Oscar Contenders

Documentary Catch Up: 'Undefeated,' 'Page One,' 'Buck,' 'Corman's World,' 'If a Tree Falls' and 'We Were Here'

Six more down and several left to go

Documentary Preview

I wrote about Project Nim last time (read that here) and since then I have watched six more documentaries, trying to close the gap on the number of documentaries I missed out on seeing over the course of 2011. As a result, I have now seen five of the 15 documentaries shortlisted by the Academy for Oscar consideration and unfortunately I don't have access to the other ten, though I still have the much talked about Senna and Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss yet to watch.

Beyond all that, however, I have six documentaries to briefly discuss today so let's no waste anymore time...

Undefeated

Undefeated poster
Undefeated is hands-down, without a doubt fantastic. Yet, at the moment, two things piss me off about it.

  1. The Weinstein Co. hasn't done anything to promote it. There isn't a clip; there isn't a trailer; and the poster I used to the left is some rush job used to promote the SXSW screening from back in March. The film hits theaters on February 10, 2012 and no one has even heard of it.
  2. It essentially has the same title as the Sarah Palin doc, The Undefeated, which means any search you do online for the film is almost guaranteed to flood your results for that movie rather than this one. Shame.

**End rant**

Undefeated is a documentary from Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin and it centers on the inner-city Memphis high school football team, the Manassas Tigers. It's a team lead by volunteer coach Bill Courtney who came on in 2004 to attempt to overcome the team's years of no win seasons, but more importantly overcoming the stigma of being losers and nobodies. It's a film that does not let up and will have you in a heap by the end. I'd be lying if I said this film didn't completely knock me on my ass as football is only part of the story, a story I don't want to spoil by going into too many details here. To do that would be to rob you of the experience. Money, Chavis and O.C. Brown are name you are going to want to get to know.

I don't see how this film couldn't possibly be one of the five nominees for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar this year, it is simply too good.

Buck

Buck poster
Like Undefeated, Buck is among the 15 films shortlisted for this year's Best Documentary Oscar as it centers on a horse whisperer whose dark personal history weighs heavily on who he is today. Of course, that isn't saying too much considering all of our pasts make us who we are today, but I don't think I am over-stepping when I say Buck Brannaman's story is extraordinarily unique.

As for me, I thought it was a good documentary, but I couldn't find too much of a connection with Buck's story. So it played a little softer for me than it might for others, though it is extraordinarily emotional and I'm sure horse lovers will find themselves weeping uncontrollably, especially in the latter moments of the film.

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Page One: Inside the New York Times poster
Page One: Inside the New York Times isn't a human story in the way Buck is. It's more of a corporate picture, focusing on the shifting landscape at the "New York Times". It's a film more people will look at as "interesting" compared to the emotional effect Buck will have, but considering my occupation I found an immediate connection as it played like something of a thrill ride as the printed page learns to adapt to the rise of the digital age.

With "Times" journalists Brian Stelter, Tim Arango and the endlessly fascinating David Carr leading the charge, I couldn't wait until another layer was peeled away. Granted, I'd love to get an even closer look inside the "Times" but I'm sure there was only so far the organization was willing to let director Andrew Rossi go.

It's a shame this film wasn't included on the Academy's documentary short list, but it's one I could find myself watching again easily if only to watch Carr verbally slap some sense into someone disrespecting his organization with raspy ease.

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Cormans World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel poster
I knew of Roger Corman, but I have never actually seen a film directed by Roger Corman. When I would hear his name what came to mind first were the films he produced, such as Piranha, Death Race 2000 and House.

What didn't come to mind was the way he changed the film industry and the careers he kick-started, such as producing one of Martin Scorsese's first films, Boxcar Bertha, and Jack Nicholson's first film The Cry Baby Killer. In fact, the number of Hollywood careers Corman touched is stunning and Alex Stapleton's documentary, which looks back on Corman's career leading up to his Honorary Oscar in 2009, does its absolute best to leave no stone unturned.

Interviews on this documentary include conversations with Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Dern, David Carradine, George Hickenlooper, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Eli Roth, Peter Fonda, Paul W.S. Anderson, Pam Grier, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, William Shatner, Gale Anne Hurd, Jonathan Kaplan and Polly Pratt. And the amount of affection these people have for Corman, either as an influence on their career directly or indirectly, is immeasurable to the point Nicholson actually has to hide his face as he begins crying on camera. It's a stunner of a documentary for any film fan, especially one such as myself that didn't realize the breadth of Corman's influence on the industry I cover every day.

Along with the trailer below, I have also included the full movie The Intruder, the Corman feature starring William Shatner, which gets plenty of attention in this film and one I personally intend to watch very soon. You can also find several of Corman's films on Netflix Instant Play if you're interested.

If a Tree Falls

If a Tree Falls poster
If a Tree Falls is fascinating for curious reasons. The film takes a look at the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the radical environmental group the FBI calls America's "number one domestic terrorist threat" and it's that description that gets a lot of attention throughout as we primarily hear the story of ELF member Daniel McGowan who was sentenced to seven years in prison on July 2, 2007 for his involvement in several ELF crimes, all of which have him described as an eco-terrorist.

While documenting the group's actions from the burning of lumber company buildings in Oregon to the WTO protests in Seattle, it seems intent on focusing on calling McGowan and his co-horts "terrorists". However, to the accused, a terrorist is someone that kills people, causes physical harm or flies a plane into a building, not someone that torches a parking lot of SUVs and burns down a corporate headquarters in the middle of the night. It's an interesting debate, but what exactly were the motivations of these people?

When I hear one person describe their actions as finally bringing a certain level of fear into the companies whose buildings they've torched, that to me says some form of a terrorist act has taken place. It may not be a terrorist act you'd compare to today's idea of the word, but I think it's a word with a broad enough meaning that it applies in this case.

If a Tree Falls is included on the Academy's shortlist and some are considering it the current front-runner.

We Were Here

We Were Here poster
This is an incredibly sad documentary that should be played as part of a double-bill with Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk, or at least a supplement to it as it takes a look at the breakout of AIDS in San Francisco and tells the story through the words of the men and women that survived, some of which are still living in fear of the disease returning any day and others left to reflect on the friends they lost.

While each is heartbreaking, the story of Daniel Joshua Goldstein is a story of loss you would never wish on anyone and the fact he can talk so openly about it in this doc speaks volumes as to the amount of strength he has within him. Just amazing.

This is another one of the Academy's shortlisted documentaries and one John Waters recently declared one of his ten best of the year writing, "Half my friends died of AIDS, so this simple and painfully told doc on the disastrous epidemic's effect on San Francisco is personal. If you don't sob watching, maybe you should be dead too."

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