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