Best Documentary Feature is one of those categories that gets stuffed into the middle of the show on Oscar night, just before a commercial break. It is unfortunate, as "documentary" might be my favorite genre of film. This year features some excellent nominees, however, and I took it upon myself to watch them all. 

The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen

What happens when someone is responsible for the deaths of a thousand people, but is never held accountable? That is the focus of this powerful documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer. More than 40 years ago, two men were among the many who carried out mass killings in Indonesia, and who are today revered by the paramilitary groups the rule the nation. 

Under the guise of having these two men reenact their killings in the style of a Hollywood movie, Oppenheimer manages to capture two sides of these killers. A side that is proud of their role in their nation's history, and can even laugh about their actions. And a side tortured by the guilt of having killed hundreds of people. 

Despite this incredible subject, the documentary falls short is a few respects. It pays too little attention to the history, and leaves the audience to their own devices to learn about the background. It also spends a lot of time on irrelevant scenes constructed by the men to be part of their "Hollywood movie" about the killings. In the end it feels like a hipster documentary about crimes against humanity. It sacrifices gravitas for misplaced tone of melancholy. Rating:

Cutie and the Boxer

Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher

This is a documentary about "famed" painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko Shinohara. I put "famed" in quotes because I had never heard of this person before, and by the look of their apartment, I don't think he is particularly successful. That isn't meant to be a knock on their apartment though. Seeing these two artists, who struggle with poverty, devote themselves to their craft is one of the most interesting parts of this documentary. However, there is not much else there.

The other part of this documentary that might make it worth seeing is story inside Noriko's art. It tells the story of her marriage with Ushio, and is filled with misgivings about his alcoholism and lack of attention paid to her. Yet after 40 years of marriage, it still seems that they in love. Cute, right? Ugh. No, it isn't. Ushio is not a good guy, and his most "famous" works of art fit well into the category of "a five-year old can do that." I'm really not sure what the Academy saw in this other than some good editing. Rating: 


Dirty Wars

Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill

There is no doubt that Jeremy Scahill has an agenda. This documentary explores the consequences of the war in Afghanistan, both for the Afghan people and for American foreign policy. The use of drones and the operations of the formerly secret JSOC have cost many innocent people their lives, though Scahill takes it a bit further and questions the guilt of the intended targets as well.

After seeing this documentary, there is no doubt that in some instances, the U.S. got it wrong. But in others presented, the documentary longed for someone making the counter-argument. A significant portion is spent on Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen targeted and killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011. There was a lot about al-Awlaki I didn't know, but the way Scahill presents it is too open and shut. Not that he argues for his innocence, but that he argues against the killing of American citizens.

Nevertheless, this documentary was an incredible piece of investigative journalism. You cannot help while watching to think about how much Scahill has given up to pursue these unbelievable stories that would otherwise never be told. Not only does he take us to the Afghan families who have lost loved ones, he also takes us through a sea of Pentagon press releases outlining some alarming shifts in American foreign policy. It is well worth your time. Rating: 

The Square

Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer

A revolution happens before you eyes in this documentary about the protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square. Jehane Noujaim manages to cut through all of the media hype and tell the story of young people's efforts to bring an end to a brutal regime.

Like most Americans, I read about these protests casually, without passing too much judgement about them. I heard grumblings about something called the Muslim Brotherhood, and was unsure what to think when the military removed Mohamed Morsi from power last year. This documentary shined a bright light on those events, and brought them into focus, clarifying the religious and political tensions among these revolutionaries.

What is incredible about this documentary is how well it shows a small group of people seemingly pushing against the ocean, effecting change, and being disappointed in the aftermath. What is inspirational, is that these people refuse to give up. Every set back, every brutal attack, only seems to harden their resolve and increase their numbers. But the documentary does not try and render judgement. It leaves us worried and wondering about the future of  the 15th most populous nation on the planet. Needless to say, I will be following those events more closely now. Rating: 

20 Feet from Stardom

Morgan Neville

I love a documentary that makes me aware of something I already knew about. I already knew about rock and roll. But I wasn't aware that a surprisingly small group of back-up singers were responsible for so much of it. 20 Feet from Stardom manages to tell their story with charm and style.

What is most impressive is that Morgan Neville managed to avoid making this some sort of sob story. It could have easily devolved into a tale of an unfair studio system, but it didn't at all. It showed both the gratitude and the disappointment of some of these singers who longed for careers of their own, but are nevertheless proud and pleased with the work they've done. Rating: 


There were a couple of documentaries that got snubbed this year. I would have liked to see Blackfish and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks nominated in place of Cutie and the Boxer and 20 Feet from Stardom, but it is the way it is. If it were up to me, I would give the prize to The Square. It was an incredibly intimate portrait of a modern political revolution, and highlighted the complexities of a country few Americans know anything about past 30 BC or so. However, I think The Act of Killing is headed for a win. It has one of the most powerful scenes in any documentary ever, and despite its flaws, it manages to evoke a wide range of emotions from viewers. In other words, it is documentary Oscar bait. 

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