The nominations for the 2013 Oscars are now in. Much conjecture will take place over the main categories, so instead of adding voice to an area where there is already too much noise, it is worth looking in greater depth at what is currently one of the most vibrant and fulfilling areas of cinema; the documentary. Below is a list that offers (in the main) an alternative to those selected by the Academy.
5. The Queen of Versailles
An astonishing feature charting the riches-to-rags tale of real estate time share maestro, David Siegel, and his wife, Jacqueline Siegel. The couple built an empire of jaw-dropping wealth, making easy money by selling packaged dreams to desperate Americans. The aim was to follow the couple as they went about building their dream home; a mansion based on the Palace of Versailles. However, they did not anticipate the financial crash that would ground their vision to a halt before the house was even completed. With a first half pitch that shows the crass influence of filthy lucre, the second half captures a staggering comedown, as a frantic attempt is made to prevent insolvency. All the cracks and strains of free-falling wealth and crumbling relationships are shown in high definition, with candid interviews providing stark summations of where feelings truly lie. It is, all told, a modern tale of a timeless set of themes, all blinged up and ready to go. Shakespeare would have loved this story.
4. Searching For Sugar Man
Possibly the most famous of the releases in this list, and one which has already gained the attention of the Academy. This film traced the whereabouts of acoustic troubadour, Rodriguez, who was originally discovered by two producers in a Detroit bar in the late 1960s. Having released a couple of critically acclaimed records, the albums bombed with little trace and the singer disappeared from the scene, amid rumors of an act of on-stage self-immolation. Unbeknownst to him, the record found an audience in apartheid-bound South Africa, as the political lyrics of his songs resonated with the cultural setting. Through the dogged and pugnacious efforts by two of his South African fans, an effort was made to discover what had really happened to this mysterious lank-haired enigma. What they discovered was even more shocking than they had ever thought possible.
3. Dreams Of A Life
A documentary of heart-breaking power, this film tells the story of Joyce Vincent -- a woman who was discovered dead lying on her sofa in her flat in North London, having lain there for three years. The corpse was so decomposed that it was only possible to identify her through comparing dental records with that of a holiday photograph. In a heart-wrenching twist, by her body were Christmas presents which she had just wrapped. Despite living above a busy shopping district in the heart of London, this woman slipped through the cracks, seemingly forgotten by everyone and remembered by no one. Once seen, it is an indelible tale about loneliness. How is it possible that in the modern world, people can vanish without trace? Filmmaker, Carol Morley, set about investigating the back story of this seemingly forgotten woman. What she found out was surprising; this was not some old person with nobody left to care for her. This was a young and attractive woman who had a wide social circle and was fondly remembered by those interviewed. How could she be dead for three years and no one notice? This film attempts to answer the puzzle through imagined recreations and interviews from those who knew her. An unforgettable viewing experience.
Okay, after deliberation, these two could not be separated, so they are to occupy a joint top-spot placing (okay, the Oscars may elect only one winner, but they don't do a countdown, so there's already a bit of an artistic license being taken here):
= 1. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet
Could be seen as a companion piece to Michael Haneke's Best Film/Best Foreign Film entry, Amour. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet follows the supernova-like eruption of a bewildering talent, which was cruelly chopped down by terminal illness at a very tender age. Becker was a teenage prodigy, with an astounding gift for the guitar that dazzled all who saw him play. Already capable of playing Clapton and Van Halen solos note-for-note by his early teens, he would soon be transposing classical symphonies to the guitar, showcasing a musical understanding that far outstripped his years. One day, not long after procuring a place as David Lee Roth's lead guitarist, Becker started complaining of a pinching sensation in his legs. Soon, he would be diagnosed with ALS and given three to five years to live. He would be paralyzed except for the ability to blink his eyes. Twenty-three years on, he is still alive and he is still making music. This is a staggering story of determination, the strength of the soul, of love for life and the will to be creatively active even in the most debilitating circumstances. His extended family provides testimony to what it is to truly love someone unconditionally, sacrificing their time and providing dedicated care without complaint. Covering universal themes, it is a compelling, life-affirming and beautiful work. Mesmerizing.
= 1. Chasing Ice
This has to be the greatest visual calling card to the effects of climate change committed to celluloid. Jeff Orlowski has created a documentary that manages to render wide-eyed wonder at the beauty of the planet, and also invoke complete dismay as to the impact human behavior is having on the ice caps. James Balog, a photographer for National Geographic, was given a task; photograph climate change. He quickly realized that the story lay in the ice. It was here that he would be able to provide visceral evidence as to the consequences of our industrial methods. Placing 25 cameras at different hotspots throughout the Arctic region, he set about documenting the changes that were happening. This film covers the difficulties he had in obtaining his vision, and the physical obstacles he faced along the way. What we are left with is undeniable proof that we are changing the make-up of the planet irrevocably and with haste. The other documentaries in this list could be identified as more effectively executed in telling their story, but none have the staggering visual poetry or motivating power to effect action from the viewer. It is morbidly riveting to watch, gluing you to the seat. This is a film that demands to be seen. Quite rightly, it has been celebrated by the jury at Sundance and beyond. It is the true definition of essential.
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