Oscar Gold 2021 – Documentary Feature

Welcome one and all to the annual Oscar Blitz! At long last, after a year of lockdowns and two months of logistical delays, we finally can begin the countdown to the biggest night in cinema. Now, you may be asking why I call this the Blitz when the articles are called “Oscar Gold.” You’re probably not, buy you may be, and I’ll answer it anyway. Strictly speaking, I began with “Gold” when I first covered the Oscars after I started the blog three years ago. It wasn’t until later that I started referring to the whole process as a “Blitz,” and by the time I thought of something marginally more clever, like the “Oscar Gold Rush,” I was already too used to “Blitz,” so it stuck.

Anyway, this is my favorite time of the year, what I often refer to as my March Madness. And this time, it’s actually taking place during March Madness (and my alma mater, Syracuse, is in the Sweet 16, baby!). The big difference is that you don’t have to watch a litany of stupid ads on repeat for a month straight here, and the only one not getting paid is me, instead of, you know, an entire workforce that brings in billions of dollars.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Oscars, warts and all. For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to see what the professionals doing the work think is the best of their craft, and a lot of times I’ve disagreed (The English Patient? Seriously?). But even the disagreement fueled the passion, because it elevated film from a mere form of entertainment and distraction to the level of art. Entertainment isn’t parsed over or interpreted for years on end. People simply form a one-sentence opinion and move on. But art? Art starts conversations. Art invites controversy. Art profoundly affects different people in different ways.

That’s why the Academy’s full name includes the words “Arts and Sciences.” The Oscars may be a glamorous fellating of Hollywood itself, but it is, at its core, acknowledgement and recognition of scientific and artistic achievement. And while the process could always be more inclusive and transparent, it remains at its most basic a celebration of that great art that unites us far more than it divides us. There will never be 100% consensus, but there will always be something to talk about, be it through hashtags, office pools, or academic study.

So it is with that love, joy, and passion in mind that I obsessively watch everything that gets nominated in addition to all I see over the course of the year, and why I do these breakdowns leading up to the big night. I couldn’t give less of a shit about the host taking group selfies or whatever the fuck dress someone is wearing to talk to Ryan Seacrest and pretend he’s not a soul-sucking ghoul. I care about the art, even when the results baffle and infuriate me. I will always care about the art.

And it is with that in mind that we begin the Blitz proper. Over the next several weeks, every weekday I’ll break down all the nominees in a particular category, weighing the pros and cons, before revealing my personal ranking, with the top choice being what I would vote for if I actually had a say in the matter (Buddha willing, one day…). New this year is the overall Hub Post, which I will update with links to each category as I complete them, and polls for you, the reader, to participate in, either within each post, my Twitter feed (@actually_paid), or both. I’d love to hear from all of you as we make our way down the road to Oscar Night.

We start tonight with Documentary Feature, one of the hardest categories to predict. This is mostly because there aren’t that many documentaries that get a wide enough reach to resonate with general audiences, and whenever they do, the Documentary Branch of the Academy tends to exclude them. It’s one thing to eschew popular opinion as a decision-maker, but it feels like the branch, especially in recent years, is openly hostile to anyone actually liking a documentary. While there is the occasional winner that has pop sensibility and/or the potential for mass appeal (20 Feet From Stardom and Amy come to mind), you have to go back to March of the Penguins for a documentary that was truly beloved by general audiences that won this prize.

This category, for better and worse, is also the most prone to a political agenda. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an inherent bias in the members, but by their very nature, documentaries are films trying to send a message. Even films like Gunda (which was shortlisted this year but not nominated) that emphasize maintaining an antiseptic, purely observational approach, are done so with an intended influence on the audience. The fine line that filmmakers have to walk is to make sure that what they’re advocating for or against can evoke a sense of empathy from the audience. Even biographical films are doomed if they can’t trigger something in the viewer to make them question their preconceived notions, even towards someone they don’t agree with.

Every year I endeavor to watch the entire shortlist of 15 films, because I want to try to figure out where the collective consciousness of the branch lies. What are they thinking year to year? I succeeded in my goal again this year, and based on everything I’ve seen, and this list of nominees, my best guess was that they were looking for a little bit of everything, got multiple examples of several themes into the shortlist, and then picked their respective favorites to fill out an eclectic list. Of the 15 films, all of them fit into at least one of the following thematic categories: Advocacy, Animals, Current Events, Elder Issues, Politics, and Race Issues. There’s a bit of crossover between some of the films, and several can fit into multiple pigeonholes. But it definitely feels like the Documentary Branch voted as if they were picking their favorite Animal film, their favorite Political one, and so on, rather than just looking at the list and picking what they felt were the five best made movies. If that was indeed the methodology, I don’t agree with it, but it definitely leaves us with a final list that’s almost impossible to predict as far as a winner. So just like Oral Roberts and Loyola destroyed your bracket, this category seems guaranteed to screw your office pool. Good luck.

This year’s nominees for Documentary Feature are:

Collective – Alexander Nanau and Bianca Oana

Also nominated for International Feature – equaling the feat accomplished by Honeyland last year – Romania’s entry serves as the Documentary Branch’s pick for “Best Current Events” and “Best Political” documentary over such films as 76 Days, Notturno, All In: The Fight for Democracy, and Boys State. The film is a devastating look at the consequences of corrupt kleptocracy and xenophobic politics in the wake of a national tragedy, as well as a hopeful bit of vindication for the fourth estate.

After a nightclub fire in Bucharest that left dozens dead and over 100 more injured, the local “Sports Gazette” newspaper uncovered a string of cut corners and government corruption so severe that the parliament dissolved. When technocratic interim ministers are brought in to fix the problems, prosecute the offenders, and truly reform the broken system, the very powers that screwed everything up in the first place employ a campaign of nationalistic hatred in order to get their jobs back and prevent anything about their comfortable lifestyles from being changed. Of course, they not only win, but they win with the biggest margins they’ve ever had.

It’s a stark parallel to our own broken politics here in America. Due to an 18th Century loophole, we elected a flat out racist as President despite him losing by three million votes. He then spent four years mired in controversy and scandal, to the point that he faces very real legal jeopardy now that he’s out of office. And yet despite all that, and the fact that he opted for administrative negligence in a pandemic that has killed half a million of us so far (finally got my first dose of the vaccine today, thank Jebus), when he ran for reelection, he got more votes than any incumbent President ever has, and after he lost by seven million votes this time, he incited an armed insurrection against the government to try to overturn the result. That’s how powerful and insidious nationalism can be.

And yet, the film remains hopeful, both in proving how essential journalism is in the face of “fake news” allegations and actual misinformation from hostile sources, and in turning one of the victims into living art. It shows that even in the darkest of times, people can persevere, and flowers can grow from the ashes. Change is a slow process, and it takes people dedicated to the long haul to make it happen, but as long as the truth is still being told, it can happen.

Crip Camp – Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht, and Sara Bolder

Released by Higher Ground Productions, this makes the second nominee in this category in as many years for Barack and Michelle Obama, including last year’s winner, American Factory. They could certainly pull the repeat with this film, which fills in the “Best Advocacy” box in the Branch’s supposed motif over The Painter and the Thief and Welcome to Chechnya.

The film is essentially two short documentaries smashed together into a feature, with the first half dealing with the titular Camp Jened in the Catskills. Campers like Jim LeBrecht – who was born with spina bifida – never had an environment where they could just be normal teenagers with other kids like them. No judgment, no sideways glances, no segregation (which was common in schools at the time). Through home movie and TV documentary footage, we get a tremendous look at a summer of freedom for some really great kids overlooked by mid-20th Century society.

The second half of the film follows the campers into their adult lives, where they reunite and fight for their civil rights and accessibility, led by former camp counselor Judy Heumann. She’s tenacious and inspiring in just how hard she fights, never letting anything stand in her way, literally and figuratively. The fight culminates with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

It’s a wonderful film, but my problem now is the same problem I had when I watched it. These are two shorts presented as one feature, and what I want is two features, giving us even more camp life and even more organization. They’re both tremendous stories, and I think they’re given short shrift by making them run together, especially since the camp footage is just one summer while the ADA fight lasts for decades. At the same time, there’s something to be said for “Leave ’em wanting more,” I guess.

The Mole Agent – Maite Alberdi and Marcela Santibáñez

Chile’s submission to the Academy, which made the shortlist for International Feature but did not get a nod, wins out for “Best Elder Issues” this year over Dick Johnson is Dead, which if the Documentary Branch functioned as the others do, I would have bet anything that it would not only have been nominated, but won. But alas, people liked it, a lot, so it got tossed aside. It really is the one bit of consistency this branch has.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a worthy story. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable. Framed like a playful parody of spy films, including sound-alike “James Bond” music, the film features a man named Sergio, a widower in his 80s, who is hired by a private investigator to go undercover at a nursing home to see if there’s any truth to allegations of abuse by the family of one of the residents.

Sergio is immediately the toast of the town at the home, forging relationships with all the residents, and in a facility where the female/male ratio is about 4:1, he becomes quite popular with the ladies. He quickly finds that nothing untoward is happening, save for a couple of dementia patients acting out and stealing things from other residents, but what he does find is a sense of purpose, a need to give these people a new lease on life by asking the investigator to reach out to the families so as to get more contact between them and their relatives, who feel left behind. Sergio is infinitely sweet and kind, and after a year where everything went to shit and hundreds of thousands of people lost loved ones in isolation, it was heartwarming to see what could have been a devastating look at abuse turn into a life-affirming tale of good people doing the best they can.

My Octopus Teacher – Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, and Craig Foster

In this “Best Animal” finalist, nature photographer Craig Foster, after going through a depression crisis, finds his zen in diving underwater at a kelp forest near his South African home. There, he meets a common octopus, who eventually warms to him, and Craig spends the rest of the octopus’ life – about one year – documenting it as a form of therapy.

The underwater photography is simply gorgeous here. You can really tell that Foster is great at his craft. And it is fascinating to see the octopus adapt to his presence and demonstrate an intelligence you’d never expect from such a creature, particularly in her ability to hunt and camouflage. The film even builds suspense as she gets pursued by pyjama sharks set to a sound-alike Jaws theme.

My biggest problem with the film is two-fold. First, while I’m happy for Foster for finding his inner peace, there’s nothing about him that suggests we needed to see it, especially considering his mentions of being a bad father but only including his son for about five minutes of the proceedings. Given the other animal-centric films in the shortlist (The Truffle Hunters and Gunda), this entry makes the story much more about the human than the fascinating fauna. Second, given the film’s TV-G rating, the scenes with the sharks are genuinely scary for younger viewers. A TV-Y7 or TV-PG rating would have been more appropriate, because when you see a shark tear off one of the octopus’ arms, that could scar a little kid. And since Foster makes clear we’re going to be chronicling the octopus’ entire life, her eventual death will have the youngest viewers crying worse than when Bambi’s mom got shot.

Time – Garrett Bradley, Lauren Domino, and Kellen Quinn

Finally, we have our “Best Race Issues” entry, winning out over MLK/FBI. Shot in black and white as a combination of home movies and current footage, the film tells the story of Sibil Fox Richardson, also known as Fox Rich, who has spent the last 20 years working to secure her husband’s release from prison. Always presented with a racial subtext of unequal justice, Sibil and her husband Robert committed an armed robbery, and while she pled out for a three-year sentence, Robert got 60 years with no parole on his first offense. While there are no outright accusations of racism, the film’s black and white presentation suggests a strong implication that there are no shades of grey here. Robert’s done his time. It’s bullshit that he had to serve this long. Let him out, already.

Like Judy Heumann, Fox Rich is a take-no-prisoners badass, as tenacious as the day is long. She works tirelessly to get Robert out of prison, but also shows that someone can be rehabilitated rather than incarcerated, having reformed her life, become financially successful, and committed herself to giving her six sons as normal a family life as possible. It’s truly inspirational to see her make every effort to make sure her kids know their father, and to make sure their father can actually be a “dad” to them while they’re still young enough for it to matter.

Because I’m a sucker for procedurals, I really wanted to see more of the process for securing Robert’s release. I’m sure there were a lot of legal arguments and fundraisers and all sorts of steps that were taken to keep the case going, but unfortunately, we don’t see any of that. We don’t even get a draconian judge suggesting that the sentence was warranted. All we get is Sibil on hold with the courthouses because the various judges that can sign off on Robert’s release just appear to be lazy and dragging their feet. I’m certain there’s a lot of that frustration in the process, too, but it doesn’t make for the most compelling narrative. Still, it’s a necessary story with a satisfying conclusion, and a testament to what can happen when you fully commit to something.


Now that we’ve gone over the nominees, it’s time to decide on who to vote for. Normally I just rank the films based on my personal preference, but for this category specifically, having seen the entire shortlist, I’ll not only rank these five as the nominees, but the entire list of 15.

My Rankings:
1) Collective
2) The Mole Agent
3) Crip Camp
4) Time
5) My Octopus Teacher

My Rankings for the Documentary Feature Shortlist:
1) Collective
2) Gunda
3) Boys State
4) Dick Johnson is Dead
5) Welcome to Chechnya
6) The Truffle Hunters
7) 76 Days
8) The Mole Agent
10) Crip Camp
11) Time
12) All In: The Fight for Democracy
13) My Octopus Teacher
14) Notturno
15) The Painter and the Thief

So while Collective is my top choice, both overall and within the final category, only two others even crack the top 10. That doesn’t mean they’re bad films, just that I found the others so much better. I would consider the bottom four of my rankings to be the only ones truly unworthy of a nomination, and even then, they still have their merits.

You’ve seen what I have to say, now tell me what you think by voting in the poll below!

Next up: Tomorrow night is the night when two become one! It’s Best Sound!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which nominee is your favorite? What’s your favorite documentary of all time? If you got to follow an animal for its entire life, what would it be? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Gold 2021 – Documentary Feature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s