Oscar picks: Documentaries

What every documentary filmmaker is born knowing; Real life can be stranger than fiction — and 50 times more horrific, dramatic, tear-jerking, whatever you’re going for in the storytelling. Above all, documentaries can incite a typically passive moviegoer to outrage and action.

Michael Moore, on Oscar night.

Michael Moore, cleans up well for the 2003 Academy Awards. His Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” is a timeless treatise on gun violence.

IMHO, it took Michael Moore, a master documentary maker, to raise the genre to an art form, combining all of the above, plus humor. He also inserts himself into his movies — analogous to a first-person-column approach in a newspaper. Not that documentaries ever aimed to be objective; their hallmark is advancing an agenda, from awareness to anarchy. So judging them on artistic vs. sociopolitical merit can be tricky.

What Moore does is mix the flavor of 60 Minutes and Mission: Impossible into an awesome sauce of smart sass. Maybe the theory is: to get more people to watch documentaries, you must inject them with more mainstream movie technique.

Frankly, I’m seeing the lines blurring both ways. Best Picture nominees are becoming more docudrama-esque. Most of this year’s pool are based on “true stories”(American Hustle is about Abscam; 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street are all derived from memoirs) — history vs. “story” story. Of the remaining three, two are fantastical cautionary tales (Gravity and Her, both sci-fi nightmares that advance only slightly today’s horrors of technology and artificial intelligence to navel-gazing effect). The lone Nebraska is novel in its novel approach. But more on BestPicNoms in a future post.

Even when you’re up on the news and know the story inside and out, the structure of documentaries is delightfully unpredictable, compared with your typical blockbuster. And it’s nearly impossible to correctly guess which one will take home the Oscar.

So here’s a hand. I’ve seen all five of this year’s crackerjack crop of nominees. They are so good, I hesitate to present summaries lest you decide you don’t need to see them.

You need to see these. They will make you smarter.

Four are available for live-streaming on Netflix, with the fifth, 20 Feet From Stardom, coming at a higher premium on Amazon ($3.99 for Amazon Prime members).

The nominees, in alphanumerical order:

20 Feet From Stardom

This slick, music-soaked testament charts the careers of backing vocalists, specifically the black women who supported the careers of artists such as Lou Reed (“… and the colored girls sing doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo …), The Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Elton John, Luther Vandross (the latter two got their starts as backing vocalists, didjaknow?; we learn that Vandross backed Bowie on his soulful hit “Young Americans”). Specifically, we meet Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Tata Vega — if their names ring any bells and, really, they should — that’s the point. It explores why some people “make it” and others never will. A handful are brought back for a reunion recording session.

Note: This is the ONLY nominee that doesn’t depend on subtitles. For that reason, and the star power behind it (Bruce Springsteen kinda narrates), I’m thinking it appeals most to Hollywood and will win.

The Act of Killing

Based on synopsis alone, this one may garner Academy votes. It’s got a great gimmick. The filmmakers found former executioners who spent 1965-66 helping to purge a million “Commies” in Indonesia — thousands at their hands alone. They interview the killers (self-dubbed “gangsters”) in present day, taking them back to the scene of their war crimes and inviting them to tell their stories by re-enacting the brutal slayings. It plays out as a twisted form of therapy for some of them, but void of justice.  As documentaries go, it is too contrived, rambling and poorly edited, for my tastes. If you want to skip one, this is at the bottom of my heap. Which is why I fear it may win.

NOTE: So far, these first two are what I call “hindsight” documentaries. They rely on vintage footage and modern interviews and reunions to make the meat of the movie. The following three all required more “vision” on the part of the filmmakers to capture the story as it unfolded. That quality raises a documentary in my estimation.

Cutie and the Boxer

This is an art-for-art’s-sake film in the vein of Inocente, which won the Oscar for documentary short in 2013. That film followed a homeless Hispanic teenage artist’s journey to being celebrated at her own art show — while gaining self-esteem and independence along the way. “Cutie” refers to the doppelganger of Japanese artist Noriko Shinohara (more like a graphic cartoonist) who came to America at age 19 to pursue her career but got sidetracked after she met and married her mentor, Ushio “Gyu-chan” Shinohara, a Japanese Neo-Dadaist who famously creates paintings by boxing at the canvas. This film is the couple’s reality show, showing their humble suffering while living for art, the warts of marriage and alcoholism (they are separated in age by 22 years and The Boxer is turning 80 as the film starts). It also focuses on their chasm of recognition and satisfaction, as they journey toward their first husband-wife gallery show in hardscrabble NYC. It is Noriko’s story of finding her voice and independence (“I am woman, hear me ROAR”), so for that reason Academy voters, always swayed by feminist themes, may vote for it.

Dirty Wars

Fearless investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill (The Nation) should not only win the Academy Award for this exposé of the repercussions of America’s “War on Terror,” he should win a medal. Using spooky, artsy night-vision effects, gritty black-and-white-and-blue-and-green hues, he follows the country’s collective dawning that a Joint Special Operations Command even exists — a force nicknamed the “American Taliban,” which seems impervious to fact-finding or flak and was ultimately outed with the killing of Osama bin Laden. As one observer puts it: A potent “hammer searching for a nail.” Scahill is the star of the film, with Art-of-War-Zen-like narration, but also in the model of Michael Moore. It is mind-blowingly shot, tautly edited, expansive and gripping. It may also dent your American pride a bit while opening your eyes to why the rest of the world hates us so much.
A MUST-SEE.

The Square

This film serves as your Cliffs notes for the Arab Spring, tracking revolutionaries during the uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square from repression under Mubarak to his overthrow to the election of Morsi to repression under him to his overthrow and Egypt’s uncertain future. One young instigator I particularly fell in love with was Ahmed Hassan, an articulate and charismatic kid; another, Magdy, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they’re tight friends! Folk singer Ramy Essam’s storyline is particularly wrenching, and the main guy, Khalid Abdallah, is actually Scottish and movie-star-handsome. And there are women featured, too. If the image in your mind when you think of these Cairo demonstrations is macho heathens or the shocking assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan, this movie will change your mind about these masses who are together more enlightened than the bulk of Americans seem to be. Against the backdrop of Dirty Wars, this movie makes Egyptians the most heroic tribe on Earth. But it won’t win, because it is too much like the documentaries shown in school. Still, it could win due to the uprising of Netflix, for which it was produced.

To wrap up:

My prediction: 20 Feet From Stardom

My pick: Dirty Wars

38 Oscar movie contenders: How many have you seen?

thCAMKMLLDPeople ask: Will you attempt to see all of the Oscar-nominated movies before the awards-show deadline this year? And will you again be chronicling it?

I will, and maybe. I began this year in the same spot, having seen only two Oscar-nominated films when the nominations were announced two weeks ago. Progress has been slow: I’ve now seen 11.

I’m feeling less pressure, because here’s the thing about 2013’s pool of contenders.

There are fewer movies in the race. Last year, you’ll recall if you read me, there were 46 nominated movies across all categories and 15 shorts to spy in my annual rite to see everything before Red (Magic) Carpet Day. This year, because of excessive hogging of noms by two flicks in particular (you know who you are, “Lincoln” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), there are only 38 unique features to get through.

Here is the full list, in order of the Academy’s own hierarchy by category, from Best Picture through Writing (Original Screenplay), eliminating repeats. And a note to the Academy: Unsure why you list the writing awards last. They should come first — they do come first in the process — or at least immediately after the top six categories that most people focus on. Check marks indicate the ones I’ve seen so far:

  1. Amour
  2. Argo
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild 
  4. Django Unchained
  5. Les Misérables 
  6. Life of Pi
  7. Lincoln 
  8. Silver Linings Playbook
  9. Zero Dark Thirty 
  10. The Master
  11. Flight 
  12. The Impossible
  13. The Sessions 
  14. Brave 
  15. Frankenweenie 
  16. ParaNorman 
  17. The Pirates! Band of Misfits
  18. Wreck-It Ralph
  19. Anna Karenina
  20. Skyfall
  21. Mirror Mirror
  22. 5 Broken Cameras
  23. The Gatekeepers
  24. How to Survive a Plague
  25. The Invisible War
  26. Searching for Sugar Man
  27. Hitchcock
  28. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  29. Chasing Ice
  30. Ted
  31. Kon-Tiki (Norway)
  32. No (Chile)
  33. A Royal Affair (Denmark)
  34. War Witch (Canada)
  35. Marvel’s The Avengers
  36. Prometheus
  37. Snow White and the Huntsman 
  38. Moonrise Kingdom

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I refuse to see “Ted.”

And, for those who care, here are this year’s shorts, across three categories, always 15 glimmering treats:

  1. Inocente
  2. Kings Point
  3. Mondays at Racine
  4. Open Heart
  5. Redemption
  6. Adam and Dog
  7. Fresh Guacamole
  8. Head Over Heels
  9. Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”
  10. Paperman
  11. Asad
  12. Buzkashi Boys
  13. Curfew
  14. Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)
  15. Henry

The other odd thing this year:

Movie titles are shorter. A fascinating trend. Could it be a consequence of Twitter — filmmakers, wanting to better promote their products on all platforms, have decided to limit their characters (sic)? It seems that a good third — 34% — of this year’s nominated features are one-word titles. Last year, only 28% of the titles were one word. And this year’s words are shorter — heck, “Life of Pi” may as well be one word for all it evokes in eight characters. And if you eliminate subtitles and articles like “The” (even in French, “Les”), the one-word percentage for 2013 goes even higher: 50%, vs. 39% in 2012

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Related articles:

• Life gets in the way of movies (mommytongue.com)

• Moonlighting at the movies (mommytongue.com)