Saturday, February 23, 2013

oscar doc picks


It's time once again for my annual foray into the world of Oscar. This year, I'm sad to say, I've missed out on many of the main live-action nominees. But I was able to catch most of the documentaries with a major assist from Netflix. Without further ado, I present my 2013 Oscar prognostications for the categories of feature-length documentary and documentary short.

FEATURE-LENGTH DOCUMENTARY

Should win: 5 Broken Cameras -or- The Invisible War [tie]
Although this year's candidates are all very strong, I find it impossible not to give special kudos to those movies for which lives were literally on the line during their making and/or subsequent promotion. Case in point is 5 Broken Cameras, a maddening film about a Palestinian village in the West Bank that suffers relentless encroachment by Israeli settlements. While the main filmmaker, Emad Burnat, and his neighbors strive to protest these land-grabs in peace, the local Israelis do not respond in kind. Instead, they harass, threaten, arrest, and attack, often illegally and brutally. During four years of filming, Burnat burns through five video cameras, four of which are shot or otherwise destroyed, and one of which literally saves his life. 5 Broken Cameras is the sort of film that could serve as a poster child for Witness, a human rights organization with the motto "See it, film it, change it;" for that, I think it's well deserving of the Oscar.

Risking one's life, or certainly one's reputation, is also apparent in my other top pick for this year's Oscar docs: The Invisible War, a deeply moving, highly-charged account of sexual abuse in the U.S. military. Watching this film, I was brought to tears as, one by one, proud women (and one man) who wanted nothing more than to honorably serve their country recounted how they were coerced, harassed, beaten, and raped by their colleagues and superiors—and then ignored, belittled, and persecuted when they reported these events. Even more troubling were statistics about just how common such assaults in the military are today; by all accounts, at least 19,000 service members were sexually abused in 2010 alone. We also learn that prosecution of such cases cannot be handled effectively in the current system, since they are processed not through a federal court system but through the military chain of command, where serious conflicts of interests often lie. Of the five nominees, I feel this film has the most potential to create change as a result of its nomination, and it's heartening to know that even if it doesn't win, system reform may already be on the horizon.

Will win: Searching for Sugar Man
While it lacks the gravitas of the other four contenders, Searching for Sugar Man is the film to beat in this year's feature-length documentary category. It tells the improbable story of the search for a Dylanesque singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez who all but disappeared after his 15 minutes of fame in the U.S. came and went in the early 1970s. It's a truly heartwarming tale, much akin to 2010's Winnebago Man. The movie could probably win on buzz alone, but it doesn't hurt that there are two contenders on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which will likely split votes), plus a very hot-button challenger in The Invisible War, the topic of which some Academy voters may shy away from.


DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

Should win: [Draw]
I'm slightly handicapped in this category this year by the fact that I've only been able to watch three of the five nominees: Kings Point, Mondays at Racine, and Inocente. Of these three, I thought the latter was the strongest, most unique, and most artfully told, and not just because its protagonist is a 15-year-old artist herself. The film's cinematography was well done, and the combination of themes—immigration, homelessness, abuse, and arts education—was a refreshing reminder of many of the contemporary social problems we Americans like to sweep under the rug. In comparison, while I was moved by both Kings Point and Mondays at Racine, I honestly don't think either one has what it takes to take home the golden statuette. Finally, I hesitate to comment on the other two nominees, Open Heart and Redemption, without having seen them, but I will say that their trailers lead me to believe they're both excellent films. So, I'm actually going to give this category a pass on final judgment, but if it were between the three I watched, my vote would be for Inocente.

Will win: Open Heart
Call me crazy, but if you see a pattern in what the Oscar voters like, you stick with it. Two short documentaries that have won this category in recent years, Smile Pinki and Saving Face, were about savior doctors helping poor citizens of developing countries with free medical procedures to fix crippling conditions—cleft palettes in the first case and facial disfigurement from acid attacks in the second. In this year's Open Heart, poor children from Rwanda are brought to the Sudan for potentially life-saving heart surgery. Sound familiar? Until the Academy proves me wrong, I'm picking this story line every time.

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