OSCARS 2018: Best Documentary Feature Film

A deceptively rich crop of feature-length non-fiction works this season are not being served by Academy voters; it seems that the membership is being swayed by low-hanging fruit (exhibit A: LA92, a look back a the circumstance that precipitated the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992 that utilizes footage from Visual Communications own Media Archive). With MY picks, I aim to rectify the Academy’s cinematic lethargy by choosing rigor over flash. Okay, here goes…


ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL Directed by Steve James
The latest by the acclaimed director of HOOP DREAMS (1994) has enjoyed a lengthy festival tour, in the process bringing to light the notion that when it comes to people of color, we don’t get a fair shake. Unfolding like a crime procedural combining elements of reality television (think, LAW AND ORDER meets NBC DATELINE), the story of the Sung family and how low-level malfeasance at their family-run savings and loan unfolds organically, reminiscent of director James’ most noteworthy past productions. Ultimately, ABACUS vilifies the excesses that precipitated the 2008 economic crisis and, in the process, casts a sympathetic though complicated light on an American family caught in the cross-hairs of the legal system for little more than their ethnicity.


DINA Directed by Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini
I understood that DINA was a highly-polarizing Grand Jury Award winner at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, besting more brassy, attention-getting fare as STRONG ISLAND or ICARUS, both of which are included in my recommendations below. What I also understand is that this love story colored by its portrayal of abilities-challenged people who still have the capacity to function, persevere, and love in today’s society was a treat, an anomaly in a year full of in-your-face non-fiction stories ranging on the consequences and outcomes of power, lies, and corruption. In comparison, DINA was intimate, personable, and aware — qualities that puts this work firmly on my list.


ICARUS Directed by Bryan Fogel
Cut from the cloth of investigative journalist practice as Steven James’ ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL, Bryan Fogel’s Sundance Film Festival award-winning effort teases a hint of scientific espionage — well okay, quite a lot — in its expose of a Russian scientist at the center of that country’s Olympic doping scandal. Looking at many other fine films later in the awards season — THE SHAPE OF WATER and MOLLY’S GAME come to mind — ICARUS plays on, or even manipulates my conspiracy theory/post Clod War predilections. I guess that for me then, ICARUS contains all my personal “trigger warning” about well-meaning people doing horrible things in other parts of the world. Who knows if the same things aren’t happening here in America…


STRONG ISLAND Directed by Yance Ford
The first of two works that meditate on grief, loss, and justice, the arresting STRONG ISLAND is probably the best-told story among my personal recommendations for a coveted Academy Award nomination. And little wonder. Director Yance Ford’s meditation on the life of his brother William, murdered in 1992, provides the catalyst for director Ford to recount his family’s live as transplanted Jim Crow-era Southerners to the promise of a better life in New York City. The ways in which the Ford family deal with such a horrendous loss forms the core of this powerful, mesmerizing story; the backstory brings a chilling, yet sadly familiar ingredient in understanding the entirety of the American Experience.


WHOSE STREETS? Directed by Sabaah Folayan
Instead of going with the herd and supporting the exhaustively researched and ultimately familiar and tired LA92, I’m going with this white-hot you-are-there account of the events leading up to the four-day Ferguson, MO riots in the wake of the murder of teenager Michael Brown. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen filmmakers employ the “Newsreel” style of journalistic filmmaking pioneered in the late 1960s, but Sabaah Folayan’s unflinching camerawork not only recalls that vanguard filmmaking style — it even recalls the perseverance of the equally immediate and pertinent past Oscar winner HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. (1976). LA92 is we’ve-been-there filmmaking. WHOSE STREETS is we-are-right-thuur filmmaking. And I think we NEED to be “right-thuur.”


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