Thursday, October 21, 2010

Best Documentary Feature

One thing, I truly believe, that's come about in the past few years what with the American "system" falling apart every which way, is that documentaries have become a richer, angrier, and far more engrossing than ever before.  This may not in fact be true at all, and as I'm far more exposed to current documentaries than the ones of yore, I may not be a proficient judge of any of it.  In any which way, I gladly proclaim that 2010 has been, so far at least, a fairly dynamic year for docs, and that this years Oscar could be a well deserved brawl.

  • Casino Jack & the United States of Money- few watched this enriched, enormously entertaining film from one of the new leaders of genre: Alex Gibney.  Gibney, as evidenced by this work, as well as his 2005's corporate horror flick, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, is quite a fine filmmaker who on first account appears to have a bit of Michael Moore's showmanship, but underscores it with an unparalleled aptitude for surveying his subjects from the inside out, with a perfectionists, perhaps even fetishists verve.  Here the subject is Jack Abramoff (soon to be portrayed by Kevin Spacey in a narrative feature), the privileged, ultra-conservative lobbyist who bought and sold votes on Congress with his mighty access to cash.  While it might be quick to suggest Casino Jack serves along a same road as many similar anti-Republican docs in recent years, that would be a short sighted argument.  For instance, Gibney is smart enough to surround himself with more red state talking heads than anything else (including deliciously delusional accounts from former House majority leader Tom DeLay, with whom Abramoff was awfully familiar with), and grounds the film with sincere testimony from devout conservatives of Abramoff's past who believed in a grand noble idea for a new would be almost romantic, if it didn't turn out so repugnant.  Apart from that, Casino Jack is grandly entertaining, making difficult and convoluted new-government horrors accessible to the common joe, perhaps unfamiliar with PACs and the like.  Gibney blasts the soundtrack, and even has a nifty voice over reading of Abramoff's past e-mails courtesy to ultra-cool actors like Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd, he even opens the film with a dramatized murder scene (like he did in Enron.)  Disclaimer there must be that this film, no matter what political property one might buy, will make one angry, and outraged.  Thankfully, Abramoff has his jail cell to consul us.  Oscars chances might be slim, but if it gets seen by enough of the die-hard Academy liberals, it may stand a chance.  A-
      • Waiting for "Superman"- Davis Guggenheim (the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth) returns with a withering, quite scathing indictment of American public schools in this well-intentioned, thoughtful, if a bit flawed film.  I have little doubt this one will be shortlisted for Oscar consideration; the promotion for this film has been working overtime since it debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival; that the film comes courtesy of Paramount Pictures, a major motion picture studio won't hurt it's chances either-- the bigger the campaign, the more attention.  Guggenheim hits the right notes here, what with the films plethora of disturbing numbers to make the audience gasp, and the five children he spotlights that make us cry-- emotion mixed with terrifying numbers will always work.  The perplexing problems with the movie is it's over-simplified "answers" to the plaguing schools.  Guggenheim's assumptions are the teachers unions are evil, and charter schools are the key, but the problems bigger than that, both answers are somewhat undermined when facts arise...not all charter schools are great (not that the ones Guggenheim specifically spotlights aren't), and teachers unions, while retain ridiculous specifications, aren't quite the agreeable villain Guggenheim wants them to be.  All that said, it still is a fairly solid film, especially when it's asking the questions, as opposed to answering them: My favorite: "Does a bad neighborhood make a bad school, or does a bad school make a bad neighborhood," (discuss amongst yourselves.)  B+
      • Exit Through the Gift Shop- the funhouse, Banksy documentary that opened last spring that made quite a butt-load of cash, at least for a documentary feature.  Easily the most spirited non-fiction film of the year, meaning the Academy won't touch the thing with a ten-foot pole...they're not a fan of whimsy, especially in this category.  Yet I strongly believe that this clever oddity-- which tackles the exciting, criminal world of graffiti art and evolves into something a whole lot stranger-- has a lot to say about art, and the process of such.  One man's junk could be another man's art, but this film is pure magic.  B+
      • The Tillman Story- the angry doc that explores the mysterious and troubling death of former football player turned army man Pat Tillman opened to nice reviews and decent documentary box office.  That the film comes courtesy of The Weinstein Company may help with an Oscar campaign (if they decide to actually try with it.)  The film is definitely worthy of consideration, but perhaps lacks the artistry of the some of the others this year.  B+
      • Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work- another "fun" documentary; meaning it's a no-no for the Academy, but respect should be bestowed for the honest, warts-and-all account of one of this country's most influential comediennes.  B+
      • A Film Unfinished- a serious awards contender, I'd assume, only because it pertains to Holocaust-- the Academy is big on that subject.  This is a startling and at times heart-wrenching documentary about a propaganda film made in the Warsaw ghetto.  In the titular unfinished film, it showcased "actors" playing the parts of wealthy, healthy Jews, in startling counterpoint to the real-life suffering outside the shots.  I wished the framework and structure of the film had been stronger; if so I could strongly argue I would win this year; as it is I still believe it will be shortlisted.  B-
      • Countdown to Zero- perhaps similar in theme to Waiting for "Superman," in that the subject is totally noble and absolutely admirable, while the artistry is at a minimum, Lucy Walker's nuclear weapons documentary might make onto the Oscar shortlist, but probably would have done better in a weaker year.  B
      • Winnebago Man- a biographical documentary about "the angriest man in the world," one Jack Rebney, a pitchman for the vehicle company, whose profanity-blasted infomercial outtakes made him a cult online celebrity.  Far too "fun" and innocuous for Academy consideration, but an entertaining lark none the less, with an interesting human face commentary on the freaks of the you tube generation.  B

      Now for the documentaries I haven't viewed yet:

      • Inside Job- Charles Ferguson's documentary on the economic crisis, which has earned raves from Cannes, Toronto, Telluride and New York Film Festivals, and must be considered a top Oscar contender.  His past work: the incredible No End in Sight (2007; Oscar nominated) is a must see, and perhaps the best, most cohesive film I've ever seen about Iraq., and he is surely one of our finest documentarians.
      • Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer- about the "rise and fall" of NY governor Elliot Spitzer, which has been a film festival favorite all season.  Also directed by Alex Gibney (Casino Jack & the United States of Money, and won the Oscar for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side.)
      • Restrepo- released this spring, the film which chronicled a year with a platoon in Afghanistan won raves earlier in the year, and also won this years best documentary prize at Sundance.  Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.
      • Tabloid- Errol Morris (Oscar winner for 2003's The Fog of War) debuted his latest at the Telluride Film Festival to his usual raves, and should never be counted out.  The profundity of his work helped elevate the entire genre, with bold films like A Brief History of Time, Gates of Heaven, and The Thin Blue Line.  His latest deals with a former beauty queen, Joyce McKinney, who in the seventies, abducted a Mormon missionary. 

         Not a snowballs chance in hell:
        •  Catfish
        • I'm Still Here

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