Thursday, December 30, 2010

Documentary Spotlight: A Handful of Oscar Contenders

I’ve had the opportunity recently to screen six of the fifteen finalists for the Best Documentary Oscar. I’ve already reviewed one contender – “The Lottery” – and now I present a brief look at a few more, some caught on DVD, others in their limited or last leg runs, and one more at the closing night of a film festival.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (B+) is a thoroughly-researched, aggressively compiled summary of one of the biggest public scandals in recent history, providing plenty of information about Spitzer’s political past and his most prominent foes. Director Alex Gibney, who also made “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” does an excellent job of remaining objective, and proves himself once again extremely skilled at handling sensational manners appropriately and respectfully. It’s especially interesting to see Spitzer offer his own reserved, slightly apologetic take on his actions, and Gibney treats him just as he does his other subjects: a witness who has plenty to say.

Exit through the Gift Shop (B) is a wild look at the world of street art, and what’s most interesting about it (especially because it’s never explicitly explained) is that it transforms midway through and takes on a new specific subject shifting perspectives entirely. It’s most certainly intriguing, and the characters are fascinating, but there’s something about that disconnect that doesn’t track entirely evenly. Still, street art is such a unique and compelling topic that it’s hard not to be interested and often amazed by what these people do and how casually they discuss doing it, as if it’s just something they have no choice but to do.

Precious Life (B+) is a film made by Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli TV reporter, about his efforts to help a Palestinian woman save the life of her four-month old child. It doesn’t sport excited animations like some of the other films on this list, but it is a harrowing, moving story about people putting aside their differences to save someone’s life. One scene in particular, where the mother discusses how she proud of her son if he grows up to become a shahid (martyr), is pretty incredible, forcing Eldar to insert his own opinion since he can’t fathom why someone would bother to save a life just to have the person get killed. The film tackles that question throughout, and it spotlights an extremely complicated dilemma in the midst of an already complicated conflict.

Restrepo (B) is a film that takes its viewers directly into Afghanistan to the Korangal Valley in 2009. Set at an outpost named for one of the platoon’s fallen members, it presents an unfiltered picture of how inescapable and uncertain war can be. As documentation of reality, it’s effective since journalist and director Sebastian Junger and his photographer Tim Hetherington were embedded with platoon for the duration of their project, allowing them essentially unfettered access as well as the opportunity to experience it for themselves. As a film, however, it’s not especially well-constructed, and it often feels more like found footage than a finished product.

Waiting for Superman (B+) is so similar in concept to “The Lottery” that I thought the two were the same film when I first saw a trailer for one of them. This film, however, takes on a wider breadth than just Harlem, examining cause and effect in the decline of education across the country. As a film, this impressed me much more than director Davis Guggenheim’s last effort, “An Inconvenient Truth,” this time crafting a clever and entertaining presentation and merging it with a compelling narrative. This film boasts one of the year’s most powerful and heartbreaking scenes, where several students all wait anxiously to hear their names called in lotteries. Like last year’s Oscar winner “The Cove,” this film comes to a proactive end, urging its viewers to stand up and do something to help change the system.

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