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Oscar's Documentaries: Tales from the Shortlist (Part 3)

Glenn continues his 3 part look at the 15 finalists for Best Documentary. (Here is part one and here's part two icymt). Watch along with us!

Firstly, apologies for the delay in this third instalment. I had problems with my HBO Go, which so it turns out was the only way to catch at least one of these films. 

Cutie and the Boxer
Synopsis: Documenting the lifelong partnership between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, Japanese artists living in New York as they struggle with selling art pieces to galleries and private collectors, their son, and competitiveness.
Zachary Heinzerling
Brisbane, Calgary Underground, Full Frame, Houston Cinema Arts, Karlovy Vary, London, Sarasota, Seattle, Stockholm, Sundance, Sydney, Toronto, Tribeca, True/False, Vancouver
Emerging Artist Award (Full Frame), Grierson Award – Special Mention (London), Documentary Directing (Sundance), Documentary Audience Award 2nd Place (Tribeca), Outstanding Debut/Outstanding Graphics and Animation/Outstanding Original Score (Cinema Eye)
Box Office:
$170,449 (max. 12 screens), on iTunes and DVD now
It’s hard not to be won over by the protagonists of Cutie and the Boxer. Naturally, Cutie is the more interesting of the pair given her lifelong position in the shadow of her husband and there are pangs of sadness to be found in the rollcall of gallery figures and artists praising and wanting to look at his work and not her own. Debut director Zachary Heinzerling noticed this and focuses the pair’s climactic exhibit around her and the praise she receives. Heinzerling is a talented man and definitely has a future in documentary filmmaking that is both topically interesting and visually splendid.
A sneaker possibility if voters respond to the personalities of the Shinoharas and the themes of artistic integrity. Otherwise I think its more populist leanings may hurt it when placed alongside such emotionally involving pictures like The Act of Killing and The Crash Reel.

Photographers, journalists, brave kids and tortured families after the jump.

Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington
Synopsis: As a celebrated photojournalist, Tim Hetherington’s job took him to Africa and the Middle East. As a filmmaker he was Oscar nominated for Restrepo. This film charts his life from slacker surfer guy to his death in Libya in 2011 just one month after attending the Academy Awards.
Sebastian Junger (Oscar nominee, Restrepo)
DocuWest Colorado, Full Frame, Hot Docs, Human Rights Watch, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sundance, Telluride,
PGA Documentary (Nominee), Cameraimage Feature Documentary (Nominee)
Box Office:
N/A (qualifying run), available on HBO GO.
By far my least favourite of the shortlisted 15. Hetherington is certainly an interesting subject matter for a film given his achievements, his work and, yes, his good looks. But unfortunately the film is overly rote. Nobody has a bad work to say about him; even his return to the battlefield that brought about his death is portrayed as a saintly gesture. Where the film succeeds is in telling not so much the story of Tim Hetherington, but reporting the life of a photojournalist. A profession that has a sense of romanticism to it, but which can at times be anything but. If the film wasn’t laden with the need to serve the man’s memory, there could be a stronger film. Fans of Restrepo would do well to seek it especially given it features outtakes and deleted footage.
Not unless the Oscar branch feels sympathetic to the man who was an Oscar nominee just three years back. If I were a cynical person (hah!) and this year weren’t such a strong field of contenders then I’d say this could be a lazy default nominee, but I doubt it can make it in this year.

Dirty Wars
Synopsis: A work of investigative journalism based on Jeremy Scahill’s non-fiction book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield that detailed the military and government cover-up of the execution of five Afghani civilians.
Richard Rowley (This is What Democracy Looks Like, The War of 33)
Festivals: Boston, Little Rock, Melbourne, New Zealand, Seattle, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sundance, Sydney, Telluride Mountainside, True/False, Warsaw
Best Documentary Screenplay nominee (WGA), Best Documentary Cinematography (Sundance), Grand Jury Prize (Boston), F:ACT Award (CPH:DOX), Courage in Filmmaking (Little Rock), Cinematography Award (Telluride), Best Documentary (Warsaw)
Box Office:
$371,245 (max. 31 screens), available on home entertainment, Netflix Instant
Dirty Wars is a damning, slickly-produced documentation of an appalling breach of justice. One could protest that given its book origins – the author Jeremy Scahill is also the film’s protagonist and journeyman – it doesn’t make more of an effort to be subjective, but the material is handled so convincingly and with such panache that it works best as a political thriller. Evocative and frightening, Dirty Wars is a must see.
Long before even seeing Dirty Wars I thought it was one to look out for. Having now seen I can confirm that it’s mix of cinematic quality, important subject matter and less esoteric quality (think Inside Man compared to Exit Through the Gift Shop) make it a solid and likely contender. Its chances will likely hinge on whether voters think the war in the Middle East is still a topic worth responding to or if human rights in Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and God Loves Uganda are worthier of their day in the sun.

Life According to Sam
Synopsis: Sam Berns has a rare disease called progeria that ages the body years before it should. As Sam’s parents, and in particular his devoted mother, fight to get government recognition for studies into the disease as well as the backing of the scientific community, Sam attempts to make the most of his education and opportunities.
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix (Oscar winner, Innocente; Oscar nominee, War Dance)
Nantucket, New Hampshire, San Francisco Jewish Fest, Sundance
PGA Documentary (nominee),
Box Office:
N/A (qualifying run), available on HBO GO
Tears. So many tears. I’m not even sure I can rationally critique the film because a) I’d sound like a monster, and b) I was crying too much to notice. I don’t think the film is exactly cinematic, but given its HBO origins that seems about right. Still, if you’re competing for a category like this and going out of your way to screen theatrically to do so then you have to expect people to see it on a big screen at some point (like I did). Still, the story is a doozy as its central subject is the kind to win over anybody.
If Life According to Sam were, say, 40 minutes long I would say there’s no chance it could lose the documentary short award. Alas, as it is in such a strong year for documentaries, I doubt it will even be nominated. I’m not sure if the branch has a bias towards HBO documentaries – Michael Moore’s new rules initially seemed targeted at keeping them out of the race – but the fact that it looks like a work of TV rather than anything cinematic could host it. Still, if they vote on tears.

And in a tragic twist of fate, Sam Berns died on Saturday night at the age of 17 as I was typing up this article. His family and friends can at least take comfort in that he had helped bring progeria into the mainstream, helping all future sufferers in the process.

First Cousin Once Removed
Synopsis: Edwin Honig is a celebrated poet and teacher who now suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease and can’t even remember his own family members, something demonstrated by Alan Berliner’s documentary that covers Honig’s career and life, slowly revealing more of the man’s life.
Alan Berliner (Nobody’s Business, Intimate Stranger)
Documentary Feature (Amsterdam), Best Documentary nominee (Gotham Awards)
Box Office:
N/A (qualifying run), available on HBO GO
Unlike Life According to Sam and etc Tim Hetherington, which are also HBO documentary titles, Berliner’s film has a cinematic quality to it that makes it stand out amongst the trio. There’s an impressionistic quality to the images on display here and Berliner’s own editing is of particular note. The way it plays with and then manipulates Honig’s prose and integrates with his sketchy memories and then, as the film progresses, reveals more tragic and disturbing truths about the subject. It’s probably lazy to equate it to a documentary version of Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, but the subject matter warrants it.
Oscar? Much like any film that looks at the struggles of old age feels like it should be custom-made for the older members of the Academy (hi Philomena), I think this film will have its fans in the documentary branch. It’s a kooky coincidence that it finds itself competing against Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, but like Sam and Tim Hetherington, I think its TV origins and look will work against it with such bold cinematic statements also on display.

Predictions? You want predictions?!?

If I had to guess I would predict An Act of Killing, Blackfish, Dirty WarsThe Square and Twenty Feet from Stardom with almost any other contender as spoiler, but with particular attention to Stories We Tell, God Loves Uganda, The Crash Reel and Life According to Sam. We'll see how completely and utterly wrong I am on Thursday morning! 2013 was just such a strong year that it's sad to know so many will now go unseen just because they didn't get nominated in three days time.

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Reader Comments (8)

If Life According to Sam were 45 minutes long, there's no way it could win the Documentary Short award. It wouldn't be eligible. ;-)

I keep meaning to watch many of these, particularly The Crash Reel because Lucy Walker's films always look so amazing. Maybe after the nominations are announced?

Thanks for this wonderful series on underseen films.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Please God just let Stories We Tell be nominated. I need Sarah Polley to have an Oscar.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Thanks for sharing the sad news about Sam Berns, but that's a faulty link. My predictions, after seeing 8 of the 15 shortlisted: Stories We Tell, Act of Killing, The Square, 20 Feet from Stardom and either Dirty Wars or God Loves Uganda.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChip

Evan, I thought 45 was their cut off for short? Well, whatever the length...

January 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Chip -- thanks for the catch. the link is fixed.

Glenn the cut off is 40/41 minutes... wouldn't it be so weird if they started making "feature-length" films that were only 41 minutes?!

January 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I just watched Cutie and the Boxer, and it was so unbelievably touching. Recently just heard about Life According to Sam, and I'm going to add that to my list!

January 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

Doesn't the animation category say a feature film is, like, 70 minutes? What about the netherworld in between?

January 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn i don't actually know animation but in documentary the official rule is 40 and under is a short 40+ is a feature

January 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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