The Act of Killing is favored to take the Best Documentary statuette at Sunday's Oscar ceremony. Credit: Dave_B_/Flickr
The five films nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this year represent a wide range of subject matter and aesthetic vision, but they all have one thing in common: a tendency to underwhelm the imagination. The Act of Killing, The Square, Dirty Wars, 20 Feet From Stardom and Cutie and the Boxer are all solid, competent works which touch — but only touch — on weighty issues ranging from genocide to revolution to covert war to artistic self-expression. Each film is engaging but unremarkable. And one in particular (The Act of Killing), the odds-on favorite to take the statuette this Sunday is even questionable in terms of its approach and presentation.
Killing is undeniably a strange and original work, set in northern Indonesia where aging gangsters film Hollywood-style scenes that recreate murders they committed during an obscure but horrific genocide in the late '60s. Two main characters share the screen: one a charismatic playboy living a comfortable retirement, the other his fat, outlandish compatriot, who relishes his role as both co-director and star of the resulting movie scenes, eagerly willing to don make-up and women’s clothing in a range of garish cameos. What may not be entirely clear when viewing the film is that the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, invited these killers to re-enact their atrocities for his camera, essentially creating documentary material where none existed before.
This approach struck me as ethically dubious until I read the press notes for the film and discovered Oppenheimer has dedicated much of his work to truth and reconciliation inquiries. The reenactments are intended as therapy. The resulting psychodramas, never meant to be viewed by an audience, force the killers to confront their awful crimes and come clean. The results are powerful, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that the movie’s bizarre scheme, grisly realities and buffoonish characters supersede, for entertainment’s sake, the director’s more admirable intentions.
The Square is Egyptian-born director Jehane Noujaim’s ground level report from the center of Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the chaotic —and still ongoing — people’s revolution. A fiery and brave depiction of the often confusing events, the movie blends rough, hand-held footage with quieter moments as it follows a few key participants in the uprising. One or two characters standout while others, briefly introduced and vaguely sketched, drift in and out of the action, which often ends up being a jumble of repetitious scenes. Noujaim’s desire to let events spill across the screen is inspiring in its veracity, but her movie could have benefited from a more coherent overall design.
In contrast, Dirty Wars is practically all design. The weakest of the Best Documentary nominees, the movie is packaged with the sleek, dark contours of a cable TV thriller, but the film’s noble purpose is obscured by an abundance of technique. This murky investigation into the collateral damage of America’s covert wars is simply too huge a subject for a movie that stars, in an almost literal Hollywood sense, the investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. Way too many scenes of the handsome, brooding Scahill hunched over his laptop, walking the steamy streets of Manhattan or riding pensively in the backseat of an Afghan cab. A praiseworthy attempt, but flashy and unmemorable.
The last two documentaries live at opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum. 20 Feet From Stardom is a standard issue, crowd-pleasing rock doc, featuring many fine musical performances and two characters (among a too-large cast), Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, who deserve their very own film. As usual with this sub-genre, there were too many talking heads and not enough music.
Cutie and the Boxer is the most intimate and revealing film of the five nominees, a charming character study of a long-standing artistic marriage of opposites. The movie is a bit twee in places, and there are few revelations or surprises, but it may be the one film in the category that delivers exactly what it promises.
This story first appeared in Rustin Thompson's blog The Restless Critic.