The 93rd Oscars – Best Documentary Feature

film projector

In today’s post, I will review the Best Documentary Feature category for this year’s Oscars. Let’s go!

The Nominees

Collective

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.

Time

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.

Conclusion

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.

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 6 – O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America is a sports documentary feature directed by Ezra Edelman and produced by ESPN Films. The film, released in five installments (and in a limited theatrical release) by ESPN as part of its 30 for 30 series, depicts the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson.

To put it simply: O.J.: Made in America is one of the greatest documentary films I have ever seen (and to be honest, it just might be my favorite). With the award-winning FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson and Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute documentary here, 2016 seemed like 1995 all over again—O.J. Simpson was everywhere! For many people across the nation, O.J. Simpson and the “trial of the century” are only concepts they have heard about from stories. For many others, the tumultuous times surrounding the Hall of Fame running back’s acquittal of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman seem just like yesterday. Considering the varying degrees of O.J. knowledge, Ezra Edelman executed his Made in America project in such a way as to fully explain the social significance of O.J. Simpson and his 1995 trial to any novice, while also uncovering new plot threads for those that lived through it in real time.

The reason O.J. Simpson and his infamous trial were so enthralling at the time—and continue to be today—is because that story had everything, including the perfect blend sports, fame, and race. Ezra Edelman captures the historical impact of O.J. Simpson brilliantly. While Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson delved deep into the story at the time of the trial, Edelman explored the complete story of O.J. Simpson—the film essentially spans Simpson’s entire life. Edelman vividly examines the early part of Simpson’s life, prior to his fame and fortune, but he is at his best when depicting the social significance of Simpson, a black man, being the most adored figure in America. At a time when black athletes were using their platform to stand for social justice and bring about change, Simpson stood by the motto, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Edelman fiercely investigates how O.J.’s stance of transcending race played the central role in making him a figure that white people could adulate. The story of O.J. Simpson’s fame is one of the most fascinating real-life character studies to ever exist, and Edelman’s examination of this enigmatic figure is spectacular.

A story about O.J. Simpson would not be complete without a vigorous survey of the 1995 murder trial. To capture the spirit of Simpson’s trial, Edelman included interviews with many key figures, including Marcia Clark, Bill Hodgman, Gil Garcetti, Carl Douglas, F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, and even the notorious Mark Fuhrman. Edelman takes a vividly introspective look at one of the most recognized events in TV history, and he does so with immeasurable social awareness. Edelman digs into O.J.’s horrifying pattern of domestic violence against Nicole and the role it played in reshaping his perception among a significant portion of the general public; however, Edelman also unveils the role of institutional racism in molding black Americans’ perspective on police brutality and prejudice. The O.J. Simpson trial revealed an intense divisiveness in American society, and Ezra Edelman’s exploration of that discord is superb. O.J.: Made in America is not rated.

O.J.: Made in America trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrB3rOcrJxg

Academy Award nominations for O.J.: Made in America:

Best Documentary Feature (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. La La Land
  2. Fences
  3. Zootopia
  4. Nocturnal Animals

My Review of the 85th Academy Awards

Well, this year’s Oscars have officially come and gone, and at this point, I am already excited for next year’s show.  But before I start preparing for another amazing year in film, I wanted to share my reactions of last night’s broadcast with all of you.  Even though Seth MacFarlane provided some hilarious laughs, in the end I felt he was just another average host.  I hope next year the Academy employs someone that can keep me feeling pleasantly entertained for the entire show.

Speaking of the entire show, once again, this year’s broadcast was WAY too long.  This is one thing the Academy needs to continue working on fixing because by the end, most viewers were bored and tired.  One of my favorite things about this year’s show, though, was dedicating the ceremony’s theme to music in film.  As you probably saw in an earlier post of mine, I truly feel music is the most important part of a movie in regards to creating feeling and emotion within the viewer.  The various musical performances added an authentic flare to the Oscars.

This year’s Academy Awards had some awesome moments, some not-so-awesome moments, and some downright unforgettable moments, and I am using this post to share my reactions to some of these moments with you:

Best Moment: (Les Misérables performance)

In a night centered on the theme of music in movies, the cast of Les Misérables stole the show.  Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and Aaron Tveit all reunited on stage to perform a combination of three songs from the film: “Suddenly,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” and “One More Day.”  I enjoyed each of these songs in the actual movie, but I was quite glad to see these amazing songs performed once more by this astounding ensemble—definitely the highlight of the show for me.

Worst Moment: (Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance)

Catherine Zeta-Jones returned to the Oscars stage a decade after her musical film Chicago took home six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  Adding to the theme of music in movies, Zeta-Jones performed “All That Jazz” from Chicago.  Even though she did an amazing job in the original film and has put together a pretty successful Broadway career, her performance at the Oscars was beyond dreadful.  She was clearly lip-synching and her faux singing was even more horrendous than Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live a few years ago.  It was most definitely a forgettable portion of the show last night.

Most Endearing Moment: (Acceptance Speech for Inocente)

When the filmmakers for the winner of Best Documentary Short gave their acceptance speech, they included a heartfelt sentiment: they brought the subject of their short film on stage.  The short film is about a teenage artist, Inocente Izucar, who is living homeless in San Diego, California.  Through the attention she has received from the short movie, she is no longer homeless and is making progress as a professional artist.  The filmmakers brought her on stage to recognize the way she has turned her life around in such a short time, and the moment was genuinely endearing.

Most Boring Moment (Barbara Streisand’s performance)

After an already long presentation of this year’s “In Memoriam,” songstress Barbara Streisand performed “The Way We Were” in a special tribute to Marvin Hamlisch.  Even though her rendition of this song originally won the Academy Award for Best Original Song nearly 40 years ago, I was bored out of my mind by her 2013 performance.  I understand it is a sentimental song and added to the “In Memoriam” moment, but this portion of the show dragged on way too long and the song virtually put me to sleep.

WTF Moment: (Tie for Best Sound Editing)

Even though I am a dedicated fan of the Oscars, I was just as shocked as everyone when the Best Sound Editing category ended in a tie.  Yes, a tie with two winners—the sound editors for both Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall received the award.  After doing some research, it turns out that this was actually the sixth occurrence of a tie at the Academy Awards.  The first tie was in 1932 when Frederic March from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Wallace Beery from The Champ each shared the Oscar for Best Actor.  The most recent tie was in 1995 when Frank Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Trevor tied for Best Live Action Short Film.

Best Monologue Joke: (Ben Affleck and Argo)

Seth MacFarlane began the show discussing some of the films up for major awards.  He commented on the snubbing of Ben Affleck for Best Director: “Argo tells the previously classified story about an American hostage rescue in post-revolutionary Iran.  The film was so top-secret that the film’s director is unknown to the Academy.”

Worst Monologue Joke (Tarantino and his usage of the “N” word)

Seth MacFarlaneWhile discussing the controversy Django Unchained has received for its usage of the “N” word, MacFarlane said, “I’m told it’s actually okay for Quentin Tarantino to use that word because he thinks he’s black.”  Hardly anyone laughed and Seth quickly jumped to the next joke after realizing this one was a dud.

Monologue joke I hated to laugh at, but did anyway: (Chris Brown and Rihanna)

While explaining the storyline of Django Unchained, MacFarlane said, “This is the story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who’s been subjected to unthinkable violence.  Or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie.”

Best Acceptance Speech: (Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor)

Becoming the first actor in the history of the Oscars to win the Academy Award for Best Actor three times, Daniel Day-Lewis had plenty to be happy about.  His acceptance speeches have always been more than eloquent, and this one was no different; however, he showed a lighter side of himself by joking with presenter Meryl Streep, stating that he was actually supposed to play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and she was supposed to play Honest Abe in Lincoln.  He has always been a stand-up professional, and even though I felt a couple other nominees should have won this award, he gave a humble speech celebrating his win.

Worst Acceptance Speech: (Claudio Miranda for Best Cinematography)

The cinematographer for Life of Pi received his first Academy Award last night.  And if he wins in the future, hopefully he learns to make a better speech.  He was breathing as if he had just run a marathon, and he was staring into space and making odd noises in between sentences.  He started getting way too much into detail about specific camera shots from the film and could hardly get his words out.  I know he was happy and overwhelmed, but it was odd to watch.

Biggest Surprise (Ang Lee for Best Director)

85th Annual Academy Awards - ShowWhile most people were angry that Ben Affleck was snubbed in this category, it was a common consensus that this award was Steven Spielberg’s to lose.  Lincoln has been one of the most recognized films of the year, and with Affleck out of the category, it seemed like a guarantee that Spielberg would go home with the gold.  However, Ang Lee, the director of Life of Pi, shocked everyone by winning over the heavyweight favorite.  Also, for the first time since the Oscars ceremony held in 2006, the winner of the Best Director award was not the winner of the Best Picture award—interestingly enough, the last time this happened, it was in fact Ang Lee who won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain but lost to Crash in the Best Picture category.

Best Quotes from my family’s Oscar Watch Party: (Leslie Froman and Marcia Towle)

While watching the Academy Awards with my family, some unforgettable quotes were uttered, and I feel the need to share these with you as an added bonus.  During William Shatner’s cameo appearance in the monologue, he mentioned the Academy Awards, to which my girlfriend Leslie remarked, “Hang on, rewind that.  He messed up.  He said ‘Academy Awards’ instead of ‘Oscars.’”  Yes, she learned last night for the first time that the Academy Awards and the Oscars were actually one and the same.  The next best quote was from my own mother.  As they announced the nominees for Best Supporting Actor, they showed a clip from Tommy Lee Jones’ role as Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.  During the clip, my mom said, “He is an ugly Lincoln!”  No, Mom, that’s not Lincoln.