February 18, 2009

Debriefing the Documentary Nominees

[Note: I originally wrote this for the "LAMB Devours the Oscars" and am simply recycling it here. Forgive me, it's been a busy year. I'll post my full Oscar predictions sometime before Sunday, but before then I recommend you head over to the Large Association of Movie Blogs and check out the analyses of the nominees in all 24 categories.]

If 2007 was considered one of the strongest years for feature films in nearly a decade, 2008 deserves the same recognition for its incredibly impressive lineup of documentaries. Having seen upwards of 20 of them, it was pretty hard for me to narrow down a personal list of the Best Documentaries of 2008, so I can imagine how difficult it must have been for AMPAS to eventually choose five nominees for Best Documentary Feature.

I only saw four of the five last year, and of those only three landed on my own list - but this isn't about my picks, it's about the winning picks. And in this case, the race has been over for more than a year. Unless Academy voters have grown a conscience about Hurricane Katrina in the last few months and come down from their adrenaline high, Man on Wire will continue a winning streak that extends back to January of 2008, when it won the "World Cinema – Documentary" prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

But as a formality, let's take a look at all of the nominees, in alphabetical order:

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) – My memory is a little foggy of this one since it's been almost a year since I saw it, but know this much: few people have had as rough a life as Thavi Phrasavath, and even fewer have bounced back with such impressive resilience. After fleeing Laos as a teen when the U.S. betrayed its ally in the Vietnam War, Thavi's family was given "refuge" in the urban jungle of Brooklyn, NY (which in the early 80's was not yet, it should be noted, a gentrified hipster enclave). Soon after, another betrayal within the family left Thavi as a confused, frustrated young man who felt abandoned by both his old country and his new country.

It was during this tumultuous time – 1985, to be exact – that a young filmmaker named Ellen Kuras would discover Thavi and begin filming his daily life as part of a grad school project. Twenty-three years later, the film is complete, even if the story is not. Kuras, whose name may be familiar to people from her work as a cinematographer (He Got Game, Blow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind), reportedly has a great reputation in Hollywood. Will it be enough to earn her an Oscar as a first-time nominee? It would be a great story, but a win would still be a major upset considering that the film has not yet seen a wide release.

Encounters at the End of the World – Best seen on a massive, sprawling screen, this love letter to Antarctica (and, believe it or not, Roger Ebert) is part "Planet Earth" and part, well, Werner Herzog (if you've seen enough of his films you know he defies categorization). The brilliance of Encounters, aside from the technical aspects and jaw-dropping underwater cinematography, is that Herzog seamlessly blends an examination of the science-fiction creatures living at the bottom of the earth with an examination of the science-obsessed nerds sharing the ice with them. It's like a trip to the zoo in winter, but there are people on display here as well.

The chance for a win here is questionable considering the film wasn't universally considered a success, but Herzog is greatly admired and his demographic is right in the sweet spot of the Academy voting block. Plus, there are no doubt some people still sore that his 2005 acclaimed documentary Grizzly Man was ruled ineligible a few years ago. This could be a chance at redemption, which the Academy loves to do across all categories (Scorsese's win, Denzel Washington's win, etc.).

The Garden – The only nominee I haven't seen and the one that deserves the award for Most Boring Title, if nothing else. It's centered around the legal battle that resulted from the City of Los Angeles selling a 14-acre piece of land in South Central that had been developed into a thriving urban farm. The trailer makes it look like a gripping legal thriller in the style of Michael Clayton, but I'm not buying it. Few people have even seen this film (try to find reviews of it), but then again it's probably a bigger story in L.A., where much of the Academy resides, than anywhere else. Maybe some hometown love? Doubtful, so this remains the longshot.

Man on Wire – Easily the most popular documentary since An Inconvenient Truth, this has been the front-runner for a solid 12 months, and it landed on many critics' and bloggers' Top 10 lists (mine included, but only #4 in the doc list). Heavily using reenactments and archival footage, it retells the riveting story of Philippe Petit's historic high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. The fact that Petit is interviewed throughout the film in the present day somehow doesn't register when you see him walking thousands of feet in the air – how did this person not die? Even if Man on Wire didn't affect me on a deeply emotional level, I can appreciate that the story of Petit's feat is completely engrossing, and a real testament to the best of the human spirit in all of us. I'll be shocked if James Marsh is not holding an Oscar statuette on Sunday night.

Trouble the Water – Winner of the "Documentary" prize at Sundance in 2008 (alongside Man on Wire, which as I mentioned took home the "World Cinema – Documentary" prize), Trouble the Water represents not one, but two major themes that have comprised several recent documentaries: 1.) it's not actually what you think it's about, which in this case is Hurricane Katrina (the same can be said for Surfwise and Blindsight); and 2.) the completed film didn't resemble what the filmmakers originally set out to make (Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father this year and My Kid Could Paint That last year).

So what it is about? Well, a lot of things, but primarily the daily lives of individuals in the lower economic classes of America. The disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina is simply the lens through which this indictment is made clear - these class differences were around long before Katrina, and they'll be around long after her. But that doesn't stop Kimberly and Scott Roberts, the subjects of the film, from determinedly bettering themselves and their community. It's depressing and inspiring at the same time, and among these five nominees it would likely receive my personal vote. I think its chances of beating Man on Wire are slim, but still better than the other nominees.

Final Prediction: Man on Wire

P.S. You might remember I predicted No End in Sight to win last year. It didn't.


  1. Our venerable documentary expert Dan Getahun has again given an exhaustive examination of the year's documentary crop. You may have been wrong last year Dan, but I think you have it called right this time! Still you do make an interesting case for "pay-back" time for Warner Herzog!

  2. Thanks, Sam. Since writing this I'm becoming increasingly curious about the chances of Trouble the Water (my personal choice among these nominees) actually taking the prize on Sunday. Man on Wire is far and away the populist choice, but voters in the category are required to see all five nominees before voting, and you never know if they'll have the same experience as the rest of the American public.


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