Monday, February 20, 2017

One Category at a Time: Best Documentary

In the years since the Academy tweaked its rules to allow the entire voting membership to cast a ballot in this category, Best Documentary has gone from one of the trickiest calls to one of the easiest. Four years running now they've gone with the whichever nominee has received the most critical and guild attention. That trend will be put to the test this year as the title which fits that glove is a unique contender in the Oscar race.
O.J.: Made in America is beyond a doubt the frontrunner, having won the PGA, DGA, ACE and more regional critics awards than any of its competitors. The only caveat to assuming this movie is a lock to win is the fact that... well, it's not a movie. ESPN's sprawling miniseries on the tumultuous life and times of O.J. Simpson is over 7.5 hours long, and -- masterful though it may be -- the question lingers as to how many within Academy will sit through it. Maybe they won't have to. Voting on reputation alone seems to be what has made this once fringe category so easy to predict lately. It certainly looks like O.J. has the highly commended word of mouth to win.

It hardly seems like a fair fight. With five hour-and-a-half episodes, O.J. is more elaborate and detailed than a single-sitting documentary feature film could ever be. The Academy might be setting a dangerous precedent here.

If I had a vote, it would go to Ava DuVernay's 13th, a significant, powerful essay on systemic mass incarceration from one of the medium's most vital current voices. Along with O.J. and fellow nominee I Am Not Your Negro -- which extrapolates the writings of author and social activist James Baldwin -- they tell a sobering and enraging tale of race relations in America.

Rounding out the field are Fire at Sea, a stoic objective observer essay which presents a slab of life on a remote Mediterranean island and the refuges who land there, and Life, Animated, easily the most optimistic of the five in its examination of a young man living with Autism.

Other worthy docs this year that I would have liked to see nominated include:

CAMERAPERSON (Kirsten Johnson, Marilyn Ness)
A precious fly-on-the-wall doc that asks us to consider the fly. Spins years of B-roll footage into a meandering but strangely compelling life story.

TOWER (Keith Maitland, Susan Thompson, Megan Gilbride)
Takes a while to get into its unique alchemy of testimonial, reenactment and animated abstraction, but its cumulative power is somewhat extraordinary.
Builds to a potent, lasting statement.

WEINER (Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
Straight up, the funniest movie of the year, and yet also one of the saddest.
You'd think it was fictional political satire if you didn't know better.

Will win: O.J.: Made in America
Could win: 13th

Should win: 13th
Should be nominated: Weiner

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