We’re one week away from the Oscar nominations, people! It is very nearly GO time, and I am getting psyched up! The anticipation, the trepidation, the sheer worry about availability of nominees in this continuing pandemic have got me all of the dither right now. But at least there’s one area where I can safely say that the Blitz mission has been accomplished. As of today, I’ve completed the Documentary Feature shortlist, and can finish the reviews for the final five films.
These last five were a bit harder to watch than the previous five. Only three were readily available through streaming and VOD services at first, one literally just came out in theatres this past Friday, and the last one has been an absolute chore to track down. But it’s all in the books now. So, as before, I’ll provide mini reviews to complete the category in advance of next week’s nods, and breathe a bit easier knowing there’s at least one box checked off as the Blitz draws ever nearer.
My Octopus Teacher – Available on Netflix
Craig Foster is a nature documentarian who admits that he got burned out on his career and went into something of a spiral of depression, becoming distant from his family and the things he loves, like swimming and diving. In 2010, he slowly got back into the depths in a kelp forest near his home in South Africa. There, he met a common octopus, and over the course of the next year, developed a bond with it that satisfied not only his natural curiosity, but provided a sort of therapy. My Octopus Teacher is the video record of this rapport, shown in incredible detail as Foster heals himself through the octopus’ lifespan.
The camera work is at times simply breathtaking, and it is somewhat heartwarming to see the octopus slowly develop a trust with Foster, learning to see him not as a threat but as a companion. There are also some genuinely fascinating moments where Foster shows her adapting to her environment, learning to protect herself, and coming up with innovative strategies to hunt for food. There’s definitely a case to be made that octopuses are much more intelligent than we give them credit.
However, there are two major problems with the film. The first is that this is a textbook example of the Observer Effect gone awry. It’s one thing to watch something and have it watch you back and adapt to your presence. That’s just unavoidable sometimes in this medium. But for Foster, it becomes almost like a codependency. to the point that his stated purpose of becoming a better father to his son seems abandoned. Son Tom does make a couple appearances in the film, and even has an interest in joining his dad on his work, but that’s about five total minutes of the runtime, whereas Craig waxes philosophic and poetic about his adopted mollusk for the vast majority of the film.
The second is that, given that this film has a TV-G rating, it’s arguably too scary for its intended audience. Foster makes it clear from the beginning that we’re eventually going to watch the octopus die, as its lifespan is only just over a year. That information alone might turn off the youngest viewers. But more than that, on multiple occasions the octopus has to escape and defend herself from the local predators, pyjama sharks (so named because of their stripes). While harmless to humans, these sharks look kind of creepy and are definitely framed and underscored as the danger they are to the octopus, so kids can easily get scared during the more intense moments. The final resolution of life’s circle in this respect honestly left me a bit sick to my stomach (which was a shame, because I haven’t had takoyaki in forever and this movie was putting me in the mood for a while), and if children get invested in this story, they’re going to cry more than when Bambi’s mom got shot, and that’s the last thing a parent wants right now when searching for a distraction for their youngest ones on Netflix.
The Painter and the Thief – Available through Virtual Cinemas
In 2014, artist Barbora Kysilkova had two paintings stolen from a gallery in Norway. At the trial, she met one of the robbers, Karl Bertil-Nordland, an intelligent small-time criminal and drug addict who did not recall even committing the crime, even though CCTV cameras captured the whole thing. Fascinated by this complex and sensitive individual, Barbora forms a friendship with Karl, and even begins to paint his portrait, in an attempt to explore the dimensions of his personality as well as potentially jog his memory about what happened to her work.
If this sounds familiar, as it immediately did to me, you wouldn’t be crazy, as it’s eerily similar to the plot of a Simpsons episode called “Pokey Mom,” where Marge volunteers as an art teacher at the local prison and meets a man named Jack (voiced by Michael Keaton), who despite his felonious past is a talented and artistic soul. This leads Marge to advocate for his parole and eventually take him in, with sad but predictable results.
It’s very likely because of that half hour cartoon from 20 years ago that I really couldn’t get into this film. I kept seeing Marge’s quixotic mission to change a man she can’t change just because of the shared bond of art. Karl isn’t beyond help, and he shouldn’t be treated as such, but he’s certainly beyond Barbora’s help. She’s just not equipped to provide the rehabilitative aid he needs, as evidenced by his second act recidivism. It also doesn’t help matters that Barbora becomes adamantly obsessed with Karl, trying to drag memory of the robbery out of him, and it’s just not there. Half the early conversations they have turn to the stolen paintings, and it gets annoying after a while.
The film does do well in presenting the two people as the multidimensional humans they are, and there are certainly moments when their rapport is borderline inspirational. Watching Karl break down in tears at the sight of his portrait is a moment of pure gold. Originally this was intended to be a short film, and that would have been the perfect capper. There are significant events that occur after this point, but honestly it could have all been summed up with a couple quick shots or a postscript text slate, maybe with some epilogue scenes during the credits. Instead, we get over an hour of unnecessary padding in the service of two future bullet points that just makes the film overstay its welcome. Had the filmmakers stuck with the original plan of a short, I’d be 100% advocating for it, but there’s really not enough substance here for a feature.
Time – Available on Amazon Prime
Garrett Bradley became the first black woman to win the Documentary Directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her film, Time, about a dedicated wife and mother (Sibil Fox Richardson, aka Fox Rich) fighting to get her husband Robert released from prison. Combining modern footage with home movies, Fox has spent the better part of the last 15 years trying to secure her husband’s freedom.
An indictment of the prison-industrial complex, Fox’s crusade has instant credibility because it’s grounded in honesty. She makes no excuses for her and Robert’s crime. While running a failing small business, the two robbed a credit union. Fox took a plea deal that got her a three-year sentence, of which she served 18 months, in order to get back to her children and attempt to raise them properly. Robert went to trial and got convicted, and in Louisiana, where the statute calls for a sentence of anywhere from 5-99 years, he was given 60 with no chance of parole or probation. Ever since her own release, Fox has been appealing for a new sentence for Robert, in hopes that he’ll have a chance to be a father to his six sons. In addition to her own advocacy, Fox has committed herself to personal reform and betterment, showing that someone can come back from a terrible deed. Now a successful car dealer, she proves that we are not defined by our worst moments or actions.
The main detraction from the film is in what Bradley shows and doesn’t show. By necessity, she can’t give us an indication of Robert’s life behind bars, because the cameras simply aren’t allowed in. But what I would have liked to see is a bit of the process Fox had to go through to get her husband back. The best we get are delays and phone calls from law clerks for judges who are simply dragging their feet on processing paperwork. If it really is just laziness and red tape holding Robert back, that’s not exactly compelling, but it’s never made explicit. Fox carries herself like someone making a legal Hail Mary pass in the name of justice, but she and Bradley never actually tell us what’s holding up the works, and I think the film suffers a bit for that.
Still, it’s a good story with a good ending, though I could have done without the shot of Robert and Fox fucking in the back of the truck after he’s released. That was a bit much. Either save it until you get home or simply don’t film it.
The Truffle Hunters – Available in Limited Theatres
I made a trip back to the drive-in to catch this delightful little film, which was just released last week and may only be available for a few more days. Luca Guadagnino serves as an Executive Producer on this project, a story about people you’re unlikely to ever meet. In the woodland areas of Italy, a group of aging men engage in a very niche career, using dogs to sniff out and dig up truffles, highly-valuable fungi used in the fanciest of restaurants around the world. I remember an episode of Hell’s Kitchen where Gordon Ramsay once bragged about charging over $250 dollars for truffle pizzas because they’re so rare and apparently delicious. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never had it.
Such a narrow focus wouldn’t normally yield such a high quality film, but directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw strike gold because of two key decisions. The first is to contrast the simple lives of the hunters with that of their restaurant buyer and a high-end dealer/connoisseur who delights in the luxury of his station in life. Looking like an editorial cartoon of the idle rich, this almost grotesquely fat man sits in judgment over the quality of the truffles the hunters scrounge up in increasingly short supply, literally looking his nose down at the commoners and selling their wares for more than 10 times their worth, while the restaurant manager, who serves as a middle man, does whatever he can to haggle with the hunters and stiff them out of hard-earned funds they need to subsist. It’s a microcosm of class warfare if I’ve ever seen it.
But what really sells the film, the highest mark of all, are the dogs, who are simply goddamn adorable. They are the stars of the film, to the point where I recall their names much clearer than those of their owners. There’s Leona, who bathes with her master, a middle-aged man who drums in his spare time. There’s Birba, who is just spoiled rotten by her elderly owner. He feeds her at the table. No, literally, at the table. She sits on top of it and everything. He talks to her like she’s his child, and in his advanced age he’s trying to figure out how to make sure she’s cared for after he dies, as he lives alone and has no family. And then there’s Titina, owned by Carlo, whose name I only remember because his wife is shown multiple times calling out to the woods to get him to come inside and stop working. Not for nothing, I started recalling the old Lassie TV show where Timmy called for his dog in a similar manner in the show’s opening. There are other dogs as well, but these are the main three who get the most screen time.
These dogs are just the best. They’re sweet and full of personality. They’re loyal beyond measure. Occasionally we even get a first-person (canine) perspective when cameras are strapped to their collars and they’re set loose to sniff out the buried prizes. It’s actually quite exciting to be in the moment with them, though they go so fast at times that if you get motion sickness you might not enjoy it quite so much.
It’s a lovely contrast. These dogs, and their masters, live simple, honest, and happy lives in their symbiotic existences. Meanwhile, the world around them seeks to take advantage wherever they can, from shorting payments to mafia tactics to secure land and territory, to the threat of the dogs being poisoned by greedy opportunists. It’s a big, dangerous world out there, but these loveable scruff pups make you feel like it’s all okay. They have no concept of the larger problems facing their owners, but they still find a way to protect, and after a very depressing year, it’s the comfort food we all need.
Gunda – Available through Limited Virtual Cinemas
Last but most assuredly not least, there’s Gunda, directed by Viktor Kossakovsky, who was shortlisted in this category last year with the unique and fascinating Aquarela, with Joaquin Phoenix serving as Executive Producer. Like his previous outing, this film is without a doubt the most distinctive of the group. It’s shot in black and white with absolutely no dialogue or ambient soundtrack. The film is simply 90 minutes showing the life of farm animals, and it is fucking magical!
Focusing primarily on a family of pigs led by the titular matriarch, Gunda takes extreme measures to avoid the Observer Effect as much as humanly possible, keeping the filmmakers’ involvement as antiseptic as can be managed. In a post-film interview with Phoenix, Kossakovsky noted that he hired a special Steadicam operator who knew exactly how close they could get to the animals without them being scared off or attempting to interact. It is utterly amazing the candid angles they’re able to get because of this extraordinary level of care and restraint, and because of that, the personalities of the animals, such as they are, can really shine through.
The opening scene shows just how artistic this film is, as Gunda lies on her side, her head barely sticking out of her wooden pen. In the silhouetted background, you can just make out the faint outlines of something moving behind her head. When the first little piglet scurries its way out and falls down in the straw, struggling to get back in, we find that Gunda has just given birth to a litter, and they’re all scrounging for a teat to nurse. It’s such a beautiful shot because we learn about Gunda’s newfound motherhood by basically watching the piglets getting birthed out of their domicile rather than a womb. The farm itself is bringing life into this world, and it’s gorgeous. It can also be cruel and unfair, as we learn several times throughout the course of the movie. Kossakovsky is a lifelong vegetarian and now vegan, and while he says that he didn’t expressly make this film on an agenda, he does openly wonder how someone can watch it and not question why they eat meat. I’ll admit, I was eating a burger while watching, and the film at least gave me momentary pause. For a meat-and-potatoes Irishman such as myself, that is saying a LOT.
In addition to Gunda and her brood, we get extended sequences (mostly to break up the film’s timeline) in the form of cows and chickens. Again, the camera angles here are amazing, as we simply watch a group of roosters, including one with only one leg, take their first timid steps from their transport crate into the farmland itself. The cows are covered head to toe in flies until a couple have the novel idea to stand side to side facing opposite directions and use their tails to swat the bugs away.
It’s moments like these, in addition to Gunda herself, where Kossakovsky dares you as a viewer to not anthropomorphize these creatures. And it’s a challenge, I assure you. There are several scenes where Gunda’s young crowd around her in hopes of nursing, and no matter what she does to discourage them, eventually she always acquiesces and assumes the position with her distended teats ready to go. She almost seems to stare off in the distance when this happens, as if she’s sighing to herself, “Fucking kids.” It really is hard not to project thought bubbles, and that’s exactly what Kossakovsky intended.
This was the hardest film to track down, as it had its qualifying run back in December, and it’s only getting sporadic Virtual Cinema play here and there. So I’ll give you a bit of a hand on this one. For this week only, if you go to watch.neonrated.com, you can purchase a six-film rental of movies that distributor NEON has submitted for the Oscars. For about $20, you can watch Gunda, The Painter and the Thief, and Notturno in the Documentary shortlist, as well as Quo Vadis, Aida?, The Night of the Kings, and Dear Comrades! from the International Feature list. Again, you only have until the end of this week to sign up, but it’s well worth your time, especially Gunda.
That’s it for this year’s Documentary Feature Shortlist. Five of these films will have their names called on Monday, and one will take home the gold. If you want to know which five I’d nominate… you’ll have to wait. I mean, you could just read all the reviews and that’ll give you a general idea, but you won’t get the full answer until I cover this category during the Blitz. Thankfully, since this is the first category that I’ve definitely completed, it’ll be the first one I write up once the nominations are in place. As always, when the time comes, I’ll compare and contrast the five nominees, and I’ll also place them alongside my overall rankings for the entire shortlist. So that’s something to look forward to. Only one week to go until the Blitz begins!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which were your favorites? Who would have thought a pig could make me cry without a spider telling the world how great it was? Let me know!