Oscar Preview 2014 – Documenataries


By Katy Cummings

Since Dan asked me to do a guest spot in honor of the Oscar season, I thought I’d take a crack at the two documentary categories.  I’ve tried to pick my favorite as well as the one I think will win (for the Oscar pools).  Enjoy!

First up, the Feature Length Docs:

The Act of Killing:  This has to be one of the most unusual documentaries ever made.  Men who had been members of Indonesian death squads in the 1960s (who are now in high positions of power in the government), reenact their war crimes as sources of pride.  It was very hard to watch.  I wish the director had provided a little more context (for us ignorant Americans who knew nothing about the conflict), and also provided a little more narrative structure. It was innovative but ultimately not compelling enough for a win.

Cutie and the Boxer:
   This one was my personal favorite.  The tale of Japanese artist Noriko Shinohara  and his (I would argue) equally talented, long suffering wife Ushio had a lot to say about love, resentment, sacrifices, and self respect without ever getting preachy or grandiose. I would love for it to win, but I think it may be too small scale to get the Academy’s attention.

Dirty Wars:  My least favorite of the feature lengths, this is what happens when a great topic gets in the hands of a terrible filmmaker.  This story follows the investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill as he uncovers information about drone strikes and America’s secret wars.  I could not stand Scahill’s overwrought and self-important narration.  Brace yourself for clichéd lines like “I knew investigating this story would put my life at risk, but I had to go deeper.” I will be actively angry if the Academy chooses this, but I think it may be too political for their taste anyway.

20 Feet from Stardom:
  This was another great one and the documentary I’ll be betting takes home the gold.  20 Feet shines a spotlight on the women who have supported some of the greatest music groups of the last 60 years.  This is another movie, like Cutie, that allows personal stories to say a lot about large topics like music history, race, gender, and stardom.  Makes you think and feel all at the same time.

The Square:     I thought I would get around to watching this one this week, but unfortunately I have not L  I hear that it’s a really great from-the-ground perspective on the Egyptian revolution. I will definitely be watching it when I can, but I’m still putting my money on 20 Feet for the win.

And now, the Best Documentary Shorts:

CaveDigger:    Go see this movie right now. Seriously, here’s the link to it: http://vimeo.com/ondemand/9849.  This movie rocked my socks.  It’s about a man pursuing what he loves (art and digging caves) in the face of almost universal indifference and misunderstanding. His work is spellbinding and beautiful and I hope he makes a million bajillion dollars because of this movie. It’s not An Important Topic so I don’t know if it will win, but I’m picking it anyway because gosh darnit, it should.

Facing Fear: As much as I just ranted about CaveDigger (have you watched it yet??), this movie was pretty amazing too, and may have a slight edge for the win.  It tells the tale of a reformed NeoNazi who randomly meets a gay man whom he beat almost to death years earlier.  An incredible story about what it means to forgive others and to forgive yourself.

Karama Has No Walls:  This movie was basically raw footage from the ground during the Yemeni uprising in 2011.  I wish I could say I liked it better, but frankly the pacing was slow and it was kind of like watching a 40 minute long YouTube video shot on a hand-held cameraphone. Not my favorite.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life: I wanted to love this movie; I certainly loved the subject, 110 year old Alice, who at the time of filming was the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor (sadly, Alice passed away last Sunday). She was a remarkable woman with an amazing reserve of optimism and perseverance (she still played the piano every day!!).  I wish the documentary had let her story stand on its own more, instead of relying on heavy-handed narration.  Still, it was a pretty good one, and I recommend watching it if you can to check out Alice’s amazing perspective on life.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall:  This movie made me want to commit suicide.  I guess I should say more about it.  It tells the story of a prison that runs a hospice for its oldest inmates primarily by using other inmates as volunteers.  We spend 40 minutes watching an old man die, with an extended shot of his corpse in a body bag at the end for good measure.  I could have skipped this one.  I don’t think it’s a winner.

That’s it.  Happy Oscar watching, everybody!

(c) 2014 Katy Cummings