I noticed that all five of the Academy Award nominees for Best Feature Length Documentary were now available for home video consumption, so I thought I’d give them all a watch! I’ve already extensively covered the uncomfortable “comedy” of The Act of Killing, but here’s what I thought of the other four:
This documentary is about the 2011 Egyptian revolution that began with a huge protest in Tahrir Square, where an entire nation of people banded together and put aside their differences to attempt to get corrupt president Hosni Mubarak out of office (which they succeeded in doing). It was a great, proud moment for the country; only to be followed next by the struggle of having the (often violent) military be in control of the country until a new president could be voted on, leading to more protests in the Square. Then when the new president came into power (Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood), all of a sudden the protesters no longer had a strictly political, human-conscious unification, because religion had now entered the debate and it threw the sides into an undebatable screaming match of trying to claim whose religious views were the “right” ones. So yeah, it’s kind of a messy situation…
The documentary mainly follows a specific group of young people, highlighting three of them for the most part, all from different aspects of the conflict. It has some brutally intense footage of the protests, including watching people get gunned down and run over by military trucks. I’m not going to go into a religious debate about who is doing the “right” things over there, especially because I’m not entirely knowledgable with the specific religions in that region; but I tended to side with the young people who tossed religion aside entirely, and just hoped that their government would stop bullying their own people, and would just treat everyone like equals. And frankly, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask for. That’s why America is so great in that regard, we don’t criminalize people for wanting to worship Wiccan gods or go to a My Little Pony convention. We only discriminate you if you’re gay, poor, foreign, or bla-… oh, yeah, nevermind… BUT STILL NOT AS BAD AS EGYPT.
At the very least, The Square is awesome because it makes entitled American 18-30 year olds, who think they are political heroes making a dramatic difference in the world for simply going to a voting booth and pressing a button, look like vapid, meaningless goobers in comparison to the youth of Egypt, who are literally fighting for their lives in hopes of change to their basic human rights. Nothing bothers me more than when I see a news piece about an 18-year-old who is excited to “change the country” with her first opportunity to vote. Yo, Micaela/Mikayla/Mikaela/Mykayla, watch The Square (or anything like it), and then get back to us about what kind of a difference you’re actually making in this country. YOU’RE NOT IMPORTANT.
9 out of 10
This film follows journalist Jeremy Scahill, in his attempt to be this generation’s Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now, as he drones poetry into his dull voice-over about his attempts to uncover and expose secret American “wars” that are happening outside of the public’s knowledge. It’s not the worst subject matter in the world, actually, it’s pretty interesting, in theory. But I just fucking hate it when the narrator of a documentary takes almost ALL the focus of the actual story and puts it on their own personal struggles with obtaining the story. This is First Comes Love, but with more guns. Dirty Wars may have been great if it was a more straightforward recounting of actual facts, instead of a documentary about how important the work Scahill is doing for everybody. (clap) (clap) (clap) GREAT JOB, BUDDY. THANKS FOR THE SACRIFICE. (thumbs up)
Scahill even goes into a vignette about how he “can’t adapt to civilian life” after his rough time as a journalist (showing him struggling to purchase boring food at a boring grocery store), and then cuts to shots of himself sitting in a pitch black room with a little desk lamp lighting his face while he sips a glass of whiskey. What a douche. I think there were more fabricated shots of him doing reenactments of his own personal research than there were of legitimate documentary footage. And I’ve never seen an interviewer cut back to reaction shots of themselves as much as this guy did. He’s in love with himself, plain and simple, and he thinks he’s hot shit because of his super cool, dangerous job; and it took away from pretty much everything he was supposed to be talking about. Instead of us watching footage of a victim before he was killed, we are forced to watch footage of Scahill watching footage of a victim before he was killed. It got to the point where the self-indulgence was driving me crazy, and if I had to watch one more shot of Scahill staring introspectively into the distance while he compares his situation to Greek mythology, I was going to break my TV. And the dude is just SO boring to watch do things. And so freaking serious about everything. I bet he’s a guy who you meet at a party, and you’re talking about how great Argo was with someone, and he interjects and kills the mood by pointing out the inaccuracies of how that culture would interact with Americans, and how much harder it was for him to travel to Somalia and meet with tribal governments. “Dude, Jeremy, lighten up. I just like watching John Goodman movies…”
A big whiff here from the Academy, in my opinion, that could have been replaced by a less boneheaded documentary, like Blackfish, The Crash Reel, or A Band Called Death. Scahill’s schtick wore me down big time. I was waiting the entire time for him to be laying on a bed staring up at a ceiling fan.
5.5 out of 10
Cutie and the Boxer
This one is about elderly artists Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko, and their 40 year marriage in New York City. What starts as a cute showcase of their present day lifestyle as aged artists still practicing their work, the doc slowly starts to reveal how they got there and the struggles they went through with poverty, alcoholism, and regret. But still, above all else, the art they create remains the most important aspect of their lives. Ushio was a “famous” avant-garde artist in the 1960s and 70s, and has always claimed the spotlight for himself. The second half of the film reveals what happens when Noriko begins to become more artistically independent and her current work starts to get showcased, and the effect it has on their relationship.
It’s like a quirky dramatic indie narrative film about a long married couple, but with real life subjects. It even has the same kind of cinematography as a typical indie. It’s a quietly beautiful little film, with many sad and happy moments alike. But more sad ones. Sometimes absolutely heartbreaking. If you’ve ever tried to pursue a creative career, I’m sure you’ve felt some of the struggle in this doc at some point. But then it comes back around to the most honest statement about relationships they could make. Ushio and Noriko are in love, and regardless of the constant strife between the two, the bad things have to inspire the good, or what’s the point? Gotta love a documentary that actually has an arc! This is one of those great emotionally driven type docs that I’m almost always happy to sit down and watch.
8.5 out of 10
Twenty Feet From Stardom
And then finally, this one is about the unknown stories of the background singers that have created harmonies for some of the biggest music acts of all time. It’s an interesting look at an often overlooked area of music. It tells a lot of people’s stories, about how some try to make the hard walk to the front of the stage (so to speak), and others take their background role with pride for simply improving the songs they are part of. Hey, not everybody can be Whitney Houston [plays “I Will Always Love You” on repeat for five hours]. It also covers the problems with risqué dress codes, having Phil Spector dick you over (I assume that happened a lot), having to sing the vocals on the Growing Pains theme song, and Michael Jackson dying a month before you were supposed to go on a world tour with him.
Though the focus of the doc is on the unknowns, there’s a lot of star power featured throughout, from Bruce Springsteen to Mick Jagger to Stevie Wonder to Bette Midler. At the very least, you get to hear some good stories behind some amazing tunes that were heavy on background vocals (Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From my Friends”, David Bowie’s “Young Americans”, Lynyrd Skyndryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, etc). It’s just extremely fascinating to hear some of my favorite classic rock songs, and the stories behind them. When I listen to “Gimme Shelter”, it’s easy to give all the credit to the Stones, and not the woman who absolutely belts out “Raaaaaaaaaaaaaape MUUUUURDER!” Well, if you want to hear her story, here you go, it’s in this. But be warned, you’ll have to listen to some Sting music as well. ROXANNE OR GTFO.
However, this is the most straightforward, least-stylish, interview-heavy documentary out of the five nominees. It’s fun and informational, and moves at a decent pace, but I tend to like fly on the wall type stuff more than docs like these that just feel like history lessons. DESPITE THAT, I still enjoyed the hell out of this. If you’re into classic rock and soul and/or singing in general, this is definitely worth checking out. Unlike Cutie and the Boxer, where artists are struggling to simply enter the limelight, Twenty Feet of Stardom proves you can be meaningful by just being in the background. It might make you listen to some of your favorite songs with a different perspective.
8.5 out of 10
So, Who’s Gonna Win?
The Square is my personal favorite of the five, but The Act of Killing (probably my personal second favorite) is just too unique and unlike anything any of us have ever seen before, plus it’s both highly political/world conscious AND about the power of cinema to do interesting things. So my guess is that it will take the award.