Welcome to one of my favorite of the categories. It wasn’t always thus, but the last few years I have become entranced by the quality of the films that have earned nominations, and more than a few that I felt deserved a nod, but didn’t get one. Last year, for instance, the movie that I thought was the very best of the year, non-Parasite category, was a doc called Maiden, about the first all-female crew of an around the world yacht race. Another of my top 10, Apollo 11, was also a doc, as was Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. All three were among the very best films of 2019, but none of them actually earned an Academy Award nomination in this category. The five films that did get nominated were all strong, though the winner, American Factory, was more of a political win than a deserved one, in my mind.
American Factory was an interesting movie, but there was something familiar about it, and I think the reason it won is because it was executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama. In an election year like 2020, with people in Hollywood hating the then-current administration, it seemed like a fait accompli, and ultimately was.
But the thing about a film like Maiden is that it played like a scripted movie, with a fresh eye and a rapid, fun pace that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire 97-minute running time. I walked out of that movie thrilled, invigorated, energized. It was unlike anything else I saw and reminded me what a great documentary can be. The film is about a 24-year-old British charter boat cook named Tracy Edwards, who became the skipper of the first ever all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World yacht race in 1989. It’s on Starz right now, and if you have access to that network, do yourself a favor and watch it.
I actually met Dame Tracy at the end of June 2019, the day the movie was released in theaters — yes, she was knighted by Queen Elizabeth — as I was walking in midtown and saw her with a junior publicist, just out of a TV interview to push the movie. It was like seeing a movie star, and she was clearly thrilled to be recognized. I told her that I thought her movie would be that year’s Free Solo (the movie that had won this category the year before), but the Documentarian branch of the Academy made me a liar six and a half months later.
The reason I tell this story is to illustrate how much a particular documentary feature impacted me. The film left a lasting impression that carries forward almost two years later. The Linda Ronstadt movie did that, too. Not many narrative features have that kind of effect, but more and more, I find that the true stories are the ones that last the longest. When I think about the best movies I saw this year — and it was such an odd one that I didn’t even bother to put together a list of what I thought they might be — it’s hard to actually come up with the ones that really left a mark on me. A couple of the Best Picture nominees did, but when I think about the documentaries I saw over the past fourteen months or so (the Oscar qualifying dates were shifted, due to obvious extenuating circumstances), the ones that keep coming up are the docs. And, in what feels like a first, all five of the nominees in this category did just that. They each, in their own way, left a mark.
With that, the nominees (directors and producers listed):
Collective (Alexander Nanau, Bianca Oana)
Crip Camp (Nicole Newnham, Jim Lebrecht, Sara Bolder)
The Mole Agent (Maite Alberdi, Marcela Santibañez), and
My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, Craig Foster) and
Time (Garrett Bradley, Lauren Domino, Kellen Quinn)
First and foremost, each of these movies is available for streaming, so if you’ve got Netflix (My Octopus Teacher and Crip Camp), Amazon Prime Video (Time), and Hulu (Collective and The Mole Agent), you’re set. Each of them is a powerful piece of work and deserves your time, and the category is so strong this year, I won’t be upset if any of the five actually wins the award. That said, though, only one is going to win, so let’s figure out which one is it.
For some time now, there have been more and more foreign language docs filling out this category, and this year is no different. Two of the five come from other countries, with The Mole Agent (aka El Agente Topo) from Chile, and Collective (aka Colectiv) from Romania. Then there’s My Octopus Teacher from South Africa, though that is in English.
I do not think Collective is going to win, but I sort of hope it does, because it’s not only one of the best journalism movies ever made (yes, ever), it is also a genuine, real-life thriller that will leave you breathless. It’s the first Romanian film to ever get an Oscar nod, and it not only earned one in this category, but also accomplished the rare double of getting a nod in the International Feature section, as well. Which means I’ll be talking about it again next week, when I get to that one.
Collective starts with the infamous 2014 fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest that killed more than a dozen people and left scores more among the burn victims. Many of those died of preventable infections, and the film follows the reporters of a sports daily, of all things, as they unravel the mystery as to how these people died and who is to blame. It leads all the way to the top of the Romanian government, and will have your jaw on agape throughout. It’s rare that a movie can actually show history happening in real time, and yet, that’s what Collective does. It shows us what real journalism is capable of, and the impact regular people can have on their government. It should be required viewing for anyone who continues to insist that the media is the enemy of the people.
Crip Camp is the nominal frontrunner, a movie about a ramshackle 1970s camp in upstate New York for disabled teens. The camp changed their lives and sparked a movement that led to the passing of the American Disabilities Act, and that fact alone should be worth an award. The thing is, though, it is an incredibly enjoyable movie that had me laughing as much as it pulled my heartstrings. We often make the mistake of looking at someone in a wheelchair, or with Down syndrome, or with some other disability, and we can’t help but make some kind of judgment about them, even if it’s a subconscious one. What this movie does, better than any I’ve seen in recent memory, is remind us how much people with disabilities are as normal as the rest of us, with lives equally rich and fulfilling. The movie is important, it’s heartfelt, it’s moving, and it is often totally hilarious. It was a big hit out of Sundance last year and, as it happens, is also produced by the Obamas, though if it does win I don’t think politics will have anything to do with it.
Perhaps the oddest of the bunch is The Mole Agent, which follows an 83-year-old Chilean man, a recent widower named Sergio, who goes undercover in a local nursing home to try to uncover elder abuse. I have referred to it elsewhere as “The year’s most heartbreaking spy movie,” and that’s exactly what it is. The filmmakers gained access to the nursing home separately, and then connected with the private investigator who recruited Sergio, the title “agent,” so no one was any the wiser of the connection. Without giving anything away, what Sergio does or does not uncover is less important than what the cameras actually show: what it’s like to grow old and, often, discarded by society. The people populating the movie — I started to write “characters,” because that’s what it feels like, even though they are real people with real emotions and experiencing real tragedy and loneliness — seem to reach through the screen and grab you by the throat. One woman, Berta, develops an immediate crush on Sergio and pursues him, forcing him to eventually tell her that he can’t return her affection because his wife has only been gone a few months, and that he’s still grieving. It’s perhaps the most singularly affecting thing I saw in any movie this year.
My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a filmmaker who forms an unlikely and unusual friendship with an octopus living in the sea nearby the filmmaker’s home. It’s a stirring, beautiful story of how he earned the octopus’s trust, and then learned valuable life lessons by just observing her. It’s one of those movies that could easily turn mawkish or maudlin, but the gentle nature of the storytelling, the clear affection shown to both the cephalopod and the relationship, makes it moving and meaningful. I’d heard so much about it, I thought there was no way it could hold up, and yet, somehow, it did.
And then there’s Time, which left a similar impression, though in a very different way. A remarkable achievement of filmmaking and perseverance, the movie follows Louisianan Fox Rich as she fights for 20 years to get her husband Rob released from prison. Rob had been sentenced to 60 years in a clear case of racist sentencing, and Fox’s battle over the course of decades never loses its heart or power. Director Garrett Bradley allows the audience to feel sympathy for Fox without ever making her an object of pity. Likewise, there isn’t the slightest trace of scorn present here, when there could have been plenty of it. Time is only 81 minutes long, but you feel every one of those in your soul. If you’re not touched by the Riches’ story, and it’s incredible ending, you probably don’t have one.
If you’ve got the time and the inclination, I highly recommend each of these offerings, and if any of them win, they’ll deserve it. But, as with the Highlander movies, there can be only one.
What Should Win: Really, any of them, but my favorite is Collective.
What Will Win: Crip Camp