The most interesting Oscar race this year won’t be for Best Actor, Best Director, or Best Film. By the time we get to the ceremony next March, we’ll have had so many preemptive awards that those categories will be more or less decided. Sure, there’s always a Crash like surprise in the mix, but when was the last time a real dark horse took home the top prize? No, the more intriguing competition will be for a trophy that few televised talent fests focus on, with critical groups paying it equally uninspired lip service. Yet 2008 will go down as one of the great years for those fun fact films known as the documentary. And now that the Academy has narrowed down its potential nominees to an interesting collection of 15, perhaps it’s time for a little handicapping.
Looking over the titles featured, SE&L can safely say that it has seen almost half - seven in total. FYI - the full list is here:
At the Death House Door
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
Encounters at the End of the World
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
In a Dream
Made in America
Man on Wire
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Standard Operating Procedure
They Killed Sister Dorothy
Trouble the Water
Of this collection, we’ve experienced the horror of NOLA during and post Katrina (Trouble the Water), the fascinating story of Philipe Petit and his 1974 Twin Tower tightrope walk (Man on Wire), Werner Herzog’s trek to Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), the story of Earth’s most precious and addictive resource - oil (Fuel), the international embarrassment that was the US’s involvement in the tortures at Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure), our current credit crunch (I.O.U.S.A. ) and the story of renowned mosaic artist Julie Zagar and her husband Isaiah (In a Dream). Of that selection, the “you are there” realities of Trouble match the spellbinding personal chutzpah of Petit for a virtual tie for number one - and that’s without seeing the other eight offerings mentioned.
In past years, Michael Moore and his SiCKO/Fahrenheit 9-11/Bowling for Columbine hype have overwhelmed the documentary with mangled, “must win” mannerisms. No one else had a real chance when faced with said filmmaker’s jaunty jingoism. But 2008 was a downturn for Moore, his Slacker Uprising a mostly uninspired offering of cloying campus ennui. That meant that there was room for other entries to fill the gap. Of the several fine films SE&L experienced this year, Bigger, Stronger, Faster has to be one of the best. This troubling take on steroids, metered out in true journalistic fashion (bias, whenever obvious, is countered with troubling contradiction), presents its subject with humor, depth, and a great deal of personal insight.
Sputnik Mania was the kind of hilarious history lesson which a post-modern mindset would find hard to believe. Looking back on the Commie-concern of the ‘50s is even more frightening when filtered through a wasted War on Terror based on many of the same mob rule principles. Speaking of dated period railroading, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired illustrated quite convincingly that, while guilty as Hell of having sex with an underage girl, the famous director did everything to settle the case by the book. It was the starstruck LA judicial system, desperate to put the kibosh on several high profile celebrity crime controversies, that decided to make him an example…one that still exists nearly four decades later.
No one, not even SE&L, thought that Bill Maher’s riotous Religulous would make the short list, but not because it wasn’t a brilliant social satire in the Moore mode. No, the industry insiders who vote for such self-congratulations would never let a subject like the razor-sharp ridicule of faith go rewarded. And yet such “God” content made the prison rehabilitation expose, The Dhamma Brothers, a solid and uplifting delight. The idea of using Buddhism, and the staunch requirements of Vispassana (an ancient technique of fasting and meditation) to help convicts get in touch with their inner anger is inspiring - and the Establishment’s skeptical reaction to it all too typical.
The life of legendary surf idol Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his extended family would seem like standard documentary material - until you learn that all nine of his kids were raised in a tiny camper as the maverick medico and his sainted wife traveled the country, longing to find the American dream. Surfwise‘s warts and all portrait was one of 2008’s most powerful, and poignant. So was the soul stirring Young@Heart. As with many of the genre’s best, this film was disqualified since some of the material came from a BBC project started in 2004. Still, in the running or not, the tale of a group of senior citizens and their choral productions featuring modern music (Nirvana, Talking Heads, Coldplay) is the kind of rousing, revelatory film that renews your confidence in the medium.
Other missing in action titles that SE&L is certain should have earned some minor consideration include Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one of the best films on the late great journalist, and Trumbo, a take on the notorious blacklisted screenwriter. Dear Zachary offers a heartbreaking testament to a dead father on behalf of a son who never knew him, and The Cool School: How Los Angeles Learned to Love Modern Art discussed the movement which took the spotlight off New York and its vice-like grip on cultural criticism. And then there’s The Order of Myths, an unusual look at how Mardi Gras is celebrated in Mobile, Alabama. For over 300 years, race has been secretly served by clubs and organizations that, while preaching tolerance, confirm their bigotry behind closed doors.
Of course, the issue remains - with so many grand movies already mentioned, imagine the quality of the eight films on the official list that SE&L has yet to see. At the Death House Door is supposedly a searing anti-Death Penalty doc, while The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) focused on a family fleeing Laos during America’s secret bombing campaign during Vietnam. The Holocaust and its many unsung heroes get another incredible airing in Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, while a post-riot LA and a 14 acre community project sits at the center of The Garden. Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts seems self explanatory, while Made in America is actually a film about the longstanding gang feud between The Crips and Bloods. Finally, Pray the Devil Back to Hell discusses the rise of Liberia’s first female head of state, while the murder of a prominent activist forms the foundation of They Killed Sister Dorothy.
Thanks to DVD, and the ability of smaller films and cinematic types to gain wider distribution, the documentary has come of age. It’s no longer an elusive entertainment relegated to arthouse screenings and an eventual PBS rebroadcast. The 15 films highlighted by Oscar may not represent every worthy endeavor over the last 12 months, and critics can’t keep up with the sheer number of releases arriving on a weekly basis, let alone some painstaking labor of love from an independent party. Yet as the last few years indicate, each new documentary deserves at least some cursory attention. Fall asleep at this switch, and you could miss some amazing movies.