Lately I have been looking at some of my year-end awards screeners, mainly the documentaries. My critics' group votes for the year's best documentary; we each vote for our top five and then vote again from the top five finalists. It's not easy to figure out this year's front-runner as of yet, and most of the contenders have been huge yawners. For several years in a row, the big award-winners have always been about war in some form, either WWII or the more recent wars in the Middle East. But this year I have detected grumblings of ennui from the other critics, an ennui that i started developing years ago. This year the favorites appear to be a bit more lighthearted in tone, as well as more local in theme. Rowdy movies like Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Capitalism: A Love Story (52 screens) and Food, Inc. (5 screens) for example have captured the hearts of my colleagues.
The Academy threw a monkey wrench in the works when they announced their shortlist of 15 films that they would be considering for Oscar nominations. Following their bizarre rules, it was an odd list; it included many titles that no one has seen, and it eliminated many of the favorites, including Tyson (prompting an interesting response from director James Toback), Good Hair (38 screens), The September Issue (13 screens), It Might Get Loud (11 screens), Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg (10 screens) and More Than a Game (46 screens). The list also eliminated a couple of my favorites, both lively and spirited: Kirby Dick's Outrage and Not Quite Hollywood, about the history of Australian exploitation cinema.
But the list does include Food, Inc. It also includes The Cove (6 screens), which I have yet to see. Everyone loves it, but it appears to be a very moving nature documentary, a million miles away from the American economy, food or rock 'n' roll. Every Little Step also made the list; it's about Broadway, which is a little bit more refined than the antics of Anvil or Michael Moore. There's also Valentino: The Last Emperor, which is about the glamorous world of fashion, and Burma VJ, which is about a dedicated video journalist trying to capture meaningful images in a country that does not allow them. That last is the kind of thing that would have won over the past few years, but it's exactly the kind of thing that my group has grown tired of. We've also grown tired of the docile, polished reporting of those other films, which use the exact same kind of methods to look into predictable subjects.
My second favorite of the year, Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks, was of course nowhere to be seen. But somehow, amazingly, my #1 favorite doc of the year, Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes (2 screens) made the Academy's list! These two are examples of a rare genre: the personal documentary. In his film, Ferrara explores the history of the Chelsea Hotel, but does it with his own personal touch, not getting out of the way of the camera. He's too much of a maverick to assume that objectivity is possible in a documentary, so why not embrace subjectivity? Varda goes one further. She tells her own story, the amazing story of her 80 years on this planet as a photographer, filmmaker and a member of the French New Wave. Anyone else telling the story would have made a typical biography, with all the typical talking heads, but Varda keeps exploring and following detours and attempting to find new ways to explore memory and the past. It's an extraordinary film, and like the best documentaries it shakes up the format a bit. I hope Agnes becomes the year's front-runner and I hope she helps others see beyond the rules.