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Oscar's Documentaries: Tales from the Shortlist (Part 2)

Glenn continues his 3 part look at the 15 finalists for Best Documentary. (Here is part one if you missed it). Watch along with us!

Synopsis: How do you solve a problem like SeaWorld? Animal cruelty is exposed at SeaWorld theme parks and others associated with it around the globe. Particularly of interest is that of Tilikum, a 5,400kg orca responsible for multiple deaths including trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite (City Lax: Un Urban Lacrosse Story)
Festivals: AFI Docs, Athens, Hamburg, Hot Docs, Kosovo, Melbourne, Miami, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, Sitges, Sundance, True/False
Awards: Best Documentary 2nd Place (Boston Film Critics), Best Documentary (Washington DC), Best Feature (Nominee, International Documentary Association)
Box Office: $2.07mil (max. 99 screens), out now on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD
Review: From my review back in July:

Its mission is similar to that of Oscar-winning eco-doc The Cove, and would make a curious companion to Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone. All it needed was more “Firework” by Katy Perry, obviously. … The secrecy surrounding [Brancheau’s death] forms the backbone of Cowperthwaite’s engaging documentary; inarguably an important and illuminating one that will hopefully lead to positive action against the torturous conditions that killer whales face in captivity. As a piece of filmmaking it’s traditionally assembled, but the topic and access to disturbing video footage makes for a potent and powerful indictment.

Oscar? Good to go! Animals and animal activism are popular in this branch with nominee Winged Migration and past winners March of the Penguins and the aforementioned The Cove. It’s proven successful in forcing change, plus we already know it has fans in Academy members like Kim Basinger and the folks at Pixar. If nominated I’d be tipping it for the win. They will be very impressed with themselves.

Dancing gangsters, wannabe Olympians and more after the jump...

The Act of Killing
Synopsis: Having experienced the glee with which government-sanctioned gangsters relish in telling stories of their years of massacring communists in their homeland of Indonesia, director Joshua Oppenheimer gives them the resources to tell their story.
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer (sort of debut feature)
Festivals: Berlin, Boston, Human Rights Festival, Los Angeles, Prague, New Zealand, Seattle, Sydney, Telluride, Toronto
Awards: It’s more a question of what awards hasn’t it won (see Stories We Tell below)?
Box Office: $456,890 (max. 29 screens), out on home entertainment on the 7th of January
Review: Like watching a snuff film we’re unable to stop. It makes for awfully unpleasant film viewing, which is entirely the point, but I wouldn’t entirely say somebody is wrong for thinking the film glorifies the perpetrators’ violence rather than truly questioning it. I’m glad I only got the two-hour version and not the three-hour one that was released in some other countries. There’s only so much one can take, you know? Comparable to The Missing Picture and Stories We Tell in the unique way they go about telling their histories, The Act of Killing is disturbing and sad whilst also saying something interesting about the way documentaries manipulate and can never be trusted.  
Oscar? Normally I would say The Act of Killing is out of the Academy’s wheelhouse, but the onslaught of awards might prove too hard to ignore. They did go for Exit Through the Gift Shop after all. I just hope that if it does miss out on a nomination people realise it’s because 2013 was such a strong year for docs and not because "they" couldn't handle it.

The Crash Reel
Synopsis: Talented Olympics-bound snowboarder Kevin Pearce experiences a traumatic brain injury that leaves him on the sport's sidelines for three years before he must come to terms with his new life.
Director: Lucy Walker (Oscar nominee, Waste Land and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom)
Festivals: Dallas, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Seattle, SXSW, Telluride, X Games Aspen
Awards: Audience Award (Dallas), Audience Award (Melbourne), Best Documentary (New Hampshire), Best Documentary (Port Townsend), Audience Award (SXSW), Special Jury Award (Seattle), Kids Film Award (Telluride)
Box Office: N/A (qualifying run, currently in NYC)
Review: All of the tears. It's funny though, because in the mad flurry of year end movie watching where we try and shove a screener or a cinema visit into any availably time slot, I decided to turn The Crash Reel off after 15 minutes. Not following the sport, nor knowing the story, I was a bit uninterested in watching sports people be rewarded for things like moving from one end to another. However, once it made the shortlist I knew I had to watch it all and I am so glad I did. Conventional, sure, and it has the attention span of a gnat, but it's still an affecting and emotional film that gets tears from genuine emotions rather than cynical manipulation. I understand some of the limitations that director Lucy Walker had in assembling the footage from her various sources, but it did come off as messy. 
Oscar? If they measure by most tears then The Crash Reel is in. Walker is popular - two nominations in recent years - and the lighter subject matter (or, more accurately, the brevity she gives the subject matter) should come as sweet relief compared to the likes of The Act of Killing and Blackfish. It's low profile, however, could hurt it. Could be jostling for the fifth slot.

God Loves Uganda
Synopsis: A group of American Evangelicals visit Uganda and become linked to the country’s controversy “kill the gays” parliamentary bill as they attempt to indoctrinate Christianity across the country. After losing on home soil, they're exporting homophobia.
Director: Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence, TV’s Undercover Boss)
Festivals: AFI Docs, Cleveland, Dallas, Hamburg Queer, Hamptons, Hot Docs, Kansas, Outfest, Palm Beach, San Francisco, Sundance, Telluride Toronto LGBT, Zurich
Awards: Best Documentary (Ashland Film Fest), Best Documentary (Philadelphia Film Fest), Best Documentary (Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Fest)
Box Office: $41,598 (max. 5 screens), on home entertaining TBA 2014
Review: “It’s like a horror movie” is a term used frequently to describe documentaries with particularly horrific subject matter. Such is the case again for God Loves Uganda, which makes up for its rudimentary filmmaking with its ability to capture some genuinely terrifying, volatile images. Williams was wise to juxtapose the seemingly friendly interference of the money-spinning American fundamentalists with the locals, frothing at the mouth with their homophobic diatribe. [SPOILER] The film’s longest lasting image was saved until the very end as one of the corn-fed Americans attempts to talk to a local woman, seated on her dusty rug on the hardened ground, about the virtues of God. She looks up with the most hilarious look of “you have got to be kidding me.” [/SPOILER] I only wish the film had explored the opposition the American had met from the public to add extra depth.
Oscar? Any other year I’d say it’s very pertinent message would make it a nominee, but with so many other strong contenders (and so many equally important issues) I doubt it has the juice to get further.

Stories We Tell
Synopsis: Actor, writer, director Sarah Polley’s family had always joked that she never looked like her father. One day she discovered the joke sprang from actual truth and in Stories We Tell she sets out unravelling the mystery of her family.
Director: Sarah Polley (third feature; documentary debut)
Festivals: Edinburgh, New Directors New Films, San Francisco, Sydney, Venice (world premiere), Sundance, Telluride, Toronto, Yamagata
Awards: Best Documentary (Bratislava), Excellence in Documentary (Director’s Guild of Canada), Grand Prix (Festival du nouveau cinema), Best Documentary (Genie Awards), Best Documentary (LAFCA), Best Documentary (NBR), Best Non-Fiction Film (NYFCC), Best Documentary and Best Canadian Film (Toronto Film Critics Association)
Box Office: $1.6mil (max. 70 screens), out now on DVD/Blu-Ray/VOD
Review: I’m always going to have a soft spot of a sort for Stories We Tell since it was one of the very first films I saw upon moving to New York City earlier this year. I certainly like it much more than the appalling Take This Waltz, of which the story shares a curious similarity (if not in technique). I admire the film far more for playfulness that Polley imbues her film with that demonstrates she is continuing to grow as a filmmaker unwilling to rest on her laurels. It also helps that her family are more or less an extremely entertaining bunch that make their family anecdotes far more interesting than they ought to be. This is a very well-made puzzle box of shifting sands.
Oscar? I’ve remained stand off-ish about Polley’s chances for a few reasons. The first is the Hollywood angle. This branch just does not go for films about movies and moviestars. They just don't. Secondly, the only comparable family tree title of recent years is Capturing the Friedmans and that had a much bigger hook. Thirdly, the somewhat experimental form that the film takes could turn some in the branch off. Although it got this far...

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Reader Comments (5)

Throwing it out there, just saw Blackfish last night. Disgusting film. I mean, sometimes disgusting is what you need to get the job done and I'm happy that it seems like the film is changing the world for the better, but they might as well have called it Orca 2: Cage Match! and just been done with it. When the gleefully close up footage of trainers masturbating a giant killer whale dick flashed up on screen, I gave up on it being anything but pure exploitation. It's so very 2013 to fetishize the object that you're trying to moralize about, but you can count me out of the fun.

And on that note, on to The Act Of Killing!

December 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Agree with TB. Blackfish is just an issue movie that wants to be as dirty and juvenile as its subject matter mistaking it for profundity. The Cove, a documentary on a similar issue, was not nearly as dirty but way more effective and interesting.

Stories We Tell getting this far gives me hope. I want 'Oscar nominated' Sarah Polley to happen though I think giving her the winner's slot is having too much faith. Same goes for The Act of Killing. I am just expecting 20 Feet from Stardom to winner. Not against it, but it felt like such a surface scratcher by the end than a deep exploration. But yeah, I loved it when Merry Clayton was listening to her mono track of 'Gimme Shelter'. I have a soul.

As somebody who snowboarded and has always kept a watch on the X Games, I am not sure The Crash Reel is for me in a 'hits too close to home' kind of way. Just seeing the trailer of seeing Pearce, brain damaged, insisting he can make a comeback made me super uncomfortable.

December 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

every time i read about THE ACT OF KILLING i grow less likely to see it. Just seems way too much like allowing a ouija board in your house. all that EVIL. yikes.

loved STORIES WE TELL but can't imagine the academy going for it really since it messes with concepts of what is a documentary and their history doesnt suggest that they like docs which push the boundaries of the form, preferring traditional newsy docs or talking head explorations.

December 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

CMG: She IS "Oscar-nominated Sarah Polley" though... Writing Away from Her! Now we need to hope for "two-time Oscar nominee Sarah Polley."

December 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Sarah Polley could be a two-time Oscar nominee for writing and documentary feature, which seems so strange and yet entirely fitting for an actor that never seemed like she fit into the world Hollywood was trying to (and that she always seemed to be fighting against).

TB and CMG, you're certainly not alone. I wasn't aware it was so despised until it started appearing on "worst of the year" lists and such.

December 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

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