In today’s post, I will review the Best Documentary Feature category for this year’s Oscars. Let’s go!
The foundational event setting the stage for Collective is a fire in 2015 that broke out in a nightclub called Colectiv in Bucharest, Romania, which initially resulted in the death of 27 patrons and claimed nearly 40 more lives in the following weeks in light of Romania’s gravely deficient hospitals and public health infrastructure. It is these issues with Romania’s healthcare system which form the focus of the film, which follows a number of investigative journalists who delve into the bedrock of government fraud, corruption, and incompetency giving rise to a deadly public health crisis. Collective is certainly a compelling piece of investigative filmmaking, and it definitely paints a raw and harrowing picture of the Romanian government’s sheer ineptitude with respect to governance, especially as it pertains to administering its healthcare system. I will never forget the distressing footage of the fire itself and the shocking surreptitious video of the abhorrent hospital environment for the burn victims in the weeks after the fire. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Executive produced by Higher Ground Productions (founded by former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama), Crip Camp tells the story of a group of hippie teens who in the 1970s attended Camp Jened, a summer camp for youths with disabilities. The campers quickly formed an immense bond, and after their years at Camp Jened concluded, that unique sense of community breathed life into a budding civil rights movement seeking systematic change in the United States with respect to accessibility and disability rights. Although I am intimately familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (which codifies prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of disability) in light of my career as an employment lawyer, I was unaware of the fascinating story behind the journey to securing that critical piece of legislation. Crip Camp is an important film, which brings deserved attention to a critical civil rights movement. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
The Mole Agent
The setup for The Mole Agent is simple: The family of a nursing home resident in Chile tap a private investigator to hire an elderly man to go undercover at the nursing home to report back concerning whether or not the resident in question is being subjected to abuse. Enter Sergio Chamy, an 83-year-old man who answers the call to be the family’s spy. Although this synopsis likely sounds harrowing and depressing, this movie is far from that. The filmmakers present the story in a creative manner, which makes the film feel more like a spy thriller than a documentary. The highlight of The Mole Agent is Sergio, who epitomizes earnestness in the most charismatic way possible. He is a compelling lead, and he serves as a beautiful emotional hook for the overall story. Although I think a number of documentaries deserved an Oscar nod over it, The Mole Agent is still worth a watch. Streaming for free for subscribers to Hulu.
My Octopus Teacher
This film follows Craig Foster, a documentarian by trade, as he narrates the story of his seemingly unreal experience of befriending a common octopus while free diving in an underwater kelp forest near his home off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. To put it plainly, this film absolutely captivated me. I love nature documentaries, especially those that explore sea life, but My Octopus Teacher is vastly different from the likes of Sir David Attenborough’s critically acclaimed Blue Planet series. Here, Craig Foster is not a passive observer of the underwater world he explores. Instead, he actively engages. The story of his friendship with the titular octopus is surprisingly emotional, and the film ultimately evoked a number of diverse and intense emotions in me, ranging from sweet to distressing—I was fully invested in the exploration of their relationship. Also, Foster’s homemade underwater footage is mesmerizing, showing us a world we otherwise might never see. This is definitely one of the best documentaries in recent memory. Streaming for free for subscribers to Netflix.
This documentary by Garrett Bradley follows Sibil Fox Richardson as she spends over twenty years advocating for the release of her husband, who is serving a 60-year sentence in prison for an armed bank robbery they committed together. (Sibil served a few years for her role in the crime.) There couldn’t be a more apt title for a movie this year than Time. The film plays out almost as the documentary cousin of Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking narrative Boyhood—through home video footage spanning over two decades, combined with new footage chronicling her current fight to secure Rob’s clemency, the filmmakers skillfully present a tale of painful, yet resilient, perseverance against the backdrop of race relations as they particular pertain to the criminal justice system. This is an emotional documentary, in all the most inspirational ways. Streaming for free for subscribers to Amazon Prime.
Snubs and Other Great Documentaries
This past year, I watched somewhere in the ballpark of 25 documentaries, and in addition to the foregoing films, there were a handful of other wonderful documentaries released. Any of these could easily have been nominated this year in place of The Mole Agent and Collective. First, I was riveted by The Dissident, a film about the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of 2018. Despite the critical acclaim heaped upon this film, it barely saw the light of day for wider audiences—I concur with the filmmaker in believing this was due to political reasons associated with Saudi Arabia. Second, All In: The Fight for Democracy was a resilient tale of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and the topic of voter suppression in the United States. It is a thorough, well-crafted documentary, and it couldn’t be timelier in light of Georgia’s latest attempt to quash civic participation by black and brown communities. Additionally, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s intimate, imaginative, and darkly comedic documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead is a film I won’t soon forget—the documentary deftly portrays a daughter’s coming to grips with her father’s dementia by choregraphing and filming a number of possible ways Dick Johnson might die, with her father participating in the staged deaths.
But for me, the singular snub in this category was the Apple TV+ release Boys State, which previously won U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Boys State follows the 2018 American Legion Boys State, an annual summer program for high school boys (there is also a Girls State for high school girls) where, according to the Texas Boys State website, “each student becomes a part of the operation of his local, county, and state government” and is “exposed to the rights and privileges, the duties and the responsibilities, of a franchised citizen.” Boys State follows some very memorable characters, including wise-beyond-his-years lead Steven Garza, and the film is utterly compelling in its examination of the fascinating (and yet at times incredibly upsetting) political differences and ideologies shaping the lives of Gen Z high school boys in this country. The filmmakers definitely struck gold with this story, and it without a doubt deserved an Oscar nod this year.
Who Could Win: Time
Ever since nominations were first announced, this category has felt like a two-horse race, and that initial reaction has been corroborated by the betting odds. If the favorite doesn’t take home the Oscar for Best Documentary, expect the “upset” to come from Time, which is currently getting +250 odds.
Who Should Win: My Octopus Teacher
When I first turned on My Octopus Teacher, I really didn’t know what to expect. And yet, it captivated me in a way few documentaries have before. If I had a vote this year, it would most definitely be cast for My Octopus Teacher.
Who Will Win: My Octopus Teacher
Out of all the nominees, Time currently has the most wins in a Best Documentary (or equivalent) category, picking up victories from the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and National Society of Film Critics. However, in terms of vital wins this season, My Octopus Teacher has gotten the nod, winning at the Producers Guild of America Awards and British Academy Film Awards. This category is a close one, but with -335 betting odds, I think the Oscar goes to My Octopus Teacher this year.