With just over a month before the annual Academy Awards ceremony, viewers can catch up with the five nominees for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, currently available to view online via streaming service Netflix, or from video-on-demand services like Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
The films are a diverse mix of investigative journalism, an eyewitness to history in the making, art, and music, which deliver both reveries and gut-punches to the soul.
"The Act of Killing"
"History is written by the winners." And when those winners exalt themselves in public and the media as saviors of a nation, proudly boasting about the murders of half a million people, one can only wonder how a human conscience can carry the weight of what could generously be classified as war crimes.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer sought to examine how the perpetrators of mass-murders in Indonesia following the 1965 military coup -- men who were never brought justice for the deaths of at least 500,000 men, women and children deemed to be "Communists" -- see themselves, their actions, and their victims.
By offering to stage recreations of torture and killing at the hands of gangsters, the filmmaker goes beyond a docudrama of horrific acts (made all the more gut-wrenching when paramilitary forces recruit civilians to "act" as the terrified victims of beatings and burned villages). "The Act of Killing" looks into the self-image of Indonesians who killed with impunity, and who today rule a populace cowered in fear.
The central figure in the film is Anwar Congo, a gangster who killed many. He is also a movie buff, and had modeled his torture of victims after crime films. He demonstrates on camera how he killed, and appears in remarkable scenes featuring headless mannequins, gobs of fake blood, cross-dressing, fantastical musical numbers, and the ghosts of victims who thank their killers for sending them to Heaven.
Through his process of "preserving" for future generations the deeds of the killers, Congo also reveals his nightmares, and his own journey to understand what his victims felt once the wires were tightened around their necks.
"The Act of Killing" won the 2013 Gotham Award and European Film Award for Best Documentary. It was named Best Documentary by critics groups in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver, and tied for the National Society of Film Critics' Best Non-Fiction Film Award.
- "The Act of Killing" (Official site)
"Cutie and the Boxer"
Japanese abstract artist Ushio Shinohara made a name for himself several decades ago in New York City, where he met fellow emigre artist Noriko. Their relationship (an older established "genius" and his wife-assistant) is tested as Noriko seeks to break out with a gallery exhibition of her own work. It doesn't help that, to an untrained eye, her work is much more accessible than that of the established Ushio, whose preferred method of painting is to slam a giant canvas with paint-daubed boxing gloves.
Director Zachary Heinzerling's intimate portrait of the couple is a remarkable tale of the lengths to which artists sacrifice their personal lives to their muse -- or, in Noriko's case, to someone else's.
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, who previously covered the role of the private contractor Blackwater in Iraq, enters the shadows once more following an attack on a village in Afghanistan in which a police official, women and children were killed.
Scahill finds evidence of a coverup, and of complicity by a little-known U.S. military force, Joint Special Operations Command (or JSOC). JSOC was created in 1980 as a special forces group following the failed Iran hostage rescue, but Scahill finds their role extends beyond raids in war zones. From Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia, JSOC's covert raids are an instrument of American foreign policy that, Scahill says, operates beyond accountability by Congress.
Told with the immediacy of a good spy thriller, "Dirty Wars" also shows how Scahill found himself to be a target during his investigation.
Winner of the cinematography award at Sundance, "Dirty Wars" won the Grand Jury Prize at the Boston Independent Film Festival.
- "Dirty Wars" (Official site)
Director Jehane Noujaim ("Control Room") tells the story of the revolution in Egypt that deposed a dictatorial leader -- and, eventually, his democratically-elected successor -- through the struggles of the activists who occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square and were met with violence, victory, and the political birth pangs associated with the country's new constitution.
In November 2011 Noujaim was arrested by Egyptian police while documenting clashes in Cairo; her camera -- in the hands of some, a revolutionary weapon -- was confiscated. But with more and more smartphones available to just about anyone in Tahrir Square, hiding police abuse became impossible.
The images -- spreading to the world via YouTube, Facebook and other media -- fueled and prolonged the protests, which rekindled every few months with each new incident of police abuse or political gamesmanship. As young idealist Ahmed Hassan observes, "As long as there is a camera, the revolution will continue."
"The Square" won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival last January, but was updated after the removal from power of President Morsi and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Watch "The Square" on Netflix.
"20 Feet From Stardom"
"They're the most incredible artists you've never heard of," said director Morgan Neville. But you have heard them -- backup singers who stand in the shadows of major artists, but whose voices add heart, passion, harmony and repeatability to some of the most memorable songs ever recorded.
The film profiles such singers as Merry Clayton (who sang on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"), Lisa Fischer (who has toured with the Rolling Stones since 1989), Darlene Love (who barely escaped being a mere echo in Phil Spector's "wall of sound"), and Judith Hill (a young singer struggling for her solo break).
The film also interviews such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler and Sting about the singers with whom they've shared a stage.
To sample the soundtrack album of "20 Feet From Stardom," click on the streaming audio player from SoundCloud below. You may also download selections from Amazon.
In addition to the documentary features, films nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject are available to view on satellite and via VOD (Amazon and iTunes), thanks to Shorts HD and Magnolia Pictures.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014 programs include shorts in the live action, animation and documentary categories. The programs will also be screened in theatres beginning January 31.
The five nominated shorts are:
"CaveDigger," Jeffrey Karoff's portrait of environmental artist Ra Paulette, who carves caves into the New Mexico landscape; "Facing Fear," about a gay man and his chance meeting with a neo-Nazi who savagely beat him years earlier; "Karama Has No Walls," about the Yemeni government's response to protesters who tried to add their voices to the Arab Spring; "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life," featuring 109-year-old pianist and Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer; and "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," in which a terminally-ill convict receives hospice care from other prison imates.
For more information go to theoscarshorts.shorts.tv.