Sunday, February 27, 2011

oscar doc predictions

It's been three or four years since I started getting obsessive about seeing Oscar-nominated documentaries prior to the big red carpet event. But let's face it: Most Americans don't do docs. It's a damn shame, if you ask me. Documentaries are like college classes, without the tuition and without the prerequisites. True, you have to be prepared to get angry or upset, but docs teach you what the world is really like, without the sugarcoating of shows you might see on cable networks, even the ones that purport to offer "in depth" coverage of real-world events. And before you complain that documentaries do nothing but make people feel helpless, I'd counter that the best docs often reveal how one person, or a small group, can make a big difference, even in the face of powerful, monstrous forces.

Fortunately, it's been getting easier to find the Oscar docs in theaters here in New York over the past few years. The Paley Center in midtown Manhattan now shows all nominated docs, both feature-length and short, every year on the weekend of the Academy Award ceremony, and at least this year, the IFC Center screened all short subject nominees each day for more than a week. But you'd expect docs to show in New York and LA; it's time to get more of them out to places like Wichita and Montgomery and Albuquerque so everyone can watch and learn!

This year's crop of Oscar-nominated docs features a few recurring themes: big business's devastating impact on the environment; the plight of American soldiers during and after war combat; and funky-ass art. But there are some powerful and moving wild card topics, too. So on the eve of the Oscars, here are my picks for who should win and who will win in both of the documentary categories! You can find synopses and trailers for all 10 nominated docs on this page; some are also available for purchase from iTunes.

Documentary Short Subject

Will Win: Strangers No More The most upbeat and heartwarming of the five nominees in this category, Strangers No More tells the story of a unique school in Tel Aviv, Israel in which refugee children from around the world come together to form the ultimate melting pot. There are really no losers in this year's batch of doc shorts, but considering the Academy's choice in the past two years of the similarly hopeful Smile Pinki and Music By Prudence, this seems like a pretty good bet to take home the statuette.

Should Win: The Warriors of Quigang Whether we like it or not, China is going to have to lead the environmental movement of tomorrow. This doc gracefully captures how one small city in Anhui Province is attempting to battle both an unruly local polluter an unrepresentative and unresponsive government. Here's one great example of a film that not only explains where the big problems lie but also makes heroes out of ordinary citizens trying to better the ugly hands they've been dealt.

Documentary Feature

Will Win: Gasland I had never heard of hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking," before I saw this film, and what I learned scared the bejesus out of me. There's been quite a bit of press coverage about this doc since the nominees were announced, mostly due to the unsurprising loud reaction from the natural gas lobby over the film's depiction of their use of what can only be described as a poorly regulated and highly toxic method of extracting gas from the ground. While some have criticized certain methods of director Josh Fox, I think that in seeing this film, Academy voters will have come away with a pretty powerful overall message. What's more, the time seems ripe for a major environmental movie to take home the big doc prize.

Should Win: Inside Job Okay, boys and girls, here's the one movie that everyone in the country needs to see, and pronto. Director Charles Ferguson does an epic job of weaving one-on-one interviews together with easy-to-follow narration and infographics to explain how the recent financial crisis of the late '00s came about. At the end of the day, the lesson is obvious: Our economic policies have been set by the very cronies who masterminded what one interviewee describes as the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time. What's more, the film makes it crystal clear that our government is deeply embedded in the pockets of a few powerful corporations, who literally gamble away our security in order to make billions for themselves—with no reprecussions whatsoever when everything collapses. I happened to catch this film in a theater, and the rage of the audience was palpable; people shaking their heads over and over, guffawing and sighing out of frustration at just how blatant the deception was and continues to be. Aside from the surprising production value, which I thought was super considering how dry a subject finance might seem to the average American, this doc needs to win for the sheer power it has in making people see why increased financial regulations—not to mention campaign finance reform—are absolutely essential to the future of our country, and indeed the entire global economy.

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