Let's get real
The Oscars are nearluy upon us, so it’s time to catch up on all those documentaries you’ve been wanting to see. Netflix has three of the current Oscar-nominated documentaries (two of them produced by the company itself), and there are a host of other documentaries—nominated and not—streaming elsewhere.
I can also recommend another Oscar-winner that’s a fictional romance using documentary-style interviews to enhance its story, and a couple of other movies that use drama to highlight real-life violence going on in Boston and Chicago.
Two other films come from television writers and directors who have turned to feature filmmaking: One is a coming-of-age story based on his own experiences growing up, and another is a crime story about a deeply troubled middle-aged man.
Finally, there’s a chiller from director Ridley Scott, whose The Martian is among the current Best Picture nominees. His Hannibal wasn’t nominated for anything, but sometimes we just need to turn off our brains and watch something superficial.
Cartel Land (Netflix)
Cartel Land is the first of three current Oscar nominated documentaries streaming on Netflix. (The fourth, Amy, is available on Amazon Prime, and the fifth, The Look of Silence, is available for digital rental.) It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder how its director, Matthew Heineman, didn’t get himself killed. He goes deep into the thick of things to tell stories of people trying to oppose the all-powerful Mexican drug cartels.
In Mexico, small-town doctor Jose Mireles leads a group called the Autodefensas, defending their village against the evil Knights Templar. We see Mireles give rousing speeches, and then go back to work to help the sick. In Arizona, veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley also leads a group of off-the-grid warriors to try to keep the cartels from crossing the border into the U.S. What Heineman does here, cleverly, is to demonstrate how power corrupts—not only the cartels, but those who have organized to stop them. Kathryn Bigelow, no stranger to dangerous film shoots (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), executive-produced.
Winter on Fire (Netflix)
Oscar-nominee Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) is another film that seems to have put its director in harm’s way. Evgeny Afineevsky documents an honest-to-goodness revolution, begun on Facebook, as the people of Ukraine gathered to protest the country’s crooked president. They considered him to be a Russian pawn who refused to let Ukraine join the European Union. Eventually the Berkut was called in. The Berkut were ostensibly a special police force, but they were really just hired goons who had no qualms about harming peaceful protestors. This ordeal lasted some 93 days, from the end of 2013 and into 2014.
Afineevsky seems to have placed his camera right on the front lines, capturing brutality, death, and courage in the midst of freezing snow and smoke from burning tires. Subsequent talking-head interviews with many of the survivors help explain what’s happening, though it’s a little disappointing that with such powerful footage, Afineevsky resorts to such traditional documentary techniques. This is a Netflix original, and it recalls the powerful The Square (2013)—another Oscar-nominated Netflix original—about a similar uprising in Egypt.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix)
This documentary about the politically active African-American singer Nina Simone deserves to be seen, especially with the “oscarsowhite” hashtag still trending on Twitter. In What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), director Liz Garbus tells the story of this troubled prodigy who started her career at age 4, studying classical piano. While playing in nightclubs to try to pay the rent, she was told she needed to sing—and out came that unforgettable voice.
The movie details Simone’s rise to fame with hits like “I Loves You Porgy,” and her marriage to former cop Andrew Stroud (good manager, bad husband). She began performing political songs (“Mississippi Goddam”) during the Civil Rights Movement, unable to conceal her rage and pain. Later, she was treated for what might have been bipolar disorder. Garbus interviews Simone’s daughter, niece, and surviving bandmates, and includes tons of great footage of the star in concert, attempting to explain her particular brand of musical genius, and largely succeeding. The title of the film comes from Maya Angelou, a question that is never answered.
In-between Ridley Scott’s two Oscar-winners Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001), he released this horror sequel, and for my money, it’s the most interesting of the trio. Mason Verger (a hideously twisted Gary Oldman), is the only surviving victim of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, who returns in his Oscar-winning role). Verger contacts Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, taking over from Jodie Foster), in the hopes of drawing out Lecter to exact his revenge. Probably not a good plan.
Scott spares nothing here, from the opulent, shadowy settings and Italian tapestries to extreme brain-eating gore. He doesn’t play it safe and doesn’t pander to Oscar voters, and yet his compositions are among the most meticulous of his career. Truth be told, this style-over-substance horror is more in line with the first Hannibal movie, the unsung Manhunter (1986), than it is with The Silence of the Lambs (1991). None other than David Mamet and Steven Zaillian wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Next up was Brett Ratner’s soulless, money-grubbing remake Red Dragon (2002), which doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence.
This outstanding movie was the one and only feature film written and directed by the late Henry Bromell, whose television career included a long stint on “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Panic (2000) stars William H. Macy in a great performance as Alex, a hitman who works for his father (Donald Sutherland), and is married to Martha (Tracey Ullman). Yet he’s severely depressed, and begins seeing a therapist (John Ritter). While in the waiting room, he meets Sarah (Neve Campbell) and is instantly smitten with her, feeling that she could possibly make him happy again. Bromell’s situations and dialogue are uncompromisingly realistic, never shying away from difficult questions or answers. Likewise, his widescreen compositions are striking for their use of empty space and hard angles, emphasizing the character’s lost feeling. Yet the movie contains its share of quirky, absurdist touches, such as Martha’s mail-order business she runs from their living room (she remains oblivious of her husband’s real career).
Unfortunately, Panic movie suffered a dual blow and was barely released. First, the studio tested the film—about a middle-aged man’s mid-life crisis—with teen girls, who knew Neve Campbell from her TV show Party of Five. This, of course, did not go well. Then, the movie—about a hitman who sees a shrink—was unfairly compared with The Sopranos, and most didn’t bother to note the sharp differences. Don’t miss this great film.
Chi-Raq (Amazon Prime)
In the controversy over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015) is one of the movies that might have been considered—for something; for what is anyone’s guess. This is an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink production that takes several minutes to even describe. Firstly, it’s based on the 2400-year-old play Lysistrata. by Aristophanes, about a woman who begins withholding sex in an attempt to get the men to stop fighting with each other. But it’s based in modern-day Chicago, where the murder rate is apparently higher than the death toll in Iraq. Hence the title is a mashup of the words “Chicago” and “Iraq.”
Rather than keeping the centuries-old dialog, Lee and Kevin Willmott wrote the film’s dialog in hip-hop verse. Samuel L. Jackson plays the Greek Chorus, wearing an array of multi-colored suits, and we get the occasional music and/or dance number. Teyonah Parris, a force of nature, plays Lysistrata, and Nick Cannon plays her beau, who has also adopted the nickname Chi-Raq. John Cusack plays a white preacher, Wesley Snipes is hilarious as a one-eyed gang member, Angela Bassett is a voice-of-reason neighborhood woman, and even Dave Chappelle turns up in a small part! It’s a lot, and it goes on for 127 minutes. I can’t say it all works, but it catches Lee in a more positive mood, and it has a few moments that stumble close to greatness.
Maverick filmmaker James Toback cast his friend Mike Tyson in small roles in a couple of his films (Black and White and When Will I Be Loved) before making this feature-length documentary on Tyson’s life and career. In Tyson (2009), Toback gets the heavyweight champ to talk openly about many topics, but also appears to be rushing to defend and protect his friend, and the movie doesn’t dig as deep as it might have.
Tyson is sometimes wonderfully well-spoken (love his use of the word “skullduggery”), telling stories of his childhood as a fat kid with glasses, and moved to tears when talking about his first trainer and father figure Constantine “Cus” D’Amato. And, yes, the movie even tells the story of Evander Holyfield’s ear. The movie includes plenty of terrific fight footage, and Toback edits with an unusual rhythm to create a musical effect. But the most fascinating moment is when Tyson reveals the key to his greatness. Before each fight, he would lock eyes with his opponent, and if the opponent flinched, he knew the fight was won; no amount of physical prowess could equal that moment of psychological might.
Searching for Sugar Man (Crackle)
An Oscar-winner for Best Documentary, Searching for Sugar Man (2012) is one of those rare winners that is more entertaining than sociopolitical, and it had an amazing story, to boot. In Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez embarked on a musical career, making music not dissimilar to Bob Dylan’s, but with his own personality. But his records failed, and he more or less disappeared.
Years later, somehow, bootleg recordings of his songs became popular in South Africa, and were taken as anthems in the anti-Apartheid movement. These were accompanied by stories that Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage, lighting himself on fire. Finally, two fans began searching for the truth, and to find out what really happened to the singer. The results are surprising, and quite wonderful. Sadly director Malik Bendjelloul committed suicide in 2014 after struggling with depression.
Another Oscar-winner, Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) also happens to use documentary-like techniques to tell its epic story. Beatty plays radical American journalist John Reed, who, in the early 20th century, believes that Communism might help American labor, and he winds up involved in the Russian Revolution. The first half of the film establishes the characters and the politics, while the second half becomes a full-blown romance, with his true love, writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). To complicate matters, playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) is also interested in Louise.
In-between, real-life interviews with friends of Reed and Bryant’s—including Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller—offer their own interpretations of events, which sometimes do not jibe with the film itself; it’s a fascinating effect, freeing the movie from being the final word on the subject. Reds received 12 nominations, including Best Picture and Beatty, Keaton, and Nicholson for acting, but it won only three: Best Director (Beatty), Best Cinematography (the great Vittorio Storaro), and Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton).
Not Fade Away (TubiTV)
David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, made his feature directing debut with this mood/memory piece. Set in the 1960s, Not Fade Away (2012) is about a group of youngsters who are inspired by the Rolling Stones to start their own garage band. But eventually girls, jobs, school, and other bits of life get in the way of dreams of fame and fortune. Chase is more interested in capturing the tone of a time and place than he is in telling a story (some of his plot turns are a little awkward).
At one point, characters go to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up in a movie theater and ponder its mysteries; this isn’t that kind of movie, but Chase succeeds enough to make this one worth a look. Viewers who were there at the time will connect a little more with it, and the soundtrack features some great tunes. James Gandolfini, as always, is terrific in a supporting role as a grumpy father, and newcomers John Magaro, Jack Huston, and Will Brill take the lead. Technically this was not Chase’s first produced feature film screenplay; that honor belongs to a 1972 horror movie called Grave of the Vampire. True fact.
Genghis Blues (Fandor)
A Best Documentary Oscar nominee, Genghis Blues (1999) is another music-based film telling the story of blind guitarist and songwriter Paul Pena, who wrote the Steve Miller Band hit, “Jet Airliner” before falling on hard times. One night, Pena caught some strange music on his shortwave radio and he became fascinated with it.
It was Tuvan throat singing, which, when mastered somehow, amazingly, allows one to sing two notes at once. It sounds a little like an Australian didjeridu, or like a “frog swallowing a whistle,” but it’s some of the spookiest and most mesmerizing stuff I’ve ever heard. Pena began practicing and became one of the only Americans to master it. Filmmaker Roko Belic depicts Pena’s trip to Tuva to meet other singers and perform in a local festival. It’s a ragged film, and it works mainly because of Pena, who seems like a sad, shy man with a huge heart. Sadly, Pena died of cancer in 2005.
One of the best of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) will play perfectly at home; McCarthy directed it with an emphasis on nuanced writing and performing, without much focus on flashy visuals. It depicts the story of how the “Spotlight” team of the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church’s covering up of pedophile priests, and discovered nearly 100 priests in the city alone who had molested children. McCarthy and Josh Singer’s meticulous screenplay shows the mundane daily tasks of sorting through old documents, interviewing victims, and following up on leads, with the Spotlight team constantly butting heads and comparing notes. Admirably, the movie holds back from preaching or showing gruesome flashbacks of priests doing evil things.
Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James are the team, with John Slattery their managing editor and Liev Schreiber as the new editor-in-chief (an outsider in Boston). Stanley Tucci is incredible as a moody, yet helpful lawyer, with Billy Crudup as a slippery bad lawyer. Aside from Best Picture, its Oscar nominations include Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (McAdams), Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing.
case you missed it, here’s a link to last week’s streaming recommendations.