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel)
Von Einsiedel never makes his presence behind the camera known to us: He allows the story to unfold through stunning images and firsthand testimonials without indulging in narration. He pieces together a complex picture of the interconnection of all things – environmental, political, anthropological, economical, geographical – with a sense of dramatic build that puts most narrative features to shame!

Just missed:

The Case Against 8 (Ryan White, Ben Cotner)
Though hardly timely and possessing a self-congratulatory air, this chronicle of the court case built against the controversial Proposition 8 -- the 2008 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in California -- is still a comprehensive and important modern history lesson about a valuable legal victory, both for the LGBT community and the U.S. justice system.

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, Charlie Siskel)
By examining its postmumous subject in the form of an intriguing mystery, Finding Vivian Maier is above average as far as human interest stories go. The amount/difficulty of work that went into piecing together her thousands of photographs and home movies is impressive, although at times it can't shake off the feeling that its serving as a feature-length advertizement for her art exhibits.

Life Itself (Steve James)
There is a certain joy to Steve James' sprawling collage of Roger Ebert's beautiful life, but ultimately nothing that elevates it above any other standard biography. The man led a rich existence, but that doesn't necessarily make him a rich documentary subject. Hero worship might be playing more than a little role in this doc's popularity.

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