Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscar Nominees: The Frontrunner

Title: Man on Wire
Director: James Marsh
Awards already won: 21 wins, six nominations

Summary: In 1974, French performance artist Philippe Petit hid with several friends after hours in the World Trade Center, strung a high wire between its Twin Towers...and walked between them for the better part of an hour, to the amazement of New Yorkers on the streets below. How Petit planned and executed his spectacle is detailed in extensive interviews with Petit and those who helped him achieve his dream (From the Oscars website).

Personal Hype: Hands down, James Marsh’ film has always been my frontrunner for best documentary. It’s creative, enticing and totally original. It’s one knock is that its definitely a more light hearted, entertaining subject- something that usually holds films back from winning Oscars. However, Marsh demonstrates his artistic genius in Man on Wire and the Academy seems more willing to acknowledge great films that aren’t topical or emotionally draining. For those reasons, I feel the Academy rights the wrongs of the recent past and selects this great documentary.

Oscar Nominees: The Runner-Up

Title: Trouble the Water
Director: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal
Awards already won: 6 wins (including cleaning up at the Full Frame Doc. Festival), 2 nominations

Summary: As the drama of Hurricane Katrina unfolded, New Orleans resident Kimberly Roberts recorded the chaos and devastation of her own experience on videotape. Her footage forms the heart of this portrait of Roberts's long journey with her husband, from the early days of the storm to their subsequent evacuation, resettlement in Memphis, and eventual return to the decimated city (From the Oscars website).

Personal Hype: A documentary I originally ignored, believing I knew everything it had to offer and in many ways I still feel that way. But, those who have seen this documentary have nothing but praise and come away truly impacted. Shot entirely by local citizens, this is probably my number two on my list for potential Oscar winners. I still don’t think it could win, but wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

Oscar Nominees: The Dark Horse

Title: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Director: Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
Awards already won: 1 win, two nominations

Summary: The life of Laotian immigrant Thavisouk Phrasavath serves as a metaphor for the far-reaching repercussions that are still felt from America's involvement in the Vietnam War. When his family suffered persecution following the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia as a result of his father's work for the CIA, Phrasavath's mother fled with eight of her ten children to a life of poverty in Brooklyn (From the Oscars website).

Personal Hype: The dark horse candidate for best documentary. Ellen Kuras’ film captivates in a way Errol Morris’ films held audiences. It lacks a major U.S. following and boasts even fewer awards, but the story is both well known and totally unique: a perfect combination for a potential Oscar winner in this category.

Oscar Nominees: The Long Shot

Title: Encounters at the End of the World
Director: Werner Herzog
Awards already won: No wins, 2 nominations

Summary: In the extreme conditions that define existence in Antarctica, filmmaker Werner Herzog explores the range of personalities who have been drawn to spend their working lives in one of the world's harshest environments. From research scientists to blue collar workers, Herzog's subjects demonstrate a self-reliance and intrepid sense of adventure that both equip them for their frigid surroundings and place them outside the mainstream of society (From the Oscars website).

Personal Hype: I’m gonna be honest, I think Werner Herzog is kinda a selfish prick, but he just makes very good films. With the backing of Discovery, you know the visuals will be top notch, but can Herzog’s film carry a story. More importantly, can the Academy enjoy this talented director’s work despite his pompous narrations? Judging by its lack of awards, probably not.

Oscar Nominees: The Extreme Long Shot

Title: The Garden
Director: Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Awards already won: Grand Jury Prize at Silverdocs Documentary Festival

Summary: In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a fourteen-acre expanse of city-owned land in a South Central neighborhood was developed by local residents into one of the country's largest community gardens. In 2003, the tract was sold back to its original owner, whose plans to develop it prompted area residents to organize in an attempt to stop efforts to oust them from the land (From the Oscars website).

Personal Hype: Scott Hamilton Kennedy receives an Oscar nomination for his second ever feature length documentary, not a bad follow up to his hit OT: Our Town. The Garden looks like a step up from his previous work and could very well be in the same mold as Street Fight (a personal favorite of mine). However, it just doesn’t seem to bring anything unique to the table, so I don't see it winning.

Sundance Films: We Live in Public

Title: We Live in Public
Director: Ondi Timoner
Potential Major Release Date: hitting the festival circuit- next up SXSW!

Summary: Ondi Timoner's documentary chronicles a decade in the life of Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who instigated an "artificial society" experiment in which more than 100 artists lived under 24-hour surveillance in an underground compound in New York City. After FEMA broke up the project, Harris turned the cameras on himself and his girlfriend. Timoner's provocative film (winner of the Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at Sundance) includes clips from Harris's projects as well as her own original footage (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I tried to save the best for last as Ondi Timoner stole my heart with her previous work: Dig!. Her latest film, We Live in Public, came out of the gate in full stride, winning the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary. After watching the trailer it’s easy to see why Sundance was captivated by her work. This story seems infinitely more edgy then even Dig! and I can’t wait to see how she handles this subject matter. A toast to the Sundance Grand Jury prize winner!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sundance Films: Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy

Title: Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy
Director: Robert Townsend
Website: No website found
Potential Major Release Date: No known release dates beyond Sundance

Summary: Directors Robert Townsend and Quincy Newell offer this comprehensive and hilarious examination of the history, evolution and cultural significance of African American comedy in America, from the earliest minstrel shows to the latest HBO special. Featuring interviews with cultural critics and loads of comedic clips, this program features appearances by a who's-who of black comedians, including Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg and many more (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I’m not a huge fan of Townsend, but I’m all for this documentary. I love films that explore the evolution of certain aspects of our present society and I think this is a perfect time to explore black comedy and comedians- as many of the classic comedians of this modern day have turned more introspective and reflective. I can see this being a mix of great humor and honest observation. I hope this meets my high expectations… and that it comes to theaters soon.

Sundance Films: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Title: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
Director: Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler
Potential Major Release Date: No known release dates beyond Sundance

Summary: Filmmakers Sarah and Emily Kunstler delve into the life of their father, William Kunstler, whose controversial career and high-profile clients solidified his place in history as one of the most famous -- and reviled -- 20th-century lawyers. The documentary captures a deeply personal journey as the sisters trace their father's shift from representing civil rights activists to defending accused rapists, Mafia bosses and terrorists (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I like everything about this film except that Sarah and Emily Kunstler are behind it. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against them and they’ve more than proven their talents on previous films. What I fear is this is going to be more like a biased research paper instead of an inward reflection. If it were these two filmmakers and daughters of one of the most controversial lawyers in history commenting on their experiences and their journey to discover who their father is, I’m all for it! But, if it’s just them telling the world why they’re complex, but ultimately positive view of their father is right, then I’m less interested.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sundance Films: When You're Strange

Title: When You're Strange
Director: Tom DiCillo
Website: No website found
Potential Major Release Date: No known release dates beyond Sundance

Summary: Composed entirely of original footage from 1966-71, Tom DiCillo's documentary about the Doors filters truth from myth, reveals new insight into Jim Morrison and his bandmates, and captures the essence of the iconic rock group and the era. DiCillo's film pays tribute to the Doors and their music, and to a generation's struggle for individuality and authenticity during an unstable and transformative era in America (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I love these music documentaries when they are done right and capture the creativity and essence of the bands they focus on. From the buzz I’ve heard though, this may not be in the same league as films like Scratch and Dig!, but will most likely be a solid work reminiscent of Shine a Light and The U.S. vs John Lennon. Not groundbreaking, but a solid documentary worth seeing if you’re a Doors fan.

Sundance Films: Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech

Title: Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech
Director: Liz Garbus
Website: No website found
Potential Major Release Date: No known release dates beyond Sundance

Summary: Filmmaker Liz Garbus sheds light on the current state of free speech in America in this documentary, which examines the increase in First Amendment cases generated by both liberals and conservatives in the wake of 9/11. Reflecting on contemporary and historical cases -- including The New York Times's battle to publish the Pentagon Papers -- Garbus explores how fear of an outside enemy has frequently turned Americans against each other (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I’m intrigued by the concept of this documentary, but I have to place it up there with films that (due to their subject matter) could easily sink or swim. There’s very little middle ground for Liz Garbus’ work. It could either serve as a great source of dialogue and debate, or could come across as preachy and forgettable. She’s helmed her fair share of films, but none of them have been major successes.

Sundance Films: Sergio

Title: Sergio
Director: Greg Barker
Website: No website found
Potential Major Release Date: No known release date after Sundance

Summary: Filmmaker Greg Barker's documentary tells the inspiring story of dedicated humanitarian Sérgio Vieira de Mello, his final mission as United Nations ambassador to Iraq and the deadly bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. Through first-person testimony, chilling film footage and gripping reenactments, Barker's film chronicles the day of the terrorist attack and the attempts to save Vieira de Mello (NetFlix).

Thoughts: Greg Barker is a pretty darn good veteran of the PBS documentary world and it’s good to see he’s breaking out of TV to market to a potentially larger audience. The subject is also quite compelling as Sérgio Vieira de Mello was well regarded as a daring aid worker willing to put himself in danger in order to improve dire situations. Barker may not be an exciting or cutting edge filmmaker, but he’s solid and knows how to pick his topics (don’t believe me, check out our review of Ghosts of Rwanda).

Sundance Films: The September Issue

Title: The September Issue
Director: R.J. Cutler
Potential Major Release Date: No known release date after Sundance

Summary: Director R.J. Cutler's documentary offers a rare look inside Vogue as the fashion magazine's influential editor, Anna Wintour, and creative director, Grace Coddington, produce the highly anticipated September issue. Cutler captures the demanding creative process in action for nine months, following perfectionist Wintour and stylist Coddington as they attend fashion week in Europe, endless photo shoots and intense staff meetings (NetFlix).

Thoughts: Eh. I’m already tired of this ‘fashion world’ subject. We’ve had plenty of documentaries and Hollywood films on the topic and frankly I don’t see anything new being brought to the table here. I’m sure fashion enthusiasts are excited, but then again, I doubt they’d want to watch a documentary (isn’t it the ‘peasants genre’?).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sundance Films: Reporter

Title: Reporter
Director: Eric Daniel Metzgar
Potential Major Release Date: No known release date beyond Sundance

Summary: Filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar tracks New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007, where the Pulitzer Prize winner seeks to draw international attention to the war-torn country's humanitarian crisis. Metzgar's thoughtful documentary reflects on the current crisis in journalism, with sophisticated reporting being pushed to the margins as fly-by-night bloggers dominate the news cycle (NetFlix).

Thoughts: Hands down the best trailer I've seen for a documentary in years and I went from being mildly interested to praying it comes to theaters soon. Director Eric Daniel Metzgar clearly knows how to make an important film interesting to everyday citizens, far removed from the conflict plaguing the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite this being only his third feature length documentary, Metzgar shows style, insight and expertise in this trailer and I have no doubt that it will undoubtedly carry over to his film. I have another early nomination for the 2010 Oscars.

(interesting side note: Ben Affleck is the executive producer)

Sundance Films: The Reckoning

Title: The Reckoning
Director: Pamela Yates
Potential Major Release Date: No known release date beyond Sundance

Summary: Three years in the making, Pamela Yates's documentary follows prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and his team as they issue arrest warrants for perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. With the ICC still in its infancy, Moreno-Ocampo must gain support from the international community in order to prosecute warlords from countries such as Uganda, Sudan and Colombia (NetFlix).

Thoughts: I like the idea for this film, especially because I've seen Luis Moreno-Ocampo featured in other documentaries (most notably Darfur Now). Unfortunately, the trailer for Pamela Yates' feature gives me the sense that this will be nothing more than an oversimplified, highly stylized production. It appears Moreno-Ocampo is given Christ-like qualities he must use to rescue the helpless 'others' of the world. I've already written this off unless someone can sway me otherwise. After all, if I need a topic oversimplified or highly-stylized I can watch local news.