by Rob Boylan
At the time I wrote my Top Five Documentaries of 2013 piece in early December, I still hadn't seen The Square or Twenty Feet from Stardom. Had I have seen them, it would have changed up my list a little bit.
Though I'm still left surprised by the omissions of Blackfish and Stories We Tell, this is, overall an excellent group of films. The Act of Killing is a remarkable strong, humbling, hard to watch film. It's lunacy. The film's subjects are so casual about so many deaths that it doesn't compute at times. But backing off on a film because it's hard to watch is a weak way to go through life.
Dirty Wars is the one film that sticks out a little for me in the group because it's composed with the biggest pet peeve I have about documentaries: the director as the subject. The film unfolds as a document of Jeremy Scahill's reporting. He's a great reporter, but the reporting should be the focus, not the process of the reporting (to me anyway). It's a personal thing -- it bothers me with Alex Gibney, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock as well -- and if I edit Scahill out in my head an concentrate on the story, I see an important story coming to the fore.
The only thing that might bother me more about documentaries are unfinished stories. I'm fine with unfinished stories (or, just ambiguous endings) in narrative films, but in documentaries I really want two things: context and clarity.
Twenty Feet from Stardom sort of falls under this category because a few of the singers are still going strong, but the main part of the story (Darlene Love and the Phil Spector Wall of Sound era) happened 50 years ago, so we're removed enough from the original start to have both the context and clarity I need, and that the continuation of the story doesn't mess with.
The Square, on the other hand, is an unfinished story because the story in Egypt is still fluid. To me, that's a problem for the film. There is no context or clarity because the story hasn't had time to firm up. There is a reason you don't cut into a steak without letting it rest, and it's the same for filming real life stories. But I have to say that it's the film I probably connected to the most on an emotional level. It's a highly emotional, immediate film, one that puts a real face to what happened in Tahir Square.
Next to so much death, war and subjugation Cutie and the Boxer might seem somewhat frivolous because of the colorful, artsy image it presented, but at it's core its as much about subjugation as the rest of the films, just a quieter version because it comes out in comic art form. It's not any less deserving of a nod because it isn't life and death, and it's also not an uncommon opinion that art actually is life and death.
The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
20 Feet from Stardom – Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen, and Caitrin Rogers
Cutie and the Boxer – Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher
Dirty Wars – Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill
The Square – Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
It's a tough group to choose one from. My heart says The Square, my head says The Act of Killing and ears say Twenty Feet from Stardom. I'm not going to cop out and not pick one, I'm just going to do it like taking off a band aid. Quickly, so it stings less and then we move on to Jacki's picks for Best Supporting.