I have only been able to find two of the Best Documentary nominees. I regret that I couldn’t see more but I’m not sure I’d be in a much better position to predict a winner if I had. After last year, where the undisputedly entertaining and interesting 20 Feet from Stardom won over the thought-provoking, troubling, and almost universally acclaimed The Act of Killing, I wondered what criteria voters were using to decide what the Best Documentary was.
The best thing about awards season is it gives us the chance to look back on our favourites of the year and talk about them, argue about them, and think about what makes a movie better than another. In this case, what makes a good documentary?
All four of us here at Assholes Watching Movies have predicted a win this year for Citizenfour, one of the only two nominated docs that I’ve been able to see. My thinking was that, not only is it the subject matter important- which is a tough thing to measure against the other nominees- but one that the Acadamey is sure to endorse. We’re all feeling a little sensitive about our cyber security right now. Even Hollywood, with a major studio being hacked just a few months ago. Just as director Laura Poitras was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, this might be the right movie at the right time.
A great documentary, like any great movie, is about more than the topic. A great documentary has to be great, not just important. Poitras was fortunate enough to get footage of history as it happens, instead of just interviewing people about it later. Unfortunately, as I said when I reviewed Citizenfour last month, she didn’t get enough of this footage to fill a whole movie and seems to spend the rest of the movie struggling to fill it, without asking some of the tough questions that I would have liked to have seen asked.
Virunga, the other nominated doc that I watched, also got great footage and important subject matter; civil war in the Congo. Like in Citizenfour, the subjects and filmmakers take serious risks and in some cases make great personal sacrifices in their quest for justice. The difference is that director Orlando von Einsiedel knows how to use his great footage to tell a great story and edits it together to form a finished film with a genuine emotional impact. “I cried,” wrote fellow Asshole Jay. This is why am hoping that Virunga wins the Oscar, even if I predict that Citizenfour will.
Note: This started out as a review of a fantastic 2013 documentary called Gideon’s Army but I seemed to have gotten sidetracked. I’ll have to write that tomorrow.
What was your favourite documentary of 2014? Have you seen any of the other three nominees? What do you think makes a great documentary? We’d love to hear from you.