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Feature Documentaries Transcend Once Again at the Oscars

For the past several years I have run a series on my website, Awards Wiz, called “27 Days of Oscar.” It started as a way to hold my procrastinating self accountable to see every Oscar nominated film–features and shorts.

I’ve always had a decent understanding of the way the Academy thinks, so seeing all of the nominated films has been a necessity when predicting the awards. Why 27 days? When I had this brilliant idea I thought I would utilize (steal) AMC’s “31 Days of Oscar,” but unfortunately (or fortunately) I had it 4 days late.

As the Academy’s demographic has changed over the last few years, along with the preferential ballot for Best Picture, I’ve had to adjust my predicting process. Last year was better than the year before, but nowhere near 2013/14 when I only missed 2–but that was an easy year. I continue my 27 Days of Oscar series because I still think it’s necessary to watch all of the films to truly get a grasp on the season and the Academy’s tastes.

Another great thing about my 27 Days of Oscar is keeping track of the categories I haven’t completed. This year there were a couple of glaring ones that I was clearly avoiding–Best Animated Feature (Do I really have to watch “The Boss Baby?” The answer is yes…I saw it yesterday) and Best Documentary Feature.

When thinking about what I was going to write about for this piece, I wondered why I was avoiding this category. It’s certainly not access. This year (with the exception of “Faces Places”) the nominated documentary features are easier to access than ever. Three of them are on Netflix, and one is available on PBS. I also love any opportunity I have to write for Awards Daily, and I absolutely love documentaries. So what is the hesitation?

2017 was a year that saw even more division within our already divided world, and I find myself sometimes preferring to live in fantasy land, specifically somewhere in northern Italy in the summer of 1983.

That being said, I’m glad that I still hold myself accountable to see all of the films, because once I finally got down to it, I found myself amazed, yet again by this year’s crop of documentary films.

The first feature I watched was “Icarus.” Icarus, along with “Strong Island” are both distributed by Netflix (Although “Last Men in Aleppo” is currently streaming on Netflix, it isn’t a Netflix original.) Netflix had one documentary feature in the race last year with Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” but it lost to the juggernaut that was “OJ: Made in America.” Netflix won the doc shorts category with “The White Helmets” in a similar situation where they had two films nominated in the category. I missed that prediction, instead going for “Extremis,” the other Netflix film, mostly because it was my favorite of the two, and I believed Netflix would take the category.

“Icarus” is an interesting beast. Could it have been better timed with Oscar voting and the Olympics happening simultaneously? “Icarus” begins as one film, with director Bryan Fogel deciding to go all “Super Size Me” with testosterone in lieu of french fries, enlisting Russian doping mastermind Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov to assist, but when news breaks that Russian officials have promoted state sponsored fraud with Rodchenkov to cheat at the Olympics for years, the film takes on a new life/trajectory. I found the subject fascinating, and the fact that the film made an impact for change is incredible, but in terms of filmmaking and drama, it ended up feeling a bit “Citizen Four” lite for my taste. I will say this though–I often post what I’m watching on Instagram, and my “Icarus” post received more comments of support than any other film I have posted about all year.

The other Netflix entry is “Strong Island.” What filmmaker Yance Ford does in this film goes much beyond the documentary trope of “righting wrongs.” Through interviews with the people involved in the case, Ford tries to get a deeper understanding of what happened to his brother, a black man who was murdered in 1992 in a dispute with several white men well after the men were involved in an accident with William Ford, Jr. (Yance Ford’s brother). Documentarians often insert themselves into the story they are telling (see “Icarus”) but Ford, in beautiful extreme close up takes us deeply into the truth of what it means to explore one’s wounded past. A win for “Strong Island” would also be a win for equality, as Ford would be the first openly transgender Oscar winner in history.

The next film I watched was “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” This is the film that seems to be getting the least amount of attention, despite being directed by Steve James. For those of you who have been watching the Oscars for as long as I have you will certainly remember the great documentary feature snub of 1994/95 when James’s “Hoop Dreams” wasn’t nominated for Documentary Feature. It did receive an Editing nom and sparked years and years of tweaking to the rules for nominating docs.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” tells the story of the one and only bank to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis. It is a story I was completely unaware of (and I was living in NYC during the indictment) that goes beyond its subject to tackle Asian American discrimination in the United States. It is a very well made, important and interesting film. It will more than likely not be James’s Oscar win, but I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who loves docs.

The third film showing on Netflix is “Last Men in Aleppo.” It could have almost the exact same tagline of last year’s doc short winner, “The White Helmets:” Members of the volunteer White Helmets aid the wounded during the Syrian Civil War. There are scenes that seem almost identical to “The White Helmets,” which made me wonder, haven’t I seen this before? What a strange thought to have about something so incredibly important.

Yes…we have seen this before, but this is a world crisis that must not be ignored, and it’s repetitive horrors need to be re-viewed. We see baby after baby removed from the wreckage, and it is both difficult and brutal to watch. “Last Men in Aleppo” feels much less polished than the other nominees in this category, but its naturalism is also its best asset. Had it been made by any other filmmakers it might not have shown us the depths of the nightmare.

Finally, we have “Faces Places.” This was the last Oscar nominated film that I got my hands on, but I made it happen in the end. Agnes Varda, the queen of the French new wave, directs the film, putting herself front and center with JR, a French muralist/photographer, as they travel across the French countryside, developing a beautiful friendship as they meet various locals, photographing them and putting their faces up in the most remarkable places along the way.

It’s such a delightful piece of cinema, and RJ and Varda are absolutely wonderful together. This documentary doesn’t quite fit into the category of the likes of “20 Feet From Stardom” or “Searching for Sugarman” simply because it isn’t trying to save the world, but it is a stark contrast to the other 4 nominated films.

“Faces Places” takes a look at humanity, plastering it in large close up for their subjects and us to see. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but even though the film has a sense of spontaneity to it, nothing quite prepares us or Varda for the surprise that happens in the end. Throughout the film there are moments where both RJ and Varda show vulnerability, particularly as Varda teases RJ about removing his sunglasses and as we see the sad truth that one of film’s greatest visionaries is actually losing her sight. But the ending’s turn is what takes the film into brilliance.

I believe “Faces Places” is the film to beat. You have the old guard of filmmaking represented by the likes of Godard and Varda as well as the new with RJ. Of course, it might be too light in a time of darkness for some, but I think if the Academy watches the film, particularly through to the ending, they will go for it. If anything could take it away, however, it would be “Icarus.” And if I’m wrong, I will continue tweaking my predictions process.

As the world around us seems to fall into despair and hate, of course we have one of the best years of cinema in recent memory. Would I trade a peaceful world for a lackluster year at the movies? Absolutely. But in the meantime I will enjoy both the fantasy and escapism that narrative movies can bestow us as well as the likes of these 5 nominated documentaries that show us the truth.