The 2013 Academy Award nominees for best documentary feature show a pretty diverse collection of stories that are told in conventional documentary ways of storytelling and even a newer approach that strongly blurs the line between fiction and truth. Stories about war, art, music, and revolution all come together in one category that open our eyes to wonderful people and the most unruly of characters.
The five nominated documentaries are "The Act of Killing," "Cutie and the Boxer," "Dirty Wars," "The Square" and "20 Feet From Stardom."
Thanks to Netflix, it was easier than most years to actually watch the nominees (all but "20 Feet" are available for streaming), and it was an interesting experience. Though they all had different narratives and used different techniques, this wasn't an extraordinary slate.
The Act of Killing
It took three people to direct "The Act of Killing" and after you finish the monstrosity you'll wonder why. Following Indonesian gangsters looking to recreate how they killed suspected Communists during a 1965 coup, "The Act of Killing", to me, is a film of fiction that uses the real life characters and makes bad actors out of them. We witness the gangsters as they "make a movie" that would show how they killed some of their victims. The acting was so bad it was like an Ed Wood movie with a higher budget. Yes, I call it acting because the film is presented as a fiction film. This wasn't a cinéma vérité style of documentation, this was three directors – one listed as anonymous — who tried so hard to not make this look like a film that it looked like a film. I'm convinced every scene was scripted, rehearsed, styled and shot multiple times. This is not a documentary.
Cutie and the Boxer
The shortest of all the nominees at a crisp 80 minutes, "Cutie and the Boxer" follows married Japanese artists Ushio (the boxer) and Noriko (cutie) Shinohara, who aren't your typical artists. Ushio, a familiar face in the NYC art scene and around the world for decades, paints on a huge blank canvas with paint-drenched boxing gloves and makes huge motorcycle sculptures out of cardboard. Nokiro does lighter, child-like work by doing a graphic novel based on her relationship with Ushio. From the turbulent times of his alcoholism, to not selling any of his works, "Cutie and the Boxer" is a true testament of long-lasting love and the inspiration life can give to art. A really loving film with the sweetest of people. This is my favorite of the nominees.
This was almost as bad as "The Act of Killing." Yet another tired documentary on how wars are bad, "Dirty Wars" follows journalist Jeremy Scahill as he uncovers the impact of U.S. military operations on Afghani and Yemeni casualties. Scahill asks many questions about the operations, but doesn't answer anything. He makes up theories that appeal to liberal audiences, but can't prove them. It's as if he wrote a script from a feature story on Middle East casualties, put a face to the names, and filled another 20 minutes of the film with shots of him staring blankly out of a car, truck, subway, etc. "Dirty Wars" is a prime example of the academy honoring any piece of left-wing propaganda because it uses war as the main subject. The subject is tired, and this film doesn't bring anything new to the table.
The Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square from January 2011 to 2013 is the focus of this documentary. Following around revolutionaries as they protest in the titular location to overthrow then president Hosni Mobarak, "The Square" is a good first-hand account of what it was like to be there as we witness military raids, moments of triumph, and setbacks. The two-and-a-half year tale opens up to a group of young protesters who want change but don't know how to do it. They document the changing state of the Egyptian government, but like most young activists, they don't truly know how to make change happen. They stomp around saying the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi are bad, but not much else. This rinse and repeat showing of activism is redundant, but it's a project of audacity.
20 Feet From Stardom
Finally, "20 Feet From Stardom" puts a face to the background singers whose voices we've heard countless times on some of the most famous songs ever like "Gimme Shelter" and "Monster Mash." The world of back-up singing has never sounded so good as "20 Feet" highlights the most famous signers from the '60s and their trials and tribulations from failed solo success in the '70s, to a resurgence in appreciation today. Darlene Love, Merry Clayon, Lisa Fischer and Táta Vega are some of the personalities highlighted here. Those who love the the history of music will have a great appreciation for this film, but for others it'll be a soulful 90-minute escape from life.