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« The Golden Globes: The Nominations Announced | Main | Yuletide cinema »

Oscar's Documentaries: Tales from the Shortlist (Part 1)

Glenn here with the first of three pieces looking at this year’s 15 finalists for Best Documentary. Watch along with us!

Prior to the announcement of the shortlist, I had seen roughly 30 of the 151 contenders. Hopefully by the end of the week I will have managed to catch up with all 15 of the shortlisted titles, which will be the first time that has ever happened. As Team Experience's apparent resident doc expert, I am determined to do it, although I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that I couldn't catch even more of the longlist. 151 is a lot even for me.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Synopsis: Filmed over the course of 6 months, this documentary tells the incredible story of three young moments of Pussy Riot, a Russian activist punk band out to disrupt the status quo and bring attention to their homeland's injustices by the hand of Vladimir Putin.
Director: Mike Lerner (Oscar nominee, Hell and Back Again) and Maxim Pozdorovkin
Festivals: Bath, Brisbane, Cornwall, Eastend, GAZE LGBT, Melbourne, New Zealand, Seattle, Sheffield, Sundance, Sydney, Vancouver.
Awards: Special Jury Prize (Sundance), Best Documentary (British Independent Film Awards).
Box Office: N/A (qualifying run), available on HBOgo
Review: If TV networks had Christian Bale balls they would air this illuminating documentary on a never-ending loop parallel to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia. They don't and they won't - although maybe HBO, who screened it last summer alongside other long-listed titles such as Valentine Road and Gasland 2 - will. The film itself isn't particularly brilliant, but works as a perfect entry point into the story of Pussy Riot. A story, just by the way, that continues to evolve to this day. It's a very standard documentary, simply charting the story of the imprisonment and subsequent farce of a trial of three Pussy Riot members after they stormed a church alter and performed an anti-Putin anthem. I'm glad I watched it, although there are areas that the filmmakers could have expanded like Russia's growing feminist movement and the history of it.
Oscar: The branch could respond to the very timely subjects of not just artistic oppression and censorship, but also Russia's glaringly plummeting human rights record. The branch has gone with an unexpected music doc before - Tupac: Resurrection in 2003 - but even then, the music of Pussy Riot are a, shall we say, acquired taste. And they did just award Searching for Sugarman. A vote for this film would be more a vote for the issue than the film.

Four more contenders after the jump...

Tim's Vermeer
Tim Jenison sets to prove his hypothesis that painter Johannes Vermeer (the subject of Girl with a Pearl Earring) used a specific method when creating his works by actually attempting to recreate the Dutch master's "The Music Lesson".
Director: Teller (feature debut)
Festivals: New York, Lone Star, St Louis, Telluride, Toronto
Awards: None
Box Office: N/A (qualifying run), released in 2014
Review: Entertaining and brisk, Tim's Vermeer was certainly a breath of fresh air when I saw it at NYFF surrounded on all sides by dense dramas. It's hard to deny that Jenison is a likeable fellow and it's easy to see why Teller was charmed by him and this absurd folly to recreate a famous work of art, but I could have done without the unnecessary talking head snapshots with Penn Jilette that feel tacked on for fan lip service. Still, every scene showing the man's incredibly detailed work (including casting his own daughter as one of the models) is fascinating. Watching the creation of art is sometimes even better than the finished product. That's not necessarily the case here, but as a bold experiment it makes for a fun movie.
Oscar: The documentary branch rarely go for films about art or moviemaking unless they're truly extraordinary like Exit Through the Gift Shop or Pina. It's unlikely they'll spring for this with so many weightier offerings.

The Armstrong Lie
Synopsis: During filming of a Lance Armstrong comeback documentary, revelations of performance enhancing drug use not only surfaced (again), but were confirmed. Alex Gibney and Armstrong sit down to chart the sport star's career and delve into the how's and why's of his lie.
Director: Alex Gibney (Oscar-winner, Taxi to the Dark Side)
Festivals: Brisbane, London, Toronto, Vancouver, Venice
Awards: None
Box Office: $244,000 (max. 77 theatres), still in theatres
Review: The Armstrong Lie is a curious picture. Fleetingly exciting and bland in equal measure. Gibney's back and forth narrative was perhaps not the best way to structure this film, especially for people who are more interested in the illegal doping allegations than his rise to fame as a world champion cyclist, albeit an extremely handsome one. Much like Pussy Riot, there are angles that are not given enough time or depth. Still, most of the post-admission footage is riveting including the cyclist's interview with Gibney himself where Gibney personally feels betrayed by his subjects blatant lies. There's also a morbid fascination to be found in the pre-revelation footage of Armstrong vehemently denying any drug use. I suspect many people in Armstrong's camp chose not to do interviews, which is a shame because the insight would have been marvellous (and no Sheryl Crow!), but the film ultimately feels like a TV special more than a work of cinema.
Oscar: I'm surprised it's even here in the first place given Gibney's much better Mea Maxima Culpa failed to make the shortlist last year. Didn't take off at the box office in the way that Sony Pictures Classics clearly intended, either. It's certainly nowhere near as good as his Oscar-winner, Taxi to the Dark Side.

20 Feet from Stardom
Synopsis: Back-up singers to the starts are placed front and center in this crowd-pleasing documentary hit. From the famous to the not-so-famous, each gets to tell their stories with some of the performers they've helped showing up to lend their praise.
Director: Morgan Neville (longtime music documentarian)
Festivals: Full Frame, Hawaii, Montclair, Philadelphia Music, Provincetown, RiverRun, San Francisco, Seattle, Sundance, SXSW, True/False
Awards: Audience Award (Provincetown), Special Jury Prize (RiverRun), Audience Award (San Francisco), Needle Award (Seattle), Independent Spirit Nominee
Box Office: $4.8mil (max. 147 theatres), on home entertainment in January - highest grossing documentary of the year!!
Review: It's been hailed a crowd-pleasure for a reason. A feel-good documentary that finally shines the spotlight on those good ol' working singers who have helped craft some of music's greatest hits. There really isn't much to say about it since it is unquestionably the most well-seen documentary of the year and that all of its virtues have already been well-discussed. It's basically ear-porn, especially for those of us who covet the smooth tones of Darlene Love. Still, as enjoyable and fun and lovely and entertaining as it is, it's rather pedestrian as directorial efforts go. And, in a weird twist of events, by making such a story out of Darlene, it feels like many of the other documentary subjects get put in her shadow.
Oscar: Why am I skeptical? A documentary with vaguely similar subject matter - In the Shadow of the Stars - won this prize two decades ago for one thing. They just gave the award to a music doc one year ago for another. It's hard to dislike, but I remain wary of its dominance with so many loftier titles on offer and films like The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell likely mopping up all the critics awards.

 The Square:Synopsis: Egyptians take to the streets to bring justice and democracy to their country. Real life modern day revolutionaries whose tumultuous battle for their country is a case of one step forward two steps back at seemingly every turn. Netflix's first film acquisition after a (what I assume was a) self-distributed qualifying run in New York.
Director: Jehane Nouhaim (, Control Room)
Festivals: Hamptons, New York, Sundance, Toronto
Awards: Grand Award for Social Justice (Hamptons), Audience Award (Sundance), People's Choice (Toronto)
Box Office: $53,000 (max. 3 theatres), on Netflix in January
Review: Jose reviewed it out of NYFF. It's a doozy. It's powerful and exhilarating and one of the very best films of any kind from this year.
Oscar: It would make a worthy winner and I expect it to be nominated.

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Reader Comments (2)

I support your petition. The Pussy Riot documentary must be shown on a never-ending loop. Their peers are being incredibly shy about the whole issue.

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

The Oscar website states that 147 documentaries qualified for consideration. Four films obviously were disqualified for some reason.

Does anyone know which films were disqualified and why? I wonder if two of faves were in the list - Blood Brother and Valentine Road?

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

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