Friday, February 7, 2014

Best Documentary Feature

Cutie and the Boxer
Four of the five Best Documentary Feature nominees are available for streaming on Netflix. The fifth, 20 Feet From Stardom, is available OnDemand and on Amazon. I started watching Cutie and the Boxer first because based on its name, poster and synopsis, it seemed the most cheery of the lot. Most of the nominated documentaries tend to be depressing and are often difficult to watch. Cutie and the Boxer is a look at the lives of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. They can not pay rent, his pieces are not selling and their son, an artist as well, is an alcoholic. It is a very personal film as the couple provided photos and videos from the past 40 years. The filming takes place as Noriko has resumed working on her art after many years. Her drawings are often animated through out the movie. These animations and her work are a highlight of the movie and at the same time embodies the pain in her life. The film does end with a positive feeling though Noriko has said earlier that she does not want her work to end happily, she does not like Hollywood endings.

The Act of Killing
The filmmakers interviewed those proudly responsible for the killings of more than a million accused of being communists in Indonesia that began in 1965. In order to understand why, they asked two ex-squad leaders to create scenes about the killings in any way that they wished. The subjects of the film show no atonement for their acts, they remain public heroes and enthusiastically take on the task of what they believe is an opportunity to create a film to preserve their history. Anwar Congo and Herman Koto refer to gangsters as free men and consider them to be good for their country. They review their film work as it is completed, plot to continue and hold rehearsals. The corruption of the current government and the continued harassing behavior of Koto and his cohorts is openly shown to the filmmakers. Congo states that he suffers from nightmares about what he has done in the past and seems to be the only one to show any sign of remorse. In plenty of other situations Congo gloats about his violent past. Koto and Congo go so far as to include "humor" in their reenactment work and Koto crossdresses for their spectacle of a "film." Throughout much of the documentary it seems that the filmmakers have given the perpetrators of great violence a means to create their own propaganda. As the film concludes it is clear that it is another way to see the depravity that remains and the few instances of regret. A majority of the crew credits are anonymous.

Dirty Wars
Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill was reporting on a deadly night raid in a remote corner of Afghanistan when he decided to begin looking at all covert American actions. The film work is stylized and the subtitles with sounds of typewriters are overpowering. The info presented is not clear and there is no apparent thesis for the film. Scahill's narration is narcissistic and overly dramatic. The subject matter is serious enough, such devices are not necessary. It seemed to me that there was a lack of objectivity and a clear desire to convince the viewer to think what he thought. If there is wrong doing, I will be upset about it but it has to be clear and not dramatized.

The Square
The film begins profiling six different protesters in the days leading up to the fall of Mubarak, the feeling of victory when he stepped down and their return to Tahrir Square months later when nothing had changed. The second gathering at the Square was broken up by the army and they struggle about how to proceed to reach their goals. The documentary continues as it is not clear if what they are fighting for will come to be. This film has a clear direction and presents the subject and lets the viewer decide how they feel about the information. The Square successfully has objectivity. The army spokesperson General Bekheit and other army officials were interviewed as well. One of the most interesting things about the footage of the protests are seeing the cell phones and digital cameras extended by the hands of the participants to film what is taking place and the use of social media.

20 Feet From Stardom
Finally, the fifth nominee was not a gruesome or depressing subject. 20 Feet From Stardom is about the best backup singers in the music industry. As described by Bruce Springsteen, "the backup sound that came straight out of gospel and the church and was secularized." Darlene Love and the Blossoms started it all and
were the first African American girl group of background singers. Darlene Love's recordings were even "ghosted" for the main vocals for other girl groups like the Crystals. Then rock n roll called on the background singers and did not want them to hold back anything from their sound. The background singers are a very tight knit group. They all know each other and even refer another singer if they think someone other than themselves would be better for a given track. The entire music industry knows the background singers. The film is full of amazing stories behind songs we all know. Who knew Luther Vandross sang backup on David Bowie's Young Americans? Crazy. The viewer begins to realize that so much of our pop culture sounds rely on background vocals, everything from disco to the Growing Pains theme song to the Lion King soundtrack. It almost should go without saying, the movie is full of great music.

In an effort to research the bylaws of the Documentary Branch, I did discover more current, accurate and precise information about the Academy's nomination process and final ballot voting process. From the Academy's website: Regarding the nomination process: "Members from each of the branches vote to determine the nominees in their respective categories – actors nominate actors, film editors nominated film editors, etc. However within the Animated Feature Film and Foreign Language Film categories, nominations are selected by vote of multi-branch screening committees."
Regarding the final Oscar ballots: "The Academy’s entire active membership is eligible to select Oscar winners in all categories, although in five – Animated Short Film, Live Action Short Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, and Foreign Language Film – members can vote only after attesting they have seen all of the nominated films in those categories. All voting members are eligible to select the Best Picture nominees."

The Best Documentary rules are quite lengthy, are known as Rule Eleven and can be found here.

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