Oscars 2011: Best Documentary Feature & Short

If you thought I had no clue in the race for animated and live-action short films, let us move on to the documentary films, where my uncertainty trumps all. Many of these films are available on Netflix Instant Play, but I have yet to dive in — for shame. That certainly does not do how I feel about documentaries any justice; I love good docs as I think there’s not better way to convey how life and art can be so intertwined.

Best Documentary, Short Subject

  • “Killing in the Name”
  • “Poster Girl”
  • “Strangers No More”
  • “Sun Come Up”
  • “The Warriors of Qiugang”

Okay, so from what I’m gathering, this year’s slate of doc shorts focuses a lot on social, political and environmental issues, most of which are conflicts very familiar to most people. Most are stirring, shocking and tragic.

“Killing in the Name” focuses on a Jordanian couple whose wedding turned tragic when an Islamic Fundamentalist suicide bombing impacted the hotel where they were celebrating, killing nearly 30 of their guests and three of their parents. The man has since become a vocal anti-terrorism activist, but the forgotten part here is that a huge majority of the victims of these attacks are actually Muslims.

“The Warriors of Qiugang” brings to light another treaded and retreaded topic. In China and much of the Far East, it should come as no shock that some terrible things happen and the government doesn’t do a damn thing about them. We saw this in last year’s winning feature “The Cove” as well as “China’s Unnatural Disaster,” the 2010-nominated short. This story focuses on a chemical plant that has polluted a Chinese community and caused a spike in cancer rates. The resistance by the citizens there has fallen upon deaf ears, of course.

The last (and apparently best) of these “foreign country issue” docs is “Sun Come Up,” about the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, which are slowly dissolving into the ocean thanks to climate change and the rise in sea level. With the land being sacred to them, they must address issues of finding new homes, but the mainland government will not provide them any of their own land. The trailer to this film is gorgeous to say the least.

The two more hyped films are “Poster Girl” and “Strangers No More.” The former is centered around Robynn Murray, a once-perfect all-American girl who graced the front cover of Army Magazine as the ideal soldier. Now, of course, she has become disillusioned with the army and wrestles with devastating PTSD. The film creates an intimate portrait of this compelling figured.

“Strangers No More” combines much of these things and maybe more importantly, tells the only hopeful story of the bunch. A school Tel Aviv brings together students from 48 different countries (that even includes Darfur) and unites them through learning Hebrew but also much more. Check out a trailer for that here.

The last two years saw AMPAS award films based in foreign countries dealing overcoming obstacles. “Music by Prudence,” which despite resulting in an awkward acceptance speech moment because the filmmakers were at odds with each other, showed a young girl overcoming odds with music and the year before was about children with cleft palates/lips, a social destructive condition that can easily be fixed. That would lead me to believe “Sun Come Up” and “Strangers No More” are the favorites. A compelling focus such as in “Poster Girl” is a big part of that too, but I think the others’ subjects are more unique.

Prediction: “Strangers No More”

Best Documentary, Feature

  • “Exit Through the Gift Shop”
  • “GasLand”
  • “Inside Job”
  • “Restrepo”
  • “Waste Land”

At least three of these are available for me to watch. Heck, I might even watch one after I’m done blogging here. But yea, here is a link to EW.com, which has trailers to give you a taste of each film. Anyway, there’s a clear favorite this year for Best Documentary, though with it comes an interesting question.

It’s first in the order, but “Exit Through the Gift Shop” has been the most buzzed-about film of the bunch and makes for quite possibly the most interesting of all these rather excellent docs. The street artist Banksy, who the film is partially about and who kind of made the film too, is an elusive figure known for being as unpredictable as he is unidentifiable. As such, if “Gift Shop” wins as many suspect, who will accept? Or how? I think that prospect ought to make for a thrilling ceremony next weekend. Anyway, the film follows a man following Banksy’s exploits but who then sort of becomes the subject of the film himself.

The other intriguing films that have a shot are “Inside Job” and “Restrepo.” The former is your typical well-funded Michael Moore-esque documentary that shows how the 2008 collapse came at the hands of greedy Wall Street folks who decided to cash in rather than prevent the economic downturn.

“Restrepo” follows a platoon of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. The film easily marks the closest anyone’s gotten to real life military action in Afghanistan for the purposes of making a film. Free of commentary, the portraits of the men who hold up a fortress they call Restrepo after a fallen friend must certainly speak for themselves.

“Waste Land” and “GasLand” though they sound similar, tell drastically different stories. “Waste Land” follows Brazilian-born Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz as he returns to Rio to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, in hopes of turning all that trash into art. “GasLand” focuses more on an issue, not unlike the short subject documentaries, that of families across the Great Plains leasing their land to an energy company for purposes of natural gas drilling. Despite the money, the effects on their health and water supply have been disastrous.

Prediction: “Exit Through the Gift Shop”


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