Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Look at the Best Documentary Feature Category Contenders

From Stories We Tell
It was announced today that the Academy has released the final 15 films eligible in the Best Documentary Feature category. In one of the more obscure races in the annual ceremony, the category looks to highlight films that are both informative as well as potentially life changing. It may be one of the few significant categories that most people aren't familiar of whenever the telecast happens. As years have gone on, I have become more and more invested in the runnings, and sure enough, this year has quite a few interesting selections. Read more to find out what they are as well as a few thoughts on the films. 

The issue of Best Documentary Feature is that I often feel like I don't know the nominees. Last year, I started an attempt to peruse the selections in order to widen my appreciation. Even then, the category is a tricky subject, as while How to Survive a Plague is definitely a powerhouse with effective impact, they aren't going for traditional punches of emotion, but bleak levels of information. Some may be too much while others are populous enough like Searching For Sugar Man and others are more content-heavy like The Invisible War that the category is one of the most diverse and intriguing categories. Even if the films lose, they are guaranteed to be seen by a wider audience just by being nominated. For that, I am excited about this category's potential every year.

In fact, when discovering what the top 15 were, I was surprised by how many I was familiar with. It is true that I haven't seen half of them, but I was aware of their placement in the discussion. Some I do even plan to see. For now, it looks like a really solid line-up that I am curious to see how things will continue when they are eventually dwindled down even further to the final five. Much like the Best Foreign Film category, I am not an expert on this field, though I express interest in learning more. If you have any further information regarding how to acquire and learn more, please feel free to share.

The contenders are:

The Act of Killing
20 Feet From Stardom
The Armstrong Lie
Stories We Tell
Tim's Vermeer
The Square
The Crash Reel
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
First Cousin Once Removed
God Loves Uganda
Life According to Sam
Pussy Riot: A Punk's Prayer
Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington

My first initial shock is that some of these films are titles that I assumed wouldn't qualify. Based on my general understanding, I thought that the Academy ran its regulations based on the rule that the contenders had to have a minimum of a week-long theatrical run in order to qualify. Looking down this list, I immediately see Pussy Riot: A Punk's Prayer, which was part of an HBO Documentary series that I saw and reviewed on Optigrab. The documentary itself is well worth checking out, but along with First Cousin Once Removed (also part of HBO Documentary series), I realize now that I need to do some serious investigation into the rules of the category.

However, it is an impressive line-up from the titles that I am familiar with. The Act of Killing appears to be the critical favorite at this point. With 97% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it ranks as one of the highest documentaries of 2013 and has been considered in general one of the best films of the year, even to the point of calling it a rare achievement. It is on my list of films to see and has been for many months. Much like last year's The Imposter, I feel like this could be part of the rennaisance of documentaries being more accessible to the public by blurring the line between fact and nonfictional narration. 

Besides Pussy Riot: A Punk's Prayer, which is effective and worth seeking out, the title that I have seen is Stories We Tell. As stated awhile back I appreciate director Sarah Polley's output, though I am left wondering why her documentary on her family has gotten an exceptional level of praise. It is nowhere near as effective as most of the other competitors. While it chooses to explore the art of story telling, it is one of the Polley family, who I don't feel are interesting enough to carry an entire documentary. It is fine, though not exceptional or groundbreaking in any ways besides artistic creativity. I wouldn't be offended if it got nominated, but at the same time, I feel like there has been a lot better that has come out.

Lisa Fischer in 20 Feet From Stardom
Of the remaining titles, the most baffling on paper is 20 Feet From Stardom. The documentary follows back-up singers to some of today's biggest bands. This seems like a farfetched selection on the grounds that it almost feels like it is just an attempt to appeal to the populous and create an underdog story that is heartwarming. Of course, I haven't seen it and with last year's Searching for Sugar Man eventually winning, it isn't too much of a surprise if this ends up getting more credit and gets some respect for not being dark or depressing as most of the more hard hitting films.

Of course, the real favorite for me on this list is Blackfish. Despite having played in theaters and on CNN a few times, I have yet to catch it. The trailer is a striking thing of beauty as it looks at the treatment of whales at Sea World. It almost feels like the breakout phenomenon from these nominees largely because it has been in the discussion ever since. People who don't usually watch these type of films have been talking about it and in that regards should be enough success to at very least get it nominated. I hope to see it soon and will write up a review shortly after sharing my thoughts.

I am not familiar enough with the rest to give some personal thoughts. Hopefully as the discussion becomes more concrete, I will be able to do so. As it stands, there are a few surprises that I was expecting. For starters, my vague understanding of the category lead me to believe that the Julian Assange documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks would be a strong competitor, as it is from the documentary filmmaker who made previous winner Taxi From the Dark Side. I do believe that there is such thing as an Oscar bias and thus carries over to the documentary field. Apparently not as much as I think, which is somewhat of a relief.

Hopefully this has at very least started a discussion about the Best Documentary Feature category. Again, I would love to better understand how it works, though I am impressed with how many familiar titles there are here. That alone feels like an achievement. In fact, it is looking to be one of the most solid categories this year. It doesn't appear to be nearly as dour or depressing as last year, though then again would suggest that it isn't as impacting. I don't know. All I know is that I look forward to hearing more about these titles.

Who do you think will win? Is the popularity of Blackfish going to help lead it to a nomination? Does Stories We Tell manage to survive in the race because of its creativity?


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