Friday, February 5, 2016

One Category at a Time: Documentary

The documentary branch of the Academy sure does like its music docs. They've nominated four of 'em in as many years, and the overall voting membership doesn't seem to be tired of them; Two of the last three champs in this category presented stories about musical artists, and all signs point to this year's winner continuing the trend.
I don't mean that pejoratively either. If you ask me, there's something more substantive about the meticulous construction and overall effect of Amy that neither Searching for Sugar Man nor 20 Feet from Stardom can claim. The ability to piece together such a complete story from whatever public (or private) footage could be dug up is a challenging feat, and one not without its protesters. But if Asif Kapadia is a grave robber, then he's an immensely talented grave robber, and it should bring him the Oscar many thought he had coming for his similarly wrought Ayrton Senna bio from 2011.

The second 'late musician tell-all' entry in this year's lineup is What Happened, Miss Simone?, a Netflix original directed by Liz Garbus. In many ways the perfect "Netflix and chill" documentary, it's an easy-to-watch summary of the life and times of Nina Simone, treating viewers to a generous helping of live performances from the legendary jazz singer (and later aggressive political activist). In fact, there are so many performances that the doc starts to lean on them. Being neither as formally impressive nor as current as Amy will make stealing votes from the frontrunner a tall order, but earning the nomination over more highly touted fare was a tall order to begin with. Well done, Netflix.

The streaming site actually has cause to be doubly pleased, as another original documentary of theirs with even less precursor attention than Miss Simone managed to make it in. Appealing to the topically minded within the documentary branch, Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom didn't require a single guild citation to crack the final five. Evgeny Afineevsky bombards the viewer with a lot of gripping footage of Ukrainian protesters going up against armed police in their excruciating 2014 campaign to oust president Viktor Yanukovych, but it all starts to run together after a while. You might argue that the point of showing us all that violence is that it does become numbing, but a sense of build would have been welcome. Still, never underestimate the power of the zeitgeist in this category, and with the crisis in Ukraine having only escalated in the years since, zeitgeist is something this doc has in spades.

Another doc that examines ongoing crises, but closer to home, is Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman's sturdy two-pronged examination of the drug trade on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and how the efforts of well-meaning vigilante groups have affected and complicated the already tense social climate in those regions. The issue of drug cartels seems to have caught Hollywood's eye this year, both in terms of fiction (see Sicario as a potential double feature) and bizarre non-fiction (see Sean Penn's interview with El Chappo, which unwittingly led to his capture!). A win for this one would still be a surprise, though not an unpleasant one, as it is indeed a robust piece of work.

But nothing this season can really challenge Amy, which is a shame, because it really aught to be a two-horse race. I've had an awful time trying to decide my favourite doc of 2015; Amy is a terrifically told showbiz story, but then Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence is a devastating work of art. He follows up his previously nominated The Act of Killing -- which gave voice to the perpetrators of Indonesia's 1960s genocide with horrifying results -- with a film that gives a quieter but more probing voice to the victims, having the second son of a couple whose first son was murdered interview the killers decades after the fact. This one would surely be the runner-up if critics had a vote, but it's the biggest downer in a category that's already plenty depressing.

Will win: Amy
Runner-up: Cartel Land

Should win: The Look of Silence
Should be nominated: Listen to Me, Marlon


  1. Still say the best doc of the year wasn't even nominated, The Hunting Ground.

    1. I certainly prefer it to the two Netflix docs.