The Best and Worst 2014 Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

Documentaries need to tackle important issues facing society today. Or be really fucked up.

Those may not be your criteria for a “good documentary,” and those certainly aren’t the requirements to get nominated for an Academy Award, but those are my requirements. If a documentary doesn’t meet such requirements, with rare exception, it usually gets a big fat McKayla Maroney unimpressed sticker.

With that in mind, I’ve ranked the five 2014 Oscar-nominated documentaries (released in 2013) in order of preference. This is by no means meant to predict the Oscars, though I always hope that Oscar voters have as good of taste as I do. Given the choices at hand, that is clearly not the case.

5. 20 Feet from Stardom

If you read my introductory paragraphs, which you probably didn’t, you’ll understand why a documentary about backup singers did not rank highly on my list. 20 Feet from Stardom has an interesting premise, though; while we all have our favorite musicians, those women in the backgrounds – you know, the ones who often sing some of the most memorable parts of songs – get overlooked. Few people know their name, and yet many are extremely talented and have had celebrated careers working with some of the most major groups of our time.

So, if that’s your cup of tea, great. It makes for a great 15-minute segment in a news show or on MTV. But by half an hour into this feature-length documentary, I lost interest. I’m really not sure how or why this movie was nominated for an Oscar.

4. Cutie and the Boxer

Only marginally more impactful than 20 Feet from Stardom is Cutie and the Boxer, a cute movie about two elderly artists living in New York City who… are artists. Their wildly different art is interesting, and their story and relationship with one another is a curiosity, but still, there is not a lot of meat to sink my teeth into. This documentary tells us about interesting people, but I need documentaries to do more than that.

3. The Act of Killing

Probably the frontrunner for Best Documentary Feature and for good reason, I am torn by The Act of Killing. The premise is simply fascinating: the filmmakers not only interview several of the men responsible for committing genocide in Indonesia in the 1960’s (and who are now revered as heroes), but they get these men to reenact how they committed these atrocities, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically, as if they were starring in their own Hollywood production (which they are, to an extent). These men are so nonchalant about their killings that the entire Indonesian crew opted to remain anonymous for fear of death.

That’s pretty fucked up, and pretty fascinating.

I’ve probably talked to friends about this documentary more than any other, and yet the actual film underwhelmed me. Why? It gets boring fast. It’s a weird paradox that I haven’t been able to wrap my head around, but about half an hour in, the documentary seems to have said everything it needed to say… and then goes on for another hour and a half.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the disturbing aspects of the film, and that it is one of the most unique documentaries in recent memory.

2. Dirty Wars

Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill pulls the cover back on several American covert missions, posing questions about major cover-ups in Afghanistan and elsewhere that hide modern-day atrocities involving the deaths of women, children and innocent villagers.

Dirty Wars is a fairly straightforward documentary about stuff the United States doesn’t want us to know, and as a result it meets both of my criteria: it addresses an issue that the American public (and the world) should know, and it’s a little disturbing, too.

Is Dirty Wars the most powerful documentary of its kind (there have been several movies like this released in the 21st century, sadly)? No. But given the fairly weak competition in this year’s race, it earns the #2 spot nonetheless.

1. The Square

Even The Square didn’t blow me away, but it is fascinating in that it offers the audience a firsthand account of democracy forming. About several young people involved in the Egyptian revolution, the documentary establishes that “democracy forming” is a lot different than “democracy succeeding.”

The Square does not hold back in its views of former dictator Mubarek, the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi and eventually the military. It’s interesting to watch as the individuals featured slowly realize that every victory leads to new problems, and that obtaining true democracy is not as easy as initially expected.

The documentary also features some disturbing footage of the military torturing, shooting and even running over Egyptian citizens with trucks.

For all these reasons, The Square is the best documentary among the five films nominated for an Oscar, and my pick for Best Documentary Feature.

Who do I think will win? The Act of Killing.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Awards & Oscars, Documentaries, Featured, Top 10 Movie Lists