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Examining the Docs: This Year's Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

01/21/2014 01:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014

I've now read 647 essays on the 2014 Oscar race. Hustle or Slave? McConaughey or Dern? Blanchett or... well, OK, no one's debating Blanchett. But I have only read four essays on the choices for Best Documentary. This seems unfair to me. Sure, most people think of documentary as the boring time-killer they used to show us in middle school, the vegetables of the film world. If you still believe that, spend a day with Michael Moore, either as entertainment or as punishment. This year's docs are an interesting bunch and, as with the feature films of 2013, there are several titles that didn't get nominated that are well worth your time.

(Helpful hint: for those of you who want to make your own docs, consider changing the first letter of your last name to "M" -- Marker, Maysles, Morris .. these are the greats. For even more oomph, go the double "M" route of Michael Moore.)

In the old days, handicapping the Oscars was formulaic. Disability beat art. Poverty beat disability. War beat poverty. Civil rights beat war. And the Holocaust trumped them all. But now it's far more complicated.

As with all films, there's a lot of personal choice involved. I find myself drifting more toward a Peter Singer-style, utilitarian approach to docs. So if I'm choosing between two movies and both are entertaining and informative, but one is clearly out to change the world, I do find myself favoring the world-changer. That comes into play this year for me, though it may not for you.

This year saw some pretty good films (Bettie Page Reveals All, Generation Iron, Inequality for All) that couldn't get a sniff of Oscar. It saw two films (Blackfish and Stories We Tell) that seemed like shoe-ins for noms, only to be ignored. (The fact that both were directed by women has been the subject of much speculation). And finally, the five nominees:

Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling)

This is the outlier. This story of Japanese artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara is certainly engaging. They are intriguing characters. And the footage of Ushio creating his boxing paintings and, especially, Noriko's comic strip stories of Cutie, reveal quite a bit about artistic creation. But the movie is almost entirely portraiture, without much in the way of narrative drive, and even at 80 minutes, it feels padded. (Why do we watch Ushio swimming for what feels like an eternity?) I would have given this slot to Blackfish.

Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley)

This is an important movie, one that every American citizen really should see. It examines the war on terrorism and asks how effective it has been. The clear thesis of narrator/hero Jeremy Scahill is that covert, violent, and possibly illegal actions have spawned far more new terrorists than they have eliminated. Scahill is an intrepid and fearless reporter, the exact guy you'd want fighting for the truth. But he is also a somewhat somnambulant narrator, and the film takes on an elegiac tone and a repetitive rhetorical style that makes it harder to get through than necessary.

20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville)

This love letter to the background singer -- particularly the African-American female background singer -- is a joy to watch and hear. It is many people's favorite movie of the year, fiction or non-fiction. Hearing about Darlene Love's un-credited performances for the Crystals and Claudia Lennear's time as an Ikette is both entertaining and informative. The film remains largely historical, based on anecdote, and doesn't examine much of the nature of the background singer or the relationship to lead performer, but it is so much fun that it's hard to blame it for that omission.

The Square (Jehane Noujaim)

This is astonishing work. You can read a lot in recent media on how Noujaim made this movie about the 2011 uprising in Egypt centered in Tahrir Square. No matter how she made it, her cameras were there, capturing Ahmad Hassan's youthful idealism turning into a bitter understanding of realpolitik. And capturing Magdy Ashour's moral struggles as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that this story is still very much being written makes it all the more immediate.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, & Anonymous)

In any other year, The Square would be a hands-down winner for me. Not this year. That's because this year featured the most audacious film I believe I have ever seen. In this era of internet spoofs, it's easy to believe that what Joshua Oppenheimer captured on film is a hoax, an SNL skit blown up to two hours. But it is real. The film examines the mass execution of Communists and ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia in the mid 1960s by allowing one of the executioners to talk about and reenact his methods of killing. The pride he shows is surrealistic, as is the Bollywood style film he makes. And though this happened more than fifty years ago, the level of corruption, arrogance, sadism, not mention the influence of American film culture caught on film, makes it very pertinent today. Anwar Congo, both prideful and tormented, is this year's most compelling film character, fiction or non-fiction.

I don't want to be another boring middle-school time killer. But this is film at its best. Watching these movies, it is not hard to draw a direct line from the treatment of Communists in Indonesia in 1965 to the treatment of Muslims by the West today. They inform our current decisions about which government to recognize in Egypt. And they call into question the very nature of our free society, a society that attracted great artists like the Shinoharas and created the amazing music that provides a background, and often a foreground, for so many of our lives.