The documentary category, slightly more than most categories, is dependent on how many eligible documentaries I manage to get to over the course of the year. Truth be told I probably haven’t scratched the surface of the many docs that got made this year, but still, I think I did a pretty good job seeing the main contenders. I missed a couple titles like Point and Shoot, The Salt of the Earth, and Art and Craft but overall I think I had a decent grasp of the category.
- Citizenfour: Citizenfour is a great example of how you can make a movie that takes a clear point of view while not feeling like manipulative propaganda. It doesn’t hurt that Laura Poitras was with the Edward Snowden story pretty much from day one and was able to capture the behind the scenes moments of his story just as it was breaking. There were limits to how much she could do, but she worked around them pretty damn well.
- Life Itself: I know a lot about Roger Ebert. I followed his career pretty closely for the better part of fifteen years and even read his autobiography, so there really wasn’t a whole lot in this film about his life that I didn’t already know, but there was still some value in seeing it all presented on film. It’s a bit more talking head oriented than most of director Steve James’ films, but it fits in with his other chronicles of Chicago life rather nicely.
- Particle Fever: Science documentaries are often dry and serve only to be informative, especially when they’re about complicated theoretical physics. That isn’t the case with the Large Hadron Collider documentary Particle Fever which is extremely effective both in explaining the science at hand in an interesting but never over-simplified way and also at presenting the lives of the scientists involved in the project. The passion that these guys show for science that most people barely understand is really inspiring.
- Return to Homs: One of the most important resources in documentary filmmaking is “access” and this movie has a lot of it. The guy who made this was straight-up embedded with a band of Syrian rebels as they plan operations and hide from government troops. It isn’t the most even-handed of documentaries and I do question what its maker’s motivations were, but still, it’s undeniably interesting to be in the same room as these young men are thrust onto the battlefield.
- Virunga: When I heard that this was a film about saving a gorilla preserve in the Congo I kind of rolled my eyes and dismissed it as some kind of doe eyed tree-hugger movie. In actuality, the conflict here feels less like an environmental issue and more like a civil war with rather courageous park ranger defending this preserve from rebel soldiers. It’s also probably the most cinematic and visually interesting of these five nominees and was produced rather exquisitely.