When the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, the list included The Square, Jehane Noujaim's acclaimed documentary on the Egyptian democracy movement. Hailed as the first Oscar nod for Netflix (the film's primary distributor), it's a milestone in the success of streaming video, which has closed the gap between television and the movies.
Of the tens of thousands of movies currently legally available through the Internet and video-on-demand, documentaries are the real bargain-hunter's treasures. This year, with movie-awards season in full swing, you can create your own Oscar 2014 documentary film festival, watching all five of the nominees for less than the price of a movie-theatre snack.
We start with a shocker and end on an upbeat note.
The opener, The Act of Killing (2012), is both brilliant and grotesque. The subject of Joshua Oppenheimer's film is the CIA-sponsored military coup in Indonesia in 1965 and the murder of one million alleged communists and ethnic Chinese by paramilitary organizations, led by former gangsters who had sold black-market movie tickets. Oppenheimer and crew invited this band of former gangsters to recreate the killings in whatever movie genre they wanted, from westerns to gangster films, in a form of drama therapy as confession.
Our next selection, Cutie and the Boxer (2013), provides a needed change of pace. Colourful characters, dramatic conflict and enduring love make for a winning formula in director Zachary Heinzerling's documentary, a double portrait of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Brooklyn-based bohemian artists who, after 40 years of marriage, are still creating side by side, aiding and tormenting each other. For most of that time, Noriko has served Ushio as an artist's assistant and minder, but she is determined to make up for lost time through an autobiographical cartoon series starring Cutie, a pigtailed stand-in for Noriko, and Bullie, a hard-drinking, egocentric artist. Heinzerling, who spoke no Japanese (translations were provided later), spent almost five years shooting the couple and became so much a part of their lives that Noriko referred to him as the "rice cooker," an appliance hanging around her loft.
Now, back to another film brimming with moral outrage: After the Osama bin Laden assassination, the group that carried it out, part of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) that reports directly to the U.S. president – were celebrated as national heroes and immortalized in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Predictably, there's a lot more to the story. Dirty Wars (2013), a remarkable documentary on U.S. covert killing programs, follows Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalist for The Nation, from Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia, as he gains testimony and evidence of the murders of civilians, including women, children and even a U.S. citizen. As one JSOC insider says: "The President has made a political and military decision to let JSOC run wild."
Our final political movie, The Square (2013), is a proven crowd-pleaser, winning the audience awards at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. Egyptian-born American director Jehane Noujaim was in the right place – Cairo's Tahrir Square – and the right time – January, 2011 – to offer a street-level view of the protests that ended the 30-year repressive rule of President Hosni Mubarak. She and her crew continued to shoot for the next 2 1/2 years, focusing on three protesters who were part of the original heady moment: Ahmed Hassan, a young and energetic idealist; Khalid Abdalla, a Scottish-born Egyptian actor (The Kite Runner); and Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was tortured under the old regime. The film resolves on a note of tentative optimism: The genie is out of the bottle, though the democratic revolution remains an arduous work in progress.
We conclude with a movie that should warm you through the rest of the chilly winter: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). Morgan Neville's big-spirited film is about the mostly African-American female backup singers who made gospel choruses a defining element in popular music, from early sixties pop and R&B, through seventies and eighties arena rock, and on to Disney soundtracks. The best behind-the-music documentary since Standing in the Shadows of Motown, 20 Feet from Stardom shifts the spotlight from the stars to a group of extraordinary vocalists, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, who, for various reasons of chance, character and social barriers, did not become the next Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston. The stories of these singers' careers are told through contemporary interviews and archival performances, supplemented by a chorus of commentary provided by such limelight hogs as Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, who all admit they couldn't have done it without them.