2012 Oscar Checklist – Part 10: Documentary Feature

Not as good as last year’s slate, but a really good year nonetheless. Here are reviews of all 5 nominees for Best Documentary Feature.

Hell and Back Again

In a sea of documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan, it helps to have a distinguishing characteristic. Hell and Back Again offers up two. In Sergeant Nathan Harris, the film has a fascinating central figure. By following him not just during his tour in Afghanistan but also during his first few months acclimating to civilian life and his injuries, the film offers up a dual narrative. The construction is masterful. At one point we’ll see Nathan leading soldiers during a firefight, then cut to Nathan struggling to find a parking spot at Wal-Mart. Guess which activity stresses him out more?

There’s a lot of fantastic combat footage. The film gets a great look at the POV of a soldier. It also shows how the most difficult thing about Afghanistan is winning the hearts and minds of the people. Talking with locals and advocating for their own presence can be just as daunting as a firefight.

At home, Nathan has to deal with PTSD and rehabilitating his blown-off hip/knee. He’s grateful to be alive, but still yearns for battle. It can be hard to tell if Nathan is playing to the camera or if his behavior is natural, but the filmmakers capture some intimate moments. The guy has some serious problems. He’s a bit too attached to his gun and is understandably stressed and depressed. Both scenes home and away are intense, and it’s hard to say which situation is worse for a guy like Nathan.

The material does start to repeat itself a little. Unfortunately, the reality of the story doesn’t lend either section a proper ending. We know he is shot in battle but that footage was not captured and that half of the film just fades away. And at home, it just ends. There’s no corner turned or realization to be had. The movie ends in a kind of purgatory, which is not very satisfying. They needed to either chop it down to a short or stick with Nathan longer to see where his story went. There’s still some unique and powerful material here.

Grade: B

 If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

This is a story about eco-terrorism that could have been great but settles for pretty good. It’s about the founding of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), how they operated, and how the justice department took most of it down. The subject is fascinating. The environment and its protection is a volatile debate with many sides and opinions. And here we have a group of people breaking the law and putting their lives in danger for a cause they believe in. It’s all very intriguing and thought-provoking.

It seems like the movie would work best if told almost like a thriller with ideas. What they do instead is focus on one not very interesting dude, Daniel McGowan. Daniel is on house arrest until trial for his participation in the ELF. The film traces Daniel’s story and how he became an activist and then a “terrorist.” The helplessness and disillusionment felt about the topic is powerful stuff, but this one guy is not that interesting. I’m not always a fan of putting a face on a story and humanizing it, but it seems this was the filmmakers best way into the story. It doesn’t help me empathize; it simply narrows down a vaster story. More details about the issues would have served the movie better than clips from Daniel’s wedding.

It’s hard to tell if the filmmakers are advocating for the ELF or totally against it. They seem to recognize the grey area and present a balanced piece, but it could have been explored further. Right when you think they might, the film becomes about whether or not these crusaders should be labeled terrorists or not. As if the whole film had been about this one tiny debate. There’s a great documentary to be made about these issues, and If a Tree Falls is not quite it.

Grade: B-

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

I have not seen the first two Paradise Lost documentaries, but if they’re anything like this one, I can’t wait. Perhaps the most important of the nominees, Paradise Lost 3 is about the infamous West Memphis Three (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley). They were three teenagers convicted of brutally murdering three little boys back in the 90’s. 18 years later they are now grown men still behind bars, and still desperately appealing for a new trial.

The film takes a matter of fact, no frills approach to the material. For those, like me, who are new to the story, they do a crisp job of presenting what happened, what’s happened since and where everything stands now. This is a gripping case for many reasons. The crime itself has many facets and details that could have been delved into further. The resulting witch-hunt and wrongful imprisonment is its own crazy but true saga.

New evidence is brought forth and a simple breakdown of the material frustrates to no end. Even though this is the third film, it still feels like there’s more to explore. I actually wanted more facts and figures. It’s also remarkable to see how the case has evolved, how hindsight doesn’t change the facts just the emotions of the participants.

The story is still ongoing but the filmmakers must be commended for following through with this ordeal. They didn’t just find a great story. They found an injustice and felt obligated to do the right thing. Emotions run high not because of any manipulation but the potent truth of the material. If only this movie didn’t need to exist.

Grade: A-


This is a 3D dance film from Wim Wenders about famed choreographer Pina Bausch. If you’ve seen Pedro Almdovar’s Talk to Her then you’ve seen some of Pina’s work. It’s very strange, almost like performance art, but very striking and moving too.

The documentary strings together scenes of her troupe recreating some of her most famous work. In between pieces, her dancers stare at the camera as we hear in voice-over their own thoughts on Pina. There’s no real history of or background given, it’s just her work brought to life and speaking for itself.

The 3D here is a must. The whole point is to bring the audience closer to the work and the 3D is stunning at doing just that. At times you might wish some talking head would show up and explain just what exactly you’re watching. It can be a tad taxing having to acclimate to something totally new and radical every 5 minutes. But the work is beautiful. A lot of it is primal, dealing with the elements. Other bits seem to be about basic relationships between genders. In one section, a woman stands motionless while men swarm around her rushing to pull on her ear or rub her belly or pull her arm.

It might sound reductive to say this is just a filmed play, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that, and especially not when the results are so weird and stunning.

Grade: B+


Okay, not to be crass, but fuck The Blind Side. That film makes me sick to my stomach after watching this amazing documentary. Undefeated is about the Manassas Tigers, a high school football team in a rundown neighborhood of Memphis Tennessee. The school hasn’t won a playoff game in over 100 years, and the film follows their efforts to turn the team around under their devoted volunteer coach Bill Courtney. Poverty and crime has kept their program down, but by instilling a sense of pride and character, their coach hopes to improve not just the team but his player’s lives.

The coach is one massive find for the filmmakers. He’s loud and funny and truly cares for his players. He also has his own sad story and reason for wanting to coach and help as much as possible. He’s not the only interesting character the filmmakers were lucky enough to find; O.C. is the gentle giant of a lineman hoping to get into college but struggling with his grades. Money is the heart of the team. He’s smart but too small to play professionally and is still coping with the death of his father. Chavis is fresh out of juvenile hall. He has major anger issues and has to learn to put the team first.

It is unbelievable the ups and downs and thrilling moments that happen during their season. You couldn’t script a better film, and the filmmakers capture all of it. I found myself cheering like I was watching my own team playing in the Super Bowl. Conversely, I found myself bawling like I’ve never bawled before at the movies. There are so many scenes that will tear your heart right out. I gave up fighting it and must have wiped tears off my cheeks for the final 20 minutes.

It doesn’t overplay its winning hand. They simply construct a stirring story from the powerful raw material they’re given. It’s an amazing achievement that earns a spot right next to Hoop Dreams as a great sports documentary.

Grade: A


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