The countdown for the Oscars began and five documentaries are left in the race for the Best Feature Documentary Award. My bets are on 20 Feet from Stardom and The Act of Killing. But on a more nuanced note, I would give each of the five a different prize.
The Oscar for the most entertaining, complex and touching story goes to 20 Feet from Stardom. The film is directed by Morgan Neville and it already won the IDFA 2013 Award for Best Music Documentary. At IDFA I missed it for some reason but I recently watched it and had this almighty feeling of ‘who needs fiction films when you can have this’? Yes, I feel this sometimes, and that’s just me, I always prefer nonfiction to fiction in films, especially when nonfiction is well done and told.
The film is the story of some of the most famous backup singers. Have you heard of Lisa Fischer? of Claudia Lennear? Tata Vega? Darlene Love? Of course you haven’t. Neither have I, not until I watched this film. Still, we all have heard them, many many times. These women sang with some of the most famous singers and bands, names like Ray Charles and Elvis and then David Bowie and The Rolling Stones, just to name a few. They recorded albums with these famous singers and bands. But hardly anyone noticed them. They have incredible voices, yet, when they try to have their own acts and shows and music, most of the time it doesn’t work.
20 Feet from Stardom tells a super engaging story about chance and place and about something no one likes to think about: sometimes, no matter how good you are and how much you try, you might not succeed. Besides that, the women featured in the film are from different generations. Some of them seem to have seen it all, witnessed it all in the music industry of the last…60 years. And more, they are history themselves. Others, like Judith Hill, who recently took part in The Voice competition, try to make a solo career.
I think the films makes one think and question the idea of success. And that’s besides the film being really entertaining, starting as a TV doc and evolving into this complex story, with many sub-stories, music, archive footage and interviews with big rock stars.
The Oscar for the most daring (and painful!) film and most original in approach goes to The Act of Killing. I wrote about it here. I have mixed feelings about it, but no matter how mixed, I think this film needs to be watched.
The Oscar for the most bittersweet story goes to Cutie and the Boxer. Directed by Zachary Heinzerling, it is the story of this japanese couple of artists living in New York, boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. A boxing painter, I learned, is someone who puts on boxing gloves, dips them in paint and than hits the canvas.
Ushio and Noriko have been married for 40 years and their relationship has been far from perfect. They are both known in the art world, especially Ushio, and still they are very poor, struggling to pay bills. What I liked is that the idea of the artist being poor, which is often romanticized, is so real and raw in this film. It’s real life, with everything it involves. I also liked the feeling that for these people making art is not optional, it is who they are and everything else is built around it.
The film portrays the relationship between Ushio and Noriko since the beginning and centers on Noriko, now getting old, no longer putting herself second in their relationship and finally trying to find her artistic identity. You watch their daily life, hear their stories and see them quietly and constantly working on their art. And it’s impossible not to feel both for Noriko and for her troubled boxing painter husband.
The Oscar for the most far reaching piece of investigative reporting goes to Dirty Wars. Directed by Rick Rowley, it is a film about this journalist, Jeremy Scahill, who looks into what’s behind the USA’s covert wars. He tells the stories of the collateral damages of the so-called secret operations, damages that are often pushed under the carpet. And he points at the twisted logic behind targeted killings and how the list of targeted people moved from a list of people considered dangerous to one including people who might be dangerous at a point. A list always expanding, justifying any abuse.
I found this film thrilling, pertinent and important. And even though its synopsis sounded quite dull, I found myself really engaged in its narrative and its arguments.
A must see.
The Square gets the Oscar for a film I already saw several times, in different ways. I read many good reviews about this documentary. Watching this film, directed by Jehane Noujaim, was a struggle for me for several reasons. The main reason is that I already know what happened in Egypt in the last years and I already know what the situation is now, and it is difficult to follow a story you already know, only that this time with different characters in it. I think the story does not transcend the border of the events to give an in depth view, something more, something comprehensive. Since the beginning you already know where this is going and everything is spiced up with some ‘revolutionary’ platitudes, some of the characters have plenty of those to tell.