From 'Ai Weiwei' to 'Sugar Man,' handicapping this year's documentary feature race

Posted by · 10:15 am · January 5th, 2013

The field of documentary feature contenders this year is bursting at the seams with quality and the signs of a true golden age for the form. And this even with a number of the year’s best having failed to make the finalists cut. Issues tackled are wide-ranging, artistry is apparent in a number of entries and the stories that are being shared are as powerful as ever. How do you even begin to handicap this thing?

Guy typically handles the doc feature Contenders page, but I wanted to offer up some thoughts on the films in play and see if we can’t suss out which five will be left standing. It’s nearly a fool’s errand but let’s give it a go. Two of the films on the list I didn’t catch up to until last week and they are two of the most powerful statements in the race. So I might as well start by diving into the deep end on those.

Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi’s “This is Not a Film,” smuggled into France in a cake and a last-minute Cannes submission that has remained a critical favorite all season, is perhaps the most unique entry of the bunch. A document of four days in the embattled Iranian filmmaker’s life as he waits to hear the decision on his appeal of a jail sentence for riling the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, it’s a plea from an artist desperate to create and could make it in on principle.

Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras,” meanwhile, rocked me to my core. A glimpse at strife between peaceful Palestinian protesters and Israeli military in the West Bank village of Bil’in, it has a clear point of view. But it’s elgiac in its rendering, the result of five years (and, well, broken — shot, pummeled, etc. — cameras) and it puts a faraway affair right in your living room. It’s perhaps the most intimate portrait of the lot and, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. And it could slide in. (NOTE: You can stream “5 Broken Cameras” for free via the film’s website through Sunday.)

But if it does, what of Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Gatekeepers?” A film treading similar waters, though novel and, indeed, miraculous for its level of access, it is Dror Moreh’s at times jaw-dropping talking head study of former Shin Bet leaders admitting futility in the Palestine/Israel conflict. The studio already has presumed frontrunner “Searching for Sugar Man” lined up for a nod, though, and picking up two spots could be tough.

Two studs of the documentary world could face resistance in the form of professional jealousy (it exists) and/or an overall desire to recognize new blood. In “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” two-time nominee (and one-time winner) Alex Gibney paints a heartbreaking portrait of four deaf Wisconsin men who were some of the first to ever blow a whistle on pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” documents the truly infuriating reality of rape in the military and the cover-ups that are considered status quo. But there are those who may not feel the latter is all that impressive on a formal level, which is also something “The Gatekeepers” is contending with. (NOTE: You can stream “The Invisible War” currently at Netflix.)

Bart Layton’s “The Imposter,” meanwhile, is fully mounted on its formal aspects. Like “Man on Wire” before it, it could hop over the hurdle of reenactments due to its creative handling of the story of a French con man who impersonated a Texas boy 20 years ago. It has done well on the circuit and should be seen as a real threat.

Continuing along similar lines, character studies can have an impact and one that could find room is “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” A delightful look at the eponymous outspoken Chinese artist, it is well-liked by the branch and deserves a seat at the table. (NOTE: You can stream “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” currently at Netflix.) Rory Kennedy’s “Ethel,” meanwhile, feels like a lesser work against all of these heavier hitters, but it’s nevertheless a meaningful and admirable profile of Robert F. Kennedy’s widow and the Kennedy legacy through her eyes. It’s a very personal touch in the line-up.

On a smaller scale, you have something like “Detropia.” I didn’t think this handsomely mounted film added a whole lot in the spectrum of laments for the Motor City, but it has a lot of respect from the branch. The self-distribution element is particularly impressive for some and there is a perception that Michael Moore’s new system has unfairly held the little guys in check. A vote for this could be a statement in that regard. Ditto Peter Nicks’s “The Waiting Room,” for that matter, a study of an Oakland hospital that gets right at issues of health care in this country.

“How to Survive a Plague” really stirred the conversation when it picked up the New York Film Critics Circle’s award for Best First Film this year, and indeed, David France’s effort is a brilliant account of the ACT UP activist group that took on the AIDS epidemic in 1987 and, more to the point, the government’s feet-dragging on addressing it seriously. But it is largely a feat of editing, wrangling tons of preexisting footage, though of course no less powerful for it. But that can sometimes hold a film back. I wonder if “Senna” last year suffered similarly. (NOTE: You can stream “How to Survive a Plague” currently at Netflix.)

“The House I Live In” from Eugene Jarecki is a favorite among prognosticators, and indeed, this distillation of the pointless “war on drugs” is a vital piece of work. But, as my colleague Anne Thompson likes to say, “it’s a bit too smart for the room” and there are those in the branch who feel Jarecki didn’t fully rein the story in.

A few years ago “The Cove” dominated the scene, and Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Ice” finds itself in similar terrain this time around. A stone-cold, undeniable document of the planet’s receding glaciers, it is a feat of photography, no doubt. And it, like “The Cove,” has a hero at its center. But is that enough?

And finally, last year’s winner in the category was The Weinstein Company, which surprised most with an Oscar win for “Undefeated.” They’re back in the mix this year with Lee Hirsch’s “Bully.” The ratings controversy was the only real heat the film had along the way and that died down long ago, but it’s a pretty heart-wrenching look at a very real problem. I suppose that kind of thing should never be counted out.

Where do I stand on all of this? I haven’t the foggiest. I think we all know “Searching for Sugar Man” is in there. Beyond that, I’m currently betting on “5 Broken Cameras,” “Detropia,” “How to Survive a Plague” and maybe “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” or “The Imposter.” Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll have a strong case for “The Invisible War” and/or “The Gatekeepers.” The next day, “Mea Maxima Culpa.” It’s just that kind of year. Any of the 15 could get in and no one ought to be surprised, because it just doesn’t get any more competitive than this.

What are your predictions for Best Documentary Feature? Have your say in the comments section below!

Comments Off on From 'Ai Weiwei' to 'Sugar Man,' handicapping this year's documentary feature race Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: HitFix · In Contention