Only two rather basic flavors are represented in this year’s documentary Oscar rundown, and it’s to the doc branch’s great shame that they couldn’t see fit to nominate a pair of movies each containing multitudes that would give Baskin-Robbins a cold sweat: Laurie Anderson’s very subjective and philosophical Heart of a Dog, which astonishingly managed to make it to the list of 15 finalists, and Frederick Wiseman’s uncompromisingly democratic In Jackson Heights, which didn’t. A nomination for either would have single-handedly liberated the entire category from its continuing, medium-reductive fascination with activist-leaning, politically charged current-events studies and intimate, troubled personal portraits from the arts industries.
Which isn’t to say that either subset can’t be done with intelligence, class, and ingenuity. Two years after being nominated for The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer is once again in the running for his follow-up piece, which further uncovers the aftereffect that the Indonesian genocide of the mid ’60s has had on the survivors and perpetrators, and will almost certainly once again lose to a musician biography (but more on that in a bit). Compared to the disquieting reenactments of its predecessor, The Look of Silence instead opts for a more direct, but still formally rigorous, approach. The earlier film handed the voices of evil enough wire to garrote themselves. This time, while stopping well short of The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Oppenheimer favors a more clearly moral, confrontational strategy. No other movie in the lineup boasts more hauntingly beautiful images (as in a cyclist slowly scooting away from the camera with at least two dozen ducks perched on a pillow behind him), but this has never been a category where the strength of a movie’s framing has proven to tip any scales.
Strength, however, is the perfect word to describe the stunning images of Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, assembled almost entirely of blood-in-eye footage from the trenches of the massive Maidan protests against then-president Viktor Yanukovych and his government allies, who worked against the nation’s EU agreement. Undeniably reminiscent of previous Netflix nominee The Square, Winter on Fire is agitprop at its most direct, with alarming violence on a grand scale. It’s overwhelming to the point of being exhausting, and unlike The Look of Silence (or the category’s other newsflash nominee, Cartel Land, which similarly places its cameras in harm’s way), it exorcises its demons with an unabashedly triumphant coda, marking it as a true dark horse in this race.
It would be tidy to predict that the turbulent life and times of that goddess Nina Simone were profiled in a documentary of such power and relevance that voters would coronate it without even having to speculate on its win as another reaction to #OscarsSoWhite. But there are two wrenches in that proposition. First, What Happened, Miss Simone? disappointingly and probably inevitably falls well short of its subject’s stature, shortchanging Simone’s genius and her politics and making objectionable apologies for the domestic abuse she suffered and delivered. Second, well, let’s just say this Oscar cycle has served as a potent reminder of just how welcoming the Hollywood establishment can be when challenged by thorny black artists. In the end, Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which almost distractingly makes it a point to avoid the talking-heads strategy Simone’s documentary falls victim to, but delivers the tragic story of Winehouse’s rise and fall with genuine empathy, probably would’ve had this award sewn up even without its boffo box office.
Will Win: Amy
Could Win: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Should Win: The Look of Silence