Each year, the single category that confounds Academy Award watchers most is the Best Documentary Feature. Before the big night, we’ll run through the list of nominees and give a brief synopsis of each. We’ll also handicap the race in the hopes that this year, instead of using the category as a bathroom break, you can use it as an opportunity to dazzle your family and friends with a culturally informed opinion. And of course we hope that this rundown might spark your interest in making the trek to that downtown arthouse to see one of these five worthy films.
The Movie: ‘Dancemaker’
The Synopsis: What ‘Unzipped’ did for Isaac Mizrahi and fashion, so too could ‘Dancemaker’ do for Paul Taylor and ballet. (No, we don’t mean bankrupt his company, that happened to Isaac later.) This is a candid, behind-the-scenes look at Paul Taylor, his 40 year history in dance and his current helm of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Taylor has been hailed as “the greatest living choreographer” and this film shows why. It is exquisitely shot, no easy feat considering that this is a company in constant motion. Producer/director Matthew Diamond doesn’t stick to the traditional static long shot traditionally used to film dance. Rather, he lets his camera gleefully join the company and spin, dip and twirl like a Paul Taylor veteran.
The Race: You know you’re watching a good documentary when a subject seems so ripe that you can’t shake the “why didn’t I think of this” feeling. This category most closely compares to the Best Picture race and a win in this category could foreshadow the Best Picture trophy. Why? Because two of the documentaries, this one and ‘Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth,’ take up the performative aspects of art mirroring the Elizabethan duo in Best Picture. The other three take on the question of brutality in prison and war like the Second World War trio in the Best Picture category.
The Outcome: We’d personally love to see ‘Dancemaker’ take home an Oscar, but this is the same voting body that assembled some of the most horrific numbers in the history of dance. Does anyone remember Sheena Easton sweating profusely and running across the Oscar stage firing a laser gun to strains of “For Your Eyes Only?” The longshot is that academy members are burnt out on World War II after the plethora of feature films on the topic nominated this year and handing the Best Documentary Feature Oscar over to Holocaust documentaries two years running.
The Movie: ‘The Farm: Angola U.S.A’
The Synopsis: Not a great first-date movie, the film profiles six prisoners doing hard time at Angola State Prison, Angola, Louisiana, the largest and most dangerous maximum security facility in the country. What you learn from this ‘inside look’ and from the many grisly statistics related by the narrator is not wholly surprising — that life on ‘The Farm’ is pretty grim. For starters, more than half are serving life sentences, and over 80 percent of the population will die there. And even if you play the game right, like Ashanti Witherspoon, a 20-year-veteran with a Mother-Teresa-like community service record, the chances for parole in a state with the toughest penal code in the country are really slim. The film’s characters are well-drawn and interesting, but they are presented so relentlessly as the good guys and the justice system seems so full of bad-guy rednecks, that, like many of Jonathan Stark’s films, ‘The Farm’ can feel like less of a story and more like the social justice ‘project’ it is.
The Race: Overall, ‘The Farm’ has novelty going for it in a cluster of films dealing with more familiar, more acceptable subject matter. There is also the novelty that one of the film’s directors, Wilbert Rideau, is an inmate serving his 38th year of a life sentence for a grisly murder. Rideau also happens to be an award-winning print journalist and the word is he’s already working on ‘Angola II.’
The Outcome: While it is high on novelty and grittiness, the film sacrifices production value. Prospects for an award are slim. The grittiness probably helped it win a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but the Academy is usually more impressed with slickness, and with slicksters like Spielberg in the race, things don’t look good for ‘The Farm.’
The Movie: ‘The Last Days’
The Synopsis: This film answers the question, ‘Do we really need another Holocaust documentary?’ with a resounding yes. It’s not that the film reveals a lot of new information. But by chronicling Hitler’s decimation of the Hungarian Jewish population in the final months of WWII, we see the particular heinousness of the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ as well as the resilience and will of those who miraculously survived the death mills at Auschwitz and Buchanwald. And ultimately, listening to the five Hungarian survivors profiled here is an uplifitng experience. Despite their tortured stories, the loss of their families, the cruel inhuman treatment they suffered at the hands of the Nazis, they show that by living full, productive lives without bitterness. They are the ultimate victors. Humanity can learn from the past.
The Race: ‘The Last Days’ has all the right ingredients for an award in this category: socially important, high-profile subject matter, high production value, and big big name-association (Can you say Spielberg?). And, luckily for Spielberg, whose ‘Saving Private Ryan’ has multiple feature film nominations, the Academy has never shied away from flooding a particular film or filmmaker with multiple awards. (Remember ‘Dances With Wolves’ and ‘Titanic.’)
The Outcome: The longshot is that Academy members are tired of World War II themes because of the plethora of feature films on the topic nominated this year. And it’s also not likely they’ll give the Best Documentary Feature Oscar to Holocaust documentaries two years running.
The Movie: ‘Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth’
The Synopsis: Lenny Bruce was annoying enough in his own right. Did we really need Robert DeNiro to narrate his life story? This hard-boiled ‘A&E Biography’ styled doc is definitely the dog of the bunch. Watching it in the hazy state between wakefulness and sleep at least adds the dramatic tension of seeing hidden images in the grainy, blown-up photos of Lenny Bruce that dominate the film. But that much can be accomplished lying on your back, looking at the clouds and playing “That one looks like a bunny.” By the time “Hot Honey” Bruce, Lenny’s stripper-cum-house frau wife, takes the screen to announce, “If you say it enough it loses its meaning,” we were kind of hoping the projectionist had lost the final reels of the film.
The Race: Narrator Robert DeNiro lends an ‘Academy Award’ tone to the film. It’s just a shame that he looks and sounds so much like Bruce and that some of the voice-overs leave you wondering who is actually speaking. Add to this the Academy’s own troubles with Elia Kazan and the Hollywood Blacklist, and you’re left with a banal mediation on First Amendment rights in a year when Oscar would probably rather look the other way.
The Outcome: Look for this one to be reworked as an ‘E! True Hollywood Story’ soon. As for an Oscar, this one doesn’t have a chance.
The Movie: ‘Regret To Inform’
The Synopsis: Barbara Sonneborn makes an emotional journey back to the village. In Vietnam where her husband was killed and in the process, she puts fifteen American and Vietnamese women together to ponder the atrocities of war. In a year when men seem to have cornered the market on reflections of battle (quick, name five women in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’ combined), this certainly is a welcome, if at times heart-wrenching shift in perspective.
The Race: As one of the few women nominated in the traditionally female dominated category, Barbara Sonneborn certainly should take home an Oscar, if only to reflect the ratio of women to men in the documentary: nine women to every one man.
The Outcome: In a year when Oscar seems particularly focused on the Second World War, the Academy just might find themselves asking ‘Viet-who?’ This film would certainly have been a shoe-in during the Vietnam heyday of ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘Platoon,’ but amid the WW II-centric nominees of this year, ‘Regret to Inform’ may be aptly titled.