When looking at the field for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar this year, it's tempting to lump them into two specific categories: issue movies and puff pieces. This is likely a somewhat reductive way to look at these documentaries (or any movies in general), but it's difficult not to see the obvious gulf between the two halves of the nominees. On one side you've got three intense pieces about foreign conflict in The Act of Killing (a unique look at the history of genocide in Indonesia as described by the winners), The Square (the protestors of Tahrir Square show us the Egyptian uprising from street level) and Dirty Wars (an investigative look into the paramilitary actions of the US campaigns in the Middle East). On the other hand, we have 20 Feet from Stardom (which follows a handful of back-up singers in the history of the music industry) and Cutie and the Boxer (the story of two chinese artists in New York City). Three “serious” films and two “fun” ones. The fight is ostensibly between important documentaries and crowd pleasers.
And it's difficult not to enjoy a film like 20 Feet from Stardom. Backup singers are a fascinating wrinkle in the music industry, occupying a sort of ambivalent place in the world, the visible invisible. They tend to be session musicians, never really a part of the band as such, but often providing an indelible vocal track to some of the most famous songs in the world. It's structurally straightfoward, your sort of standard talking head doc, but so many of the women are such magnetic personalities and the music is so good that you always remain engaged. Specifically, the moment where Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger relive the recording of “Gimme Shelter,” one of the best back-up vocal performances in the business. Watching Clayton and Jagger respond in the moment to the incendiary isolated vocal track of Clayton's take on the bridge induces chills. 20 Feet from Stardom is filled with moments like this, mostly from archival footage. Watching snippets from Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense or Luthor Vandross and David Bowie in the early 70's will always be a positive experience. As a film experience, it's not particularly special, but it leaves a mark on both casual music fans and the truly devoted alike.
Similar sentiments can be laid at the feet of Cutie and the Boxer, which chronicles the relationship of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, artists trying to find their way in the world as Chinese immigrants in New York City. This one manages to spice up the structure of the proceedings with liberal use of animated sections that tell the story of how these two found each other and eventually got married. These segments are done in the wife's style (she draws a book from which the film receives its name as a way of getting out of her husband's shadow), and breaks up what is otherwise yet another talking head documentary that is a relatively uninteresting affair. The art these two create is certainly impressive, especially the work of the more accomplished Ushio, creating wild and imaginative sculptures out of cardboard and paintings out of sponges dipped in paint and attached to boxing gloves (hence his nickname). These pieces of art are more of a backdrop; the film is much more interested in Ushio and Noriko themselves, and how Noriko attempts to overcome simply being his assistant/wife. It's about how much younger Noriko is and how her parents didn't approve of the union. It's all very quaint and marginally charming, but never crosses the threshold into the alluring or the ecstatic. Because of this, the film ends up feeling very minor, especially in relation to the other nominees in the category.
Dirty Wars is a film that does not feel minor, with much higher stakes than either 20 Feet from Stardom or Cutie and the Boxer, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better or more interesting film to watch. Designed as an investigative exposé of true tactics of the American armed forces both within recognized war zones and without, the documentary is presented from an activist perspective. This isn't a good or bad thing in a vacuum, but has its pitfalls, and in this case there are problems, wholly at the feet of the subject/narrator, journalist Jeremy Scahill. Far too much of the film (especially the opening fifteen minutes) features his own personal commentary (emphasis on personal) on the action, with the narration too often straying away from the presentation and synthesis of the facts, instead seeming to focus more on how the events affect him more than how they affect the rest of us (or the victims themselves). It's a shame, because the activist nature of the events are important and should be the stuff documentary dreams are made of, but the film as presented is so self-aware, self-satisfied and self-aggrandizing. They can't see the forest for the trees. As Scahill traverses the globe from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia, there are definitely stirring moments, but they are so often undercut by Scahill's commentary, or a cut to archival footage of him on a news talk show discussing the US's paramilitary and drone programs, that it's constantly undercutting itself. Because of this, watching Dirty Wars is an often infuriating experience, and would have benefited greatly from a less subjective view on the events. As presented, there is more than enough to engage without the superfluous commentary, but the overall product is severely held back by its weaknesses.
Another film that easily could have fallen through the same sort of pitfalls as Dirty Wars is The Square, a documentary about the Egyptian revolution that grew out of protests in Tahrir Square. The creative team behind The Square made sure to put all of their eggs in the basket of the protesters themselves. There are about five principal subjects, from actor Khalid Abdalla (one of the leads in The Kite Runner), to young upstart revolutionary Ahmed Hassan to Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are more subjects, a sea of faces form a wave crashing against the beachhead of first Hosni Mubarak, then the Egyptian military council, then the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi. On a base level, it's fascinating watching this film from the perspective on an American, considering the Occupy movement was in many ways inspired by what the Egyptians were doing in Tahrir Square. The Occupy movement failed, of course, and it's notable to see how different things played out in Egypt with much higher stakes and a much more violent opposing force. The stars of the movie are definitely Hassan, a young upstart with a fresh face who refuses to give in even under the most dire of circumstances, and Ashour, who is constantly torn between his love of his fellow revolutionaries, need for change and his own duties as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the self same regime his friends end up rising against after Morsi overextends his reach as leader of Egypt. The film is framed by the creation of graffiti murals that serve as chapter titles and an overall interpretation of the state of Egypt at the time. The film is a constant assault on the senses, presenting the chaos on the streets as chaos on the streets, and there are moments of almost shocking violence that convey what is at stake here much better than anything you see in Dirty Wars. There is some real power here.
Nothing, though, is more powerful than The Act of Killing, the wild and innovative documentary from Joshua Oppenheimer. It is a famous saying that history is written by the winners, and nothing seems to show that more than this film. Oppenheimer brings his camera crew to Indonesia, where military regimes have been in place since the 60's, a time they seized and kept control of the area predominantly by exterminating any possible enemies. That regime remains in power today (one would assume because of all that genocide), and the leaders are hailed as heroes. The gambit of The Act of Killing lies in convincing two members of the regime, who got their start buying out all the tickets to movies and reselling them to the public for profit, to make a movie about their past experience during the height of the genocide. What follows is a Grand Guignol nightmare of sorts, as these awful human beings gleefully reenact the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, often oblivious even to the sort of PTSD that happens to the actors in the middle of the filming itself. The scenarios play out like a mini history of the film industry, as Anwar Congo (the de facto “lead” of the proceedings) films his exploits as a tour of the history of genre films. We see a crazy and colorful musical played out in a valley framed by a waterfall. We see grand war scenes and smoky gangster interrogations. It's a gripping look at how human beings see their own past in relation to actual events, and that's not even taking into account how the film turns when Congo begins to realize just what he put people through over the course of his life as he himself has to come face to face with the sort of torture and atrocities he committed.
It shouldn't be too difficult to determine what my favorite film of the five is, considering that The Act of Killing made my Top Fifteen list for 2013. In a lot of ways, it's not particularly a fair fight. The Act of Killing is so far flung from the rest of its competition from a structural angle that it's almost like you're not even watching the same form or genre. The Square, Dirty Wars, 20 Feet from Stardom and Cutie and the Boxer are, at their core, pretty standard documentaries. They follow the normal documentary form, heavy on interviews framed just above the shoulder, and archival or in-the-moment footage. This is what we understand documentaries to be, so it's not a bad thing that they stick to the form (it has been proven to be effective, after all), but when compared to a film that dares to take that form and uproot it, turning it in against itself, the difference between the two is magnified (it's notable that another film that willingly plays with the form, Sarah Polly's Stories We Tell, was not nominated). Oppenheimer uses everything at his disposal, including the sort of standard tropes we see in the other documentaries, but the crazy reenactments are so wild that it feels like someone had to be making this up, when indeed the opposite was the case.
If I were to rank the five documentaries nominated for the Oscar this year, The Act of Killing would certainly be the winner, followed by The Square, then 20 Feet from Stardom, Cutie and the Boxer and Dirty Wars far in last place. I believe it is likely that 20 Feet from Stardom will walk away with the statue; it's the exact sort of warm, feel good film that wins categories like this (it's the closest analogue to last year's winner, Searching for Sugar Man, also about the music industry), and it's not much of a stretch to imagine a situation where members of the Academy might have difficulty with the content and the formative strangeness of the superior film. It's a shame that Dirty Wars had to sneak in here (especially over Stories We Tell, which is ever so much better and the second best documentary released last year), as it's the only film in the bunch that I would consider to be actively bad, but we've all seen that the Academy is not one to always nominate the best the film industry has to offer. Still, even with Dirty Wars, the category is a strong one, pointing to a year when documentaries asserted their dominance.