Three Oscar-Nominated Documentaries Worth Watching on Netflix

Lucky you! There’s still time to watch a few more of the Oscar-nominated documentary films before the February 28, 2016, Academy Awards ceremony. So hop to it! All five are available online. The documentary category, for me, is almost always the strongest. While I frequently have disagreements with the Academy over their choices for Best Picture, Best Director, etc., I most often feel as if any of the five nominated documentary films would be a worthy winner. This year is no exception. Given the lack of diversity within this year’s Oscar field, I might be inclined to give the award to What Happened, Miss Simone? – it’s an exceptional portrait of Nina Simone – but my artistic favorite is probably The Look of Silence.

I have previously reviewed the two that are not available through NetflixAmy and The Look of Silence. What follows are very brief capsule reviews of the three that are available for instant viewing on Netflix.

Cartel_Simone_Winter

Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015)

Matthew Heineman (Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare) is a beast. Plain and simple. Putting his own life at risk, he follows border vigilante militias in Arizona and citizen anti-drug-cartel militias in the Mexican province of Michoacán as they each, in turn, try – in their own words – to take back what is theirs. In the case of the North Americans, what started as anti-illegal-immigrant patrols has turned into raids on the cartel scouts. Their leader, Tim Nailer, feels like the U.S. government is not doing enough to contain the spread of drug violence from across the border. Just in case we think he’s a racist bigot, we then cut to the Mexican side, where we meet Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and his “Autodefensas” as they confront, head-on, the drug lords who rule their area. Whatever the truth in Arizona, there is no question that there has been a massive failure of government – or, as Heineman states, massive collusion between government and the cartels – in Mexico. But the solution to the problem is complicated, and those who start off wanting to do good may end up doing harm, as well. There are no truly good guys, in other words.

It’s an amazing film, since we are literally embedded in the violence (bullets whiz by the camera). If it has one weakness, it is that it is heavily imbalanced, footage-wise, in favor of the Mexican story, which, to be fair, is far more interesting. I understand why Heineman wanted to get both perspectives, and he can’t help the fact that more didn’t happen on the Arizona side, but there just isn’t enough story there to entirely justify Nailer’s inclusion. Still, this is must-see cinema, if only because the danger is always so palpable, and one has to marvel at Heineman’s ability to get – and keep! – access to his protagonists. If there were an award for most risk incurred by a filmmaker in the name of his art, Heineman would be a shoo-in. Forget The Revenant and the talk about how much the actors and crew suffered; this is the real deal.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)

Since I managed to see this film before the end of 2015, I was able to include it in my “best films of the year” list (where I have another brief capsule review). Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn) has taken archival footage – film, video and photo – and new talking-head interviews (including one with Simone’s only daughter) to craft an intensely moving portrait of the troubled artist that was Nina Simone (1933-2003). Full confession: my first exposure to Simone was an Aardman Animation short – which I saw in the 1990s – made to a recording of Simone’s classic rendition of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” I know, that is a very sad commentary on my own lack of culture. But if you are, like me, someone who somehow paid more attention to the other great African-American jazz divas like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, or paid no attention to jazz musicians, black or white, at all, then this is the film to enlighten you. And if you are already an aficionado of Simone’s life and work, then this is the film you have been waiting for.

What is particularly wonderful about this movie is how Garbus does not flinch from showing us the bad side of her subject, yet she is always understanding and respectful. Simone grew up poor, but musically talented, and was noticed by a local (white) charity group that decided early on that she was going to go to Julliard. So for years she trained as a classical pianist before heading up to New York to continue her studies. And that’s where the money ran out, which is what led her to start playing in jazz clubs to earn her keep. Later, she became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, using her growing celebrity to help the cause. Unfortunately, she also began to suffer from both depression and attendant alcoholism, which slowly began to derail her career. We get it all here, the highs and the lows of Nina Simone’s inimitable life and career. It’s great filmmaking from Garbus – and great singing and playing from Simone – that makes for one powerful cinematic biography.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015)

Like Cartel Land, above, much of the footage in this gripping account of the 93-day uprising in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2013-2014 comes from cameras that are embedded in the action. Using a variety of sources, filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky (Divorce: A Journey Through the Kids’ Eyes) takes us on a harrowing journey through a violent revolution. People are beaten and shot in front of us; some die, some survive. Blood flows on the streets. We start at day 90, with a dead body on the ground in front us, explosions and bullets everywhere, and then circle back to the beginning, where a narrator quickly explains the history of the last 20+ years of post-Soviet Ukrainian history, including the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which featured, like the new uprising, strongman Viktor Yanukovych as the villain. What’s that about history repeating itself?

Except that here, Ukrainian history repeats itself in a good way, as well. The citizens of Kiev refuse to accept the increasingly underhanded tactics of their (duly elected) leader, and so decide to do what they did in 2004; if they were successful then, why not now? But this time, the reprisals are violent, as we see unequivocally on screen. The people do not back down, however, no matter how much is thrown at them. As we move forward, day by day, we watch in horror as the situation goes from bad to worse. It is clear, though, that Yanukovych badly miscalculated the will of the electorate, as well as how much they hated his proposed alliance with Russian dictator – excuse me, President – Vladimir Putin. Ironically, given these Ukrainian-Russian tensions (and the crisis that followed the uprising), many of the Ukrainians in the movie still speak primarily in Russian (the film features a mix of both languages). Theirs is a tangled web, indeed, the strands of which are dealt with lucidly in this intense film. If there is one part of the movie that I did not like, it was the music. Its bombastic chords threaten to overwhelm the visuals, at times, and are completely unnecessary. The sounds from the street are dramatic enough.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best and Worst Films of 2015

[For an explanation of my blog post title, check out my “best of” list from 2013.]

So here we go … below you will find a number of lists, including: my top two favorite films of the year; my next 9 favorites; my next 9 favorites after that, for a total of 20 best films of the year; and, finally, my (lucky) 13 least favorite films of 2015. I also add, at the end (before the “worst” list), a list of films that may not have cracked my top 20, but which I enjoyed, nevertheless. My main criterion for liking a film this year seemed to be the following: did it surprise me and tell a story in a fresh and original way?

All of the films mentioned received some kind of theatrical or online release in 2015. Where I have previously written reviews of a movie, the title of that movie is hyperlinked to my original review. If I only wrote about a film after seeing it a film festival, then I link to that write-up, however short it may be. Where I have not (yet) reviewed a film – usually because the film has yet to be released in Baltimore – I have hyperlinked the title to the movie’s imdb page and written a (very) brief capsule review of it, just to explain what I admire (or don’t).

There are a few films not on the list that might have made had I seen them by now, but for various reasons I have not. Anomalisa,* for instance, hasn’t even opened in our area yet (but I’m seeing it, finally, next week). I missed The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution when it came to the Maryland Film Festival this past May, then missed it again when it opened at The Charles Theatre in town, and now I won’t be able to see it until it’s available for home viewing, in mid-February. It’s not going to be nominated for an Oscar (though Anomalisa may be), but it’s at least been mentioned on some people’s end of year’s lists. I also missed – even though it’s been available on Netflix for some time – Beasts of No Nation. I started it, but then got distracted. I watched almost 250 movies this year – not all new ones, for sure – and some TV shows, as well, so sometimes I just … drop the ball (plus, I do have a full-time day job). For the most part, the kinds of films that I review for Hammer to Nail – mainly, micro-budget indies – did not make it onto this list, as I wanted to only include films that non-press folks would have had some chance to see in theaters … or on Netflix.

Enjoy! In a few days, as always, I will publish a separate list of the best acting and technical/artistic achievements of the year.

Top 2 Films of 2015 (in alphabetical order):**

Mustang Son of Saul Best of 2015

  • Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
    • Directed and co-written by Turkish-born, Paris-based filmmaker Deniz Gamze ErgüvenMustang tells the riveting tale of 5 young sisters, living in a provincial Turkish village, whose lives are turned upside down and inside out when an innocent, frisky game – with boys – in the waters of the Black Sea is misinterpreted by family members and neighbors, alike. Suddenly, the forces of tradition and morality conspire to to take away the freedom they have heretofore taken for granted. Like wild horses unwilling to accept the bridle, they fight back, but it’s not easy being young and female in a world where adult men have all the power. With a sure hand – all the more remarkable since this is her feature debut – Ms. Ergüven guides us through the intellectual awakening of her main characters and takes us on a journey of hope salvaged from despair that is a must-see for all. Despite her grand ambitions, the director never loses sight of her mission to entertain, and fills her movie with rich details and anecdotes, and even great humor. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, both, and rejoice in discovering that cinema is not dead.
  • Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)
    • Unlike Mustang, this movie has no diverting moments of levity. How could it? It is a concentration camp procedural, taking us through the unbearably harrowing realities of 24 hours in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando (Jews chosen by the Nazis to serve in quasi-management positions over other Jews) at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. This film is one long cry of horror, and also absolutely riveting. Another feature debut, Son of Saul is directed and co-written by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, who treats his subject with the appropriate revulsion while also giving us another Holocaust film that doesn’t feel like (just) another Holocaust film. This subject has been given, by now, so many different cinematic treatments that it’s hard to imagine there being anything new or fresh to say. And yet, somehow, Nemes does, indeed, offer a novel perspective. His main character, Saul, is a man with a problem – the classic dramatist’s trick – who, despite the nightmare in which he lives, is determined to solve it, giving the film an especially urgent drive. Nemes ups the film’s ante by keeping the camera close to his protagonist at all times. Indeed, much of what makes the film bearable to watch is that the Nazi atrocities are mostly out of focus and rendered through sound, since Saul is almost always in close-up. It’s a cinematic tour de force that teaches us much about the indomitable human spirit without in any way playing down the savagery of the Nazi genocide. It may be tough for some to watch, but it is well worth the effort.

The Next 9 (in alphabetical order):

Second 9 Best of 2015

  • All Things Must Pass (Colin Hanks)
  • Amy (Asif Kapadia)
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
  • Dope (Rick Famuyiwa)
  • 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
    • Director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) offers up what seems, at first, a gentle meditation on the ups and downs of a long marriage, with two beloved actors – Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) and Tom Courtenay (Quartet) – giving terrific and nuanced performances as wife and husband of … 45 years. As the film begins, they are about to celebrate their wedding anniversary, with Kate (Rampling) – the spryer of the two – doing most of the planning. Beautifully shot in Norfolk, England, the film appears initially to offer nothing more than encomiums to a life well lived. Until it all changes, when a secret from the past emerges that threatens to undermine the security that Kate, especially, had so long taken for granted. See it for Rampling, whose face reflects the devastation wrought within as the life she thought she had been living slowly dissipates throughout the course of the film. It is a devastating journey, playing out like a thriller, except the chases and climaxes are all internal.
  • Inside Out (Pete Docter)
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)
  • Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
  • Twinsters (Samantha Futerman/Ryan Miyamoto)

The 9 After That (in alphabetical order):

Third 9 Best of 2015

  • Ant-Man (Peyton Reed)
    • I have a review already, so this is just a note added to deflect the surprise I know many will feel upon seeing this title here. The big budget action films that some critics have placed on their best-of lists are Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, both of which I liked a lot (see my final list of runners-up, below), but which didn’t catch me unawares the way Ant-Man did, which continued to surprise and delight throughout. That’s why it’s here.
  • The Big Short (Adam McKay)
  • Brooklyn (John Crowley)
  • Carol (Todd Haynes)
  • Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
  • Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)
  • Red Army (Gabe Polsky)
  • Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
  • What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)
    • Musical biopics are tricky, and often fail when done as fiction films (though not in the case of Love & Mercy, also on this list). This movie, along with Amy (see above), proved how well the documentary format can serve such a complex subject. A brilliant portrait of a brilliant woman, directed by a terrific female documentarian, Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World), What Happened, Miss Simone? takes us through the highs and lows of Nina Simone’s life and career, offering up an indelible portrait of an inimitable artist.

12 Final Films of 2015 that didn’t quite crack the top 20 (in alphabetical order):

Worst 13 Films of 2015 (in alphabetical order):

  • Fantastic Four (Josh Trank)
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson)
  • Hot Pursuit (Anne Fletcher)
    • I did not review this, nor did I want to. It is stale and unfunny, and does no favors for its two stars, Reese Witherspoon (Wild) and Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), nor for its director, Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), who has done (nominally) better before. I don’t even think this would be funny on an airplane.
  • In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard)
  • Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis)
  • The Longest Ride (George Tillman, Jr.)
  • Lost River (Ryan Gosling)
    • This is a great vanity project for its director, Hollywood star Ryan Gosling (Drive), who, in his debut as a director, throws everything but the kitchen sink into mix – strike that, the sink is there, too – without achieving anything of merit. Beautiful to look at and utterly incomprehensible, the film is also so tedious that its mere 95-minute length ends up feeling like twice that.
  • Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)
  • San Andreas (Brad Peyton)
  • Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)
  • Sisters (Jason Moore)
  • Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua)
  • Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore)
    • I used to like Michael Moore, back when he was less convinced of his own goodness. From the time of his documentary debut Roger & Me up to and including his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, he seemed like one of those ideologically driven filmmakers whose work was entertaining enough that even those who might disagree with his ideas might enjoy his filmmaking enough to stick around until the end, thereby walking away with a nugget or two of new information. But then, post-Oscar, Moore began to believe his own press clippings, and now, with his latest film, Where to Invade Next, he offers up nothing that we haven’t heard or seen from him before. Worse, he is has devolved into such a smug and self-congratulatory filmmaker that he no longer feels the need to present actual research on screen, assuring us that because he believes in something, it must be true. In this film, he takes us on a journey across randomly chosen countries (he never explains those choices) that ostensibly provide better services and lifestyles to their citizens than we do in the United States, and then presents only one or two examples to back up his claims before moving on to the next country. It is lazy filmmaking at its worst. If you agree with everything Moore says, then you’ll nod along in joy; if, like me, you expect some actual journalistic information, you will be disappointed. As a good progressive, I find Moore – these days – more harmful than helpful to the cause.

*[from 1/20/16: when I finally saw it, I liked Anomalisa, but did not consider it good enough to be among my top films of the year. Maybe among the runners-up, however.]

**Look of Silence[also from 1/20/16: I have to add another film to my top of the top, making it a “Top 3,” and that is The Look of Silence