Less than two weeks left until the Academy Awards, and we're all playing catch up with the nominees. Somehow I've still not seen all of the Best Picture contenders, but I have now watched all of the films competing for the Oscars for Best Documentary (Feature) and Best Documentary (Short Subject).
If you're behind, you can currently see the nominees in the latter category courtesy of iTunes or select cinemas like NYC's IFC Center. As for the features, AMC Theatres is again running a feature documentary nominee showcase this year, on February 20th (however, only in NYC and L.A.). If you can't make that, 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' and 'Restrepo' are easily viewable on Netflix Watch Instantly (among other formats) and 'Gasland' is also on DVD.
Unfortunately, 'Waste Land' and 'Inside Job' won't be out for home viewing until next month (March 15 and 8, respectively). Too bad, since I consider them the frontrunners for the Academy Award. Find out which title I'd rather win, though, and also see my reviews of the documentary shorts after the jump.
Let's first examine the lesser known short films, a strong crop of documentaries that seem to represent the primary attentions of non-fiction cinema. There's something related to the Iraq War ('Poster Girl'), something involing terrorism ('Killing in the Name'), something related to global warming ('Sun Come Up'), another environmental doc that tackles more of a man-made problem ('The Warriors of Qiugang') and something pertaining to education and also multi-culturalism ('Strangers No More'). There is no cause-less, entertaining documentary correlative to something like 'Exit Through the Gift Shop,' but in my experience short docs tend more to be about issues. Here is my rating of the films from least favorite to preferred winner:
5.'Strangers No More' - This is the fourth Oscar nod for directors Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman, and I really hope it's not their time to win, because their latest short is the worst of this year's nominees. I can't say if it's any better than their other works, though, or if they're otherwise deserving of higher recognition. I just want them to keep trying. With 'Strangers,' they follow a few students at a refugee-heavy school in Tel Aviv, and it's basically a puff piece advertising the institution. The teachers interviewed mainly just imply how wonderful themselves and the school are, and the greater themes of multi-cultural unity and what the actual kids think of their new home -- rather than making them cry through their stories of hardship that got them there -- are less highlighted. It makes sense that editor Nancy Baker, who also worked on self-satisfying Oscar-fodder like 'On the Ropes' and 'Born Into Brothels,' is involved with this, too.
4. 'Sun Come Up' - I hate to nitpick with this one, because it's such a great story and director Jennifer Redfearn and cinematographer/producer Tim Metzger likely have the best-looking short among the nominees, but it drove me mad that in the end it's such a tool for climate change. The film follows citizens of the Carteret Islands (part of Papua New Guinea) as they attempt to relocate to nearby Bougainville due to the fact their home is becoming uninhabitably submerged. Take away the focus on global warming and sea level rise as the cause (it's arguable there are other factors, including basic natural erosion that occurs with atolls), particularly the end titles stating that similar relocations will soon be necessary around the world, and it's otherwise a terrific and beautiful piece of storytelling.
3. 'Killing in the Name' - Meanwhile, this film from Jed Rothstein would feature a relatively generic narrative -- about the activistic mission of a man whose wedding ended in tragedy because of a suicide bomber -- if not for one powerful element: an interview, spread over the course of the doc, with an Al-Qaeda recruiter partly responsible for bringing about that and other jihadist incidents. You'll keep wanting the protagonist and the recruiter to ultimately meet and have a political exchange, a la the intense recent features 'Enemies of the People' and 'HolyWars,' and maybe you'll start to wonder if the "hero" is against all bombings or just those that result in mostly Muslim deaths, but regardless you should definitely see this provocative work produced by the great, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus ('The Farm: Angola, USA').
2.'The Warriors of Quigang' - Director Ruby Yang and writer Thomas Lennon (also both producers) have already won an Oscar in the short doc category, for 2007's 'The Blood of Yingzhou District.' With this well-crafted film -- about a Chinese village fighting against local polluters -- it's not surprising that they're being recognized again, yet perhaps it's time for other filmmakers to get their shot. Also, in a way, I want to fault 'Quigang,' in spite of its animated sequences and taut editing, for being both too conventional and disappointingly not present during a crucial moment in the film's narrative. Especially since there has been more interesting Chinese documentary work recently, such as the snubbed feature 'Last Train Home.'
Watch 'The Warriors of Qiugang' free and in full at Yale Environment 360
1. 'Poster Girl' - Also not entirely perfect, Sara Neeson's film at least has a most appealing character as her subject. The young, highly emotional and vocal punk-rock Iraq War veteran, Sgt. Robynn Murray, is enough of a captivating presence to make you forget any other recent PSD-focused documentaries. I do wish that it didn't conclusively concentrate on an art project for veterans, which also seems to be the central subject of Neeson's cleverly titled next film, 'Iraq Paper Scissors,' but 'Poster Girl' is still a great character-driven short that I believe will win the hearts and votes of the Academy.
Let's pray that recent controversy with the credit-based nomination of 'Poster Girl' producer Mitchell Block (see the story at All These Wonderful Things) doesn't upset the film's chances. If so, maybe Yang and Lennon can be victors once again.
Now to the documentary features category, which has its own share of controversies, including the Academy's ban on 'Exit' director Banksy, who they fear will cause too much of a scene, and the campaign by lobbyists to get 'Gasland' Josh Fox disqualified. An assumed frontrunner for the Oscar is Charles Ferguson's 'Inside Job.' As good as it is, I don't think it will win, and not just because Ferguson's better 'No End in Sight' previously lost. It just might be too politically charged against wealthy conservatives, enough of whom may be among the Hollywood community, to earn the majority of votes.
I think Lucy Walker's 'Waste Land' has a better shot, and should not be overlooked by pundits, for a few reasons. One, it's similar enough and yet better than 2004 winner 'Born Into Brothels,' and also it's distanced politically and geographically in a way that's relatively neutral and also caters to the Academy's globally concerned poverty-porn preferences. And it's a good way for voters to say, "we do actually like art, but we're going with the safer, less-subversive, and more uplifting work of Vik Muniz rather than Banksy."
Speaking of Banksy, though, he didn't make my favorite documentary film of 2010 -- not even one of my ten favorites -- and he certainly didn't make my favorite of these nominees (that used to be 'Restrepo,' but I just re-watched it the other day and my love for it is becoming diluted by seeing it too many times and seeing too many like-minded films, such as 'Armadillo' and 'Hell and Back Again'). But I would love to see 'Exit' win over the other four. Not for the reason most people state, that it will be fun to see who or how he accepts. I want it to win simply for the fact that it's such an unconventional work, comparatively anyway, and doesn't really tackle any pressing issue (other than the long-frustrating, ever-existing problems with the art world) and it might possibly open the door for other nominees in the future that focus on a story, especially a comedic one, more than a cause.
Both 'Man on Wire' and 'The Cove,' the past two years' winners, have pointed us in a direction concerned more with the storytelling aspect of documentary cinema. I'd almost want 'Gasland' to be the one to follow suit if it weren't still too much more cause-heavy (more than even 'The Cove'). Same with 'Restrepo,' which puts narrative above politics. But I think in terms of straight entertainment -- well-crafted entertainment -- 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' would be an inspired and inspiring choice.