Oscar Checklist – Part One: Docs, Thoughts, and Links

Photo: Bob DAmico/ABC

I will never be able to understand it, but I am pretty obsessed with the Academy Awards. It’s on par with my fanatical list-making. I think it comes down to the simple fact that it involves movies, the history and discussion of, no matter how trivial, and therefore garners my complete attention. So now that the nominees are out and we have less than a month before the ceremony, I’m going to do what I try to do every year and catch up on as many nominees that I can. This year I have a blog, so I figured I would umm… blog about what I see leading up to Feb. 27th.

If you want predictions for what will win, I’m not going to do that (here) and I recommend you check out InContention.com. I’m merely reviewing what I see, informing you of its content and quality. I will comment on the nominations a film has received a little but it’s not the main focus. When I get to the end I will offer up my own nominations, my top ten of 2010, and Adam and I might do a little Oscar quibble, time permitting.

The good news, I’ve seen a lot of nominees already, and I will avoid repeating my thoughts on all of them. But if you don’t remember, here are the previously posted reviews:

Inception – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects

The Kids Are All Right – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay

The King’s Speech – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Sound Mixing, Best Editing

127 Hours – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Song

The Social Network – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Score

Toy Story 3 – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Animated Feature, Best Song, Best Sound Editing

True Grit – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction

Winter’s Bone – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay

Rabbit Hole – Nominated for Best Actress

The Town – Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

How To Train Your Dragon – Nominated for Best Animated Feature, Best Score

Another Year – Nominated for Best Original Screenplay

Inside Job – Nominated for Best Documentary

TRON: Legacy – Nominated for Best Sound Editing

Iron Man 2 – Nominated for Best Visual Effects

And Adam wrote reviews for:

Black Swan – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Editing

The Fighter – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress x2, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing

Blue Valentine – Nominated for Best Actress

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part One – Nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction

Dogtooth – Nominated for Best Foreign Film

I’ve seen these as well and pretty much agree with his thoughts on each. Although, I think I hated the latest Potter while he was more ambivalent, and I admired Dogtooth with a little less passion then he did.

That leaves a bunch of shorts, documentaries, foreign films and a few other odds and ends to check off, as well as a few things I saw but never chimed in about. Ideally, there will be some commentary about every nominee somewhere on Shooting The Script by the time I’m finished. With that being said, let us begin checking off the list.

Restrepo – Nominated for Best Documentary

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger embedded themselves for 15 months with some of the most battle tested soldiers in one of the most dangerous warzones on Earth. The result is Restrepo. It’s a boots on the ground account of the battles, the boredom, and the camaraderie of combat.

©Tim Hetherington

The film’s focus is the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, which we learn is not a safe place to raise your kids. The film doesn’t waste words trying to explain politics or reasons for the U.S. presence in the Valley. The filmmakers are far more interested in the soldier and the toll the daily toil of battle takes on their minds, bodies, and souls. Intercut between footage from the Valley are interviews with the afflicted soldiers, well after their harrowing tour of duty. They recount their experiences, talk about PTSD, and generally unnerve you with their confessions.

©Tim Hetherington

Most of this is fascinating and compelling material. The soldiers are more than frank and make for interesting subjects. The battle footage is at times jaw dropping. There are firefights, explosions, precarious missions and a most disturbing scene where one soldier loses it completely, practically regressing to a childlike state. But, I said “most” and not “all” for a reason. At about 90 minutes long, the film shouldn’t drag but at times it does. I know some of this is due to the rhythms of conflict, but after 15 months of shooting I’d expect more than what I saw.

The film is miraculous for even existing, but I won’t give it a free pass based solely on that achievement. More than enough bravery went into this movie, from the soldiers as well as the filmmakers, but that’s not enough. The material is more suited to a documentary short or PBS special. I appreciate the gesture and the ideals at work, but I can’t attest to having been riveted for the entire runtime.

Grade: C

Gasland – Nominated for Best Documentary

If you haven’t seen or heard about Gasland yet, then I implore you to seek it out. It had a nice run on HBO and is now out on DVD. It might be the most politically important documentary in a year full of gems like fellow nominee Inside Job and perennial talking point Waiting for “Superman”. I think that’s saying something.

Gasland is about natural gas drilling, specifically a technique called “hydraulic fracking,” and the outrageous damage the process has on the environment as well as human life. What makes the film so special isn’t the importance of the cause, though it is important, but the presentation. Director Josh Fox fashions an interesting film more like a cross-country travelogue, that also happens to be investigating corporate malfeasance and political neglect along the way.

Fox is a major character in his documentary. He isn’t standing on some soapbox or screaming through a megaphone like say Michael Moore, but he still shapes the movie around his own persona and his own anger. Fox’s monotonous narration is slightly off-putting, but distinctive and thus adds to the personal feel of this communal crisis.

The impromptu feel of the picture doesn’t diminish the message. There are laws being circumvented and lives being damaged, all for the mighty dollar and the supposedly “clean” energy of natural gas. The fracking happening all across the country is ruining fresh water, poisoning the populace, and wreaking too much havoc for me to list here.

Of course, the hook is when Fox learns that because of contaminated groundwater folks can light their tap water on fire. I can tell you a million times that someone can light their water on fire, but when you see it for yourself it holds a special kind of power. Shocking. Fracking, and natural gas may not be the topic de jour, but this movie is smart, effective, and entertaining regardless of the change it hopes to achieve.

Grade: A

Exit Through the Gift Shop – Nominated for Best Documentary

This is such a unique and specific film that I don’t really know where to start. Calling it a chronicle of the burgeoning street art movement does it no justice, especially if the idea of graffiti as art offends you. The key thing I want to get across is that even if you know nothing about street art, even if you’ve never heard of Banksy (I hadn’t), this film will fascinate you.

The film is drolly narrated by Rhys Ifans and it is initially the story of an immigrant Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. Thierry lives in L.A. and is obsessed with filming everything. He has thousands of tapes, some labeled, many not, piled up in plastic bins. A lot of the tapes contain the most mundane and poorly shot footage this side of The Blair Witch Project. The footage starts to get interesting when Thierry discovers his cousin, still living in France, is a street artist. Curious about his kin’s nighttime shenanigans, Thierry begins to incessantly follow and film his exploits.

Eventually this leads to Thierry meeting more street artists and subsequently filming them. This is the typical part of the documentary that in and of itself would be a compelling film. It’s like if a camera crew was present the first time the Sex Pistols rehearsed. Thierry’s obsession led him to something special. He hadn’t intended to make a documentary about street art but he was doing just that.

The film stops being typical about here, because this isn’t Thierry’s film, it is Banksy’s.

At some point, Thierry meets Banksy, the de facto king of street art, and he takes over the film. This is hard to explain, so I won’t, you just need to see it for yourself. Banksy turns the tables and the movie now becomes about Thierry and how he becomes Mr. Brainwash, the successful street artist. At this point you start to see the incredulity of what you’re watching and the absurd humor of the whole enterprise.

Is this for real? Did this really happen? What is art? What is selling out? And is the joke on us or is there really anything to be laughing at in the first place? These are questions that are merely posed but not answered. Banksy, for his part, remains anonymous, elusive as ever. He has, however, made an exceptional film, whether it be real or some prank it’s certainly a work of art.

Grade: A

I have yet to see the fifth documentary nominated, Wasteland, but I hear really good things. Hopefully, I will mange to check it off some time in the next few weeks. Out of the four I’ve seen, I am very pleased with three of the picks. I’m no authority on documentaries, as there are plenty I’ve missed, but I would be hard pressed to find another three to replace Inside Job, Gasland, and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my ridiculous quest, where I will take a look at some animated features and a few lone nominees from Italy and Australia.

2 responses to “Oscar Checklist – Part One: Docs, Thoughts, and Links

  1. Pingback: The Trouble with Quibbles: 2011 Oscars | Shooting the Script

  2. Pingback: Oscar Checklist – Part 8: Salute Your Shorts | Shooting the Script

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