Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Will "Life Itself" Get the Ode to Ebert into the Best Documentary Race?

Roger Ebert
When it comes to film criticism, who is the one name that most people think of? Not just you, but your grandmother or anyone who will likely never see an Akira Kurosawa film. Who is the name that is so trustworthy that their opinion embodies a greater meaning more than the film itself? In the history of film, no name has been more deserving and synonymous with this as Roger Ebert. For several decades, he was the premiere critic not only with his iconic At the Movies show, but his reviews in the Chicago Tribune. Love him or hate him, he is an important figure that has been there for over half of cinema's very existence. With all of this said, is it possible, even remotely that director Steve James' Life Itself will stand any chance at getting this ode to a legend an Oscar?

There is no need to go on at length about Ebert's influence. However, it does seem poignant that James is the director behind this documentary. For those unaware, James made a documentary called Hoop Dreams in the 90's that owed a lot of its success to Ebert and critic partner Gene Siskel. Like a lot of filmmakers, Ebert was a voice so powerful that he could get films of importance seen by general masses. Hoop Dreams is an unprecedented champion in this category. It even went on to get nominated for an Oscar, just not in the Best Documentary race. It got in the Best Editing category: a baffling statement considering its now iconic place in the medium.

Even if James has never been in the Oscar race since, there does seem to be some deep respect in making this tribute. Along with talking heads and archival footage, the film is likely to be nothing but a look at the life of one impressively important man. Considering that the past two winners of the Best Documentary category have been about music (Searching for Sugar Man, 20 Feet from Stardom), there is a good chance that no matter how sentimental things get, the film could get in solely on the bias interest that this is an embrace of a movie icon. It has already received many rave reviews and with the Academy Awards ceremony last year acknowledging Ebert's passing, I do feel like he is a significant enough figure to be in this camp.

Of course, the Best Documentary race is different from Best Picture. The top category has just recently gotten out of a phase of rewarding performance art films. With Argo being the most blatant, the Academy has a love for "movies about movies helping society" and for three years straight, had winners focusing on similar themes. This isn't bad (I love The Artist), but it does seem regressive in acknowledging other fields. Even then, it does seem like Best Documentary winners come from a more upbeat place of recognition. I would hate to see Life Itself reduced to a lackluster homage, but I have trouble people not seeing it and it becoming something more profoundly important solely on subject matter.

Check out the trailer:

If there is one detractor, it is that it looks like talking heads footage. While the Academy doesn't entirely discredit these type of films, they do seem to not be as popular. Just look back at last year's famous snub for Blackfish. Even if the subject matter was important, the execution reflected really manipulative techniques that felt lazy and one-sided when compared to the masterpiece The Act of Killing. There was a reason that it was not included: emotional manipulation. Sure, it lead to causal change, but only in choosing to traumatize audiences through talking heads. 

I am not saying that Life Itself is likely to have this manipulative intentions, especially with James proving himself an impressive documentarian, but it cannot be ruled out. If the Academy notices the effort as being solely to make you recognize Ebert's greatness as opposed to showing it, then maybe we'll have an issue. These are all topics I plan to address next week after the film becomes available on video on demand this Friday. Until then, I have little doubt that we will be seeing this film being ignored in the final race. Ebert was too powerful of a figure to let that happen.

Is Life Itself going to be Steve James' shot at a Best Documentary win? Will the Academy recognize it solely because of Roger Ebert's accomplishments? Do talking head documentaries hold any weight to more challenging techniques?

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