February 15, 2012 by abbyo
It’s Oscar season! The big ceremony is February 26, and I thought that I’d take the opportunity this week to talk about the documentary category, since this week is a “Non-Fiction Section” week. The Best Documentary Feature category is really interesting this year, and I think it does a decent job of showcasing a great year for documentaries.
I usually have a lot of beef with the documentary category, if not for the nominees then almost always for the winner. It’s usually used as an opportunity for Hollywood to show off its politics by nominating documentaries that deal with controversial political subjects, then picking the most outspoken, liberal one of the bunch to get the award. Not to downplay the importance or quality of movies like “Inside Job” or “Taxi to the Dark Side,” but more often than not, the Academy misses a big opportunity with the choices they make. Picking the right movies for Best Documentary Feature can introduce viewing audiences to the unique power of documentary storytelling, and show that they’re not just dry historical pieces, or radical political rants. The Academy finally got it right a couple of years ago when James Marsh’s wonderful “Man on Wire” won the category. It’s the kind of movie that should be nominated more often—documentaries that people will actually want to see, and might just make them want to see more.
While there are loads of great documentaries that weren’t nominated—some of which didn’t even make the short list of potential nominees—the films that were nominated are a diverse group, and most of them represent serious achievements in the medium. What this tells me is that 2011 was an extraordinarily good year for documentaries. It was a year that gave us Marsh’s latest, “Project Nim,” as well as “Tabloid,” the latest film from the legendary Errol Morris, and “The Interrupters,” from “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James, among many others. And these aren’t even the nominees. Here’s a little bit of information about the movies that made the cut, as well as ones that didn’t, but are worth a look.
Pina: “Pina” is an incredible achievement in documentary filmmaking, partly because arthouse great Wim Wenders is behind the camera, but mostly because it’s shot in 3D. That’s right, a 3D documentary. And you know what? It’s actually worth shelling out the extra dough for those dinky glasses. “Pina,” a performance documentary showcasing the work of the late choreographer Pina Bausch, is gorgeous, accessible, and surprisingly fun to watch, mainly because the use of 3D really engages the audience in a way you might not even get during a live performance.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory: This is the latest in a series of films about the West Memphis 3, three young men who were falsely accused of the murder of three young boys. The “Paradise Lost” documentary series follows the men’s trial, and examines the case in-depth. During the making of this final film, the men were actually released from prison, and directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were lucky enough to catch the end of their ordeal on tape, as well as get a definitive ending for their series.
Hell and Back Again: A documentary about a soldier’s post-war readjustment. Director Danfung Dennis follows Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris, who has trouble fitting back into civilian life both physically and emotionally. Harris’ leg is severely injured in combat, and he becomes addicted to painkillers upon his return home. Given the way the Academy tends to vote in the documentary category, this film and “Paradise Lost” are the two most likely choices to win. One is a political documentary that points out the horrors of war, and the other represents the real-life power of documentary storytelling.
The Arbor: Clio Barnard’s film about the life and death of playwright Andrea Dunbar is easily one of the most creative uses of the documentary format in the last year, and it’s a real shame it isn’t being recognized by the Academy. Barnard uses a series of audio interviews done with Dunbar’s family and artistic collaborators, and plays them under footage of actors who lip-sync the words. It allows for some fascinating interpretations of the stories told in the interviews, and onscreen drama that becomes its own kind of visual art. Looming over the whole thing is Dunbar, who appears in stock footage like a manipulative ghost. It’s creepy, touching, and incredibly well thought out.
The Interrupters: Steve James’ latest documentary tells the story of a year in the life of CeaseFire, a group of reformed former gang members in Chicago that have dedicated their lives to stopping gang violence in their city. James and producer Alex Kotlowitz follow members of the group as they monitor gang violence in their neighborhoods, talk to members of the community, break up fights, and counsel gang members. At times harrowing, but always touching, “The Interrupters” is a solid example of documentary filmmaking that not only highlights the problems of modern society, but shows what people are doing to help.
Buck: “Buck” actually made the academy’s shortlist, and I was a little shocked to see it didn’t make the nominations, since it’s a total crowd-pleaser in the mold of “Man on Wire.” It’s the kind of film that would make even the least enthusiastic audience member want to check out more films like it. “Buck” is about Buck Brannaman, an acclaimed “Horse Whisperer” (he was the real-life basis for Robert Redford’s character in the 1998 movie). A victim of abuse as a child, Brannaman uses his experience to relate to difficult horses, who are often victims themselves. Director Cindy Meehl brings audiences along with Brannaman in the field as he trains horses, consults with owners, and more often than not offers therapy to animal and owner alike. One of the highlights of last year’s True/False Festival was having Brannaman on site. He was a great guy to be around, and came off exactly the way Meehl portrays him in the film.
So there you have it: three notable movies that made the cut, and three that didn’t. There are plenty more documentaries from 2011 that are worth checking out, but these are as good a starting point as any if you’re just beginning to get interested in documentaries.