When we were young, we used to have Oscar contests just like the kids do today. This was before the internet, and there were no websites which would simply tell you what to pick for Animated Short or Costume Design. You needed some other methods for choosing winners in categories you knew absolutely nothing about. Which brings us to Documentary Feature.
There were 170 documentaries eligible for Oscar consideration this year and I’m guessing that the average moviegoer has seen – oh, I don’t know – zero of them. For real film fans – like the astute readers of this blog – maybe five to ten is a better number. And if you have a genuine fondness for the genre, perhaps you’ve seen a lot more, though I’m guessing, like me, you come up woefully short of 170.
Now, back in the day, we had a little rubric for making our selections. War beats Art. Mental Health beats War. Environment beats Mental Health. Civil Rights beats Environment. And the Holocaust beats them all. I went back recently and checked this formula against the actual winners and realized that the formula was, well, utter crap. But we were young and foolish and didn’t know our Artie Shaws from our Isaac Sterns.
Now, somewhat older, no less foolish, we embark on an examination of this year’s fifteen shortlisted Oscar contenders for the Best Documentary Feature Award. This list will be whittled to five nominees come January 23. Here are some predictions about what will make the next cut, along with some opinion about what ought to be recognized.
Jane (Brett Morgen)
Faces Places (Agnes Varda and JR)
This is a very open year, award-wise. However, when the winner is announced in early March, it is likely to be one of these two titles. Brett Morgen’s consideration of that most famous of all primatologists, Jane Goodall, Jane, and the effervescent collaboration between director Agnes Varda and photographic artist JR, Faces Places, have pretty much run roughshod over the competition on the early critic association awards circuit. I’m no expert in backwards reasoning, but I think that makes them likely to move from the shortlist to the round of final nominations. Who will join them?
Chasing Coral (Jeff Orlowski)
City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)
Strong Island (Yance Ford)
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)
The other three nominees are likely to come from these four films. With the exception of Ex Libris, they fit in more with the “Big Issue” type of documentary that often gets honored. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral is a gorgeous underwater exploration of dying coral reefs and the scientists who are trying desperately to document their decline. It is the best environmental documentary of the year. City of Ghosts, which beat out Jane for the documentary award from the Dallas Fort Worth Critics Association, is one of two shortlisted docs about the Syrian crisis. It chronicles the reporters, many of whom have sacrificed their lives, to tell the world about the situation in Raqqa after Isis seized control and cut it off from the world. It is the best documentary on specific world events this year. Perhaps the biggest dark horse in this year’s field, Strong Island is the highly personal story of director Yance Ford’s 25-year sojourn, attempting to reconstruct the events surrounding the killing of his brother William. The movie veers more toward personal reflection than straight mystery, but through its many twists and turns, it explores the issue of race in a most effective manner. Ex Libris is the outlier here in that it is not concerned with social issues. The three plus hours are a direct cinema examination of the varied branches of the New York City public library, brought to us by Frederick Wiseman, a few years shy of his 90th birthday. Wiseman has been offering these sprawling, intimate portraits of Americana for fifty years now, and he seems to have lost little of his energy.
COULD SNEAK IN
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James)
One of Us (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady)
Last Men in Aleppo (Firas Fayyad)
Human Flow (Ai Weiwei)
James tells the remarkable story of the only bank to be indicted for crimes after the financial crisis of 2008, while Ewing and Grady offer up a brave portrait of the challenges faced by those attempting to leave the Hasidic community. Fayyad goes behind the scenes in Aleppo. It is one of three highly acclaimed 2017 movies about the Syrian crisis, and probably falls behind City of Ghosts in the voting. Weiwei travels the world to chronicle the global refugee crisis.
La 92 (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin)
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk)
Long Strange Trip (Amir Bar-Lev)
Icarus (Bryan Fogel)
Unrest (Jennifer Brea)
I should begin this little section by saying that this category is notoriously hard to predict, and if one or even two of the titles sneaks into the final five, I would be surprised, but not shocked. If four or five of them did, I’d take that as a sign to get out of the prediction game. La 92 assembles archival footage to recreate the tension and turmoil that gripped Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict was announced 25 years ago. An Inconvenient Sequel, the best known title from the shortlist, is a sequel to the 2006 Oscar winner, An Inconvenient Truth, which follows Al Gore’s continuing efforts to publicize the issue of global climate change. At more than 4 hours, Bar-Lev’s chronicle of the Grateful Dead is the longest movie on the shortlist. Icarus is a happy accident of a movie. Fogel set out to test blood doping protocols in the world of cycling and stumbled into a friendship with Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who would ultimately blow the cover off Russia’s systematic efforts to improve athletic performance through illegal drug usage. And Unrest is Brea’s deeply personal odyssey into the world of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
All right, enough of the predictions. Here’s a rundown on who I think deserves the awards. Let’s begin with recognizing some titles that did not make the shortlist.
THE ONE THAT ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY SHOULD HAVE BEEN SHORTLISTED
Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous took their cameras inside Folsom Prison for weeklong therapy session featuring both violent inmates and outside volunteers. The resulting movie, The Work, presents staggering raw emotion, centered on the idea of masculinity in modern America. It is number three on my list of documentaries for 2017.
THE MOST ADORABLE
That designation actually does a disservice to Ceyda Torun’s Kedi, a remarkably well-filmed survey of Istanbul’s feline inhabitants, who see the famous city in ways mere mortals can only imagine.
THE MOST RELEVANT AT THE MOMENT
Relevance seems to carry more weight in the land of documentary than in the fiction film world, which is a topic for a different debate. But a quick look at the issues-oriented movies that comprise much of the shortlist makes it obvious. Though freedom of the press is at the core of City of Ghosts, freedom of the press in America is at the core of John Maggio’s thorough biopic The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee. See it along with The Post for a good reminder of how even the strongest democracies constantly teeter on the edge of totalitarianism.
THE ONE FILM CRITICS LOVE BEST
Dawson City is way up there in Canada. So far up that it was the end of the line for early movies travelling up from the south. When the run ended in Dawson City, the distributors had no interest in paying to have the celluloid returned. So hundreds of early movies just sat there. And then they were rediscovered. Bill Morrison tells the story of these movies and of this town in Dawson City: Frozen Time. I suspect it has more appeal to film historians, or to anyone with an interest in history, than to the public at large. But it is a wonderful journey.
THE BEST SOCIAL ISSUE MOVIE NOT ON THE SHORTLIST
Amanda Lipitz goes into the heart of Baltimore to study a high school dance team, and the way it helps change lives, in Step. One of its main characters, Blessin Giraldo, has a story that is significantly better than much of the fiction that made it onto American screens this year.
THE “HOW DID THEY MAKE SUCH A GOOD MOVIE ON THAT SUBJECT?” WINNERS
This is where the real craft of filmmakers come to the fore. I mean, anyone can make a movie about war and disease and prejudice, right? But you try making an engaging movie about the Obituary page of a newspaper, or a fascinating story about typewriters and the people who love them. See if you can do nearly as well as Vanessa Gould did with Obit and Doug Nichol did with American Typewriter.
This doesn’t even get to fine movies like Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story or Oklahoma City, but you have to stop somewhere.
I would have dropped Unrest, One of Us, An Inconvenient Sequel and possibly Icarus, from the shortlist in favor of some of the movies mentioned above. That is not to say these four movies are not very interesting on many levels. Unrest told a lot of good stories, but at the same time, left a lot of questions unaddressed. It does not go very far into the day to day struggles faced by its subjects, and it never acknowledges how some of the scenes are filmed, giving some moments a vaguely staged feeling. One of Us was probably fighting a losing battle in trying to tell a story with any balance. It doesn’t seem likely that any representative from the Hasidic community would appear on screen to offer a defense of their rigid lifestyle. Though the filmmakers did get one sympathetic elderly man to talk on camera, he seems to be more on side of the movie’s subjects and therefore doesn’t provide a spirited debate. That in turn makes the movie rather one-sided and somewhat less interesting. An Inconvenient Sequel has plenty of compelling material, much like its predecessor. But its focus on Gore’s personal story veers dangerously close to hagiography. Icarus is a tough call. It’s a rather roughly shot and constructed movie, but it did get Rodchenkov on camera, and he is one of the most interesting men in the world right about now.
Moving up into the next strata, Long Strange Trip follows in the structural footsteps of last year’s extraordinary winner O.J.: Made in America by dividing itself into distinct chapters. And there is plenty of great material for fans of the Dead, as well as anyone interested in counter culture and recent history. But whereas Ezra Edelman needed all of his time to thoroughly tell O.J. Simpson’s story, I get the feeling that Bar-Lev just kept putting Dead material onscreen until he got bored. It seems to meander at times, and its focus on Jerry Garcia, though certainly justifiable, seems to cut off other interesting explorations.
Last Men in Aleppo may suffer from the fact that both City of Ghosts and Cries From Syria got a fair amount of attention in 2017. All of them are quite good, but it is easy to let them run together in your mind.
Virtually everyone I know inside the film industry would like to see Ex Libris at least get nominated. Wiseman has never been nominated before. (In fact, only three of this year’s shortlisted movies can claim directors with a previous nomination, and there are no wins among them.) Not for his early work, Titicut Follies and Hospital. Not for Near Death or La Danse. Not for In Jackson Heights or National Gallery. He did receive an Honorary Oscar last year for his remarkable career, but no individual film recognition. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Ex Libris is the best choice to break this string. It is a fascinating look at an institution, but it is very long, with a casual pace, and it lacks the immediacy of his best work.
Jane, which I suspect will ultimately win, is a handsomely mounted biopic, covering both Goodall’s professional and personal life. I have little to object to, beyond saying that this is a subject that doesn’t fascinate me the way some others do. That may be due to the familiarity I had with the subject when I entered the theatre.
Human Flow is a true work of art and a true work of titanic effort. Weiwei went from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia to the US-Mexico border. He interviewed Palestinians and Rohingya. He made the plight of refugees visceral. One of the best shots of 2017 is a descending overhead shot of a refugee camp in Turkey in which the people initially look like ants scurrying in a maze before they come into focus as humans. And one of the best sound bites comes from Jordanian Princess Dana Firas, speaking of the vital importance of maintaining a sense of every person’s humanity. I think there are times when Weiwei’s artistic sensibility wanders into a cul de sac, and that keeps this from being even more potent. But such detours never last long.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Yance Ford’s Strong Island for a while. There were things about it that seemed initially confusing and overly stylized. But the power of Ford’s passion and vision grows frame by frame until it is impossible to get this CSI cold case out of your head. It raises questions about race and identity that go far beyond its crime story premise.
Here are the five shortlisted movies I would select for nomination
I’m not really sure if Faces Places is a great work of art or a great social statement. That fact is, this begins as a lark and though it grows more and more beautiful over time, I’m not sure it ever becomes more than a lark. But what a lark. Varda and JR travel from village to village photographing the townsfolk and displaying their glorious images. But what sets this apart and makes it such a joy, is Agnes Varda herself. Now 89, she is among the greatest living directors. And she seems to have the vitality of a dozen teenagers. Her zest for life, her sense of whimsy, her bold vision – it is all there on screen. She is among the most engaging characters to appear in a movie in 2017. Her only rival may be 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project, and I know I’d pay to see those two appear in an update of Freaky Friday.
City of Ghosts is a work of such heroism that it seems a shame not to give it every honor imaginable. Indeed, it begins with its protagonists, the mostly amateur journalists who comprise the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, receiving an award. Director Heineman, who was nominated two years ago for Cartel Land, captures their epic struggle to first tell the world about a group called Isis, and what this group was doing behind a cloak of silence in their beloved homeland.
Chasing Coral is beautiful to behold. But beautiful underwater cinematography is nothing new. The urgency of this movie grows out of the fact that the beauty is dying, and the scientists, divers, technicians, and filmmakers of Chasing Coral devote their lives to making sure we all see the destruction. A dead reef portends a dead planet, and that realization results in a movie that is equal parts miraculous and terrifying.
I’m somewhat disappointed that La 92 did not get more attention when it appeared. This is outstanding, relevant filmmaking. It hearkens back to the earliest days of documentary when Soviet theorist Dziga Vertov was inventing an entire aesthetic for assembled footage. Lindsay and Martin begin with the Watts riots of 1965 before moving to the events of 1992, showing the continuum of violence that has plagued Los Angeles. Without a narrator or any overt exposition, they craft a story out of extraordinary images that always remains clear and compelling. If I had my way, this movie would not win for Best Feature Documentary, but would win the Oscar for Best Editing. It is a work of exceptional craftsmanship.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail would get my vote for Best Documentary of 2017. When Steve James’ movie Hoops Dreams was shunned by voters in 1994, it led to an uproar that forced the Academy to rewrite the rules for the category. Despite outstanding work in the intervening years, James has still never been nominated for an Oscar. In Abacus, he tells a gripping story of government overreach. He documents the immigrant experience and explores prejudice. He makes complicated financial and legal elements easy to understand. In the Sung family, he introduces several clearly drawn, intriguing characters. And unlike the troubles faced by One of Us, James gets people from all sides of the story to appear on camera and state their case. That is the work of a great documentarian. Abacus is not as artistic as several of the movies mentioned above. In some ways, it is Filmmaking 101. But when you have a great story and nail every detail, you get an A+. That’s exactly what Steve James did here.