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Documentary reviews: Academy Award nominees 2014

"Twenty Feet from Stardom" wins Best Documentary at the Oscars 2014.
"Twenty Feet from Stardom" wins Best Documentary at the Oscars 2014.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Square


Documentary films are not popular in theatres and receive extremely limited releases, so it is nice to get suggestions in the form of the Academy Awards’ top five nominees. The films selected for the 2014 awards ceremony cover a variety of subjects and range from feel good to horrifying.

The Act of Killing – A shocking film, “The Act of Killing” follows members of death squads of Indonesia as they brag about their lives as “gangsters” in the last two decades and reenact the murders they committed. They really put on a show, including using costumes and make-up to glamorize scenes. Ranging from pride to shame, those interviewed have startling views on their pasts and are still supported by much of their country. The filmmakers give a comprehensive perspective, but the film is chilling. Rating: A

Cutie and the Boxer – Focused mainly on the present but including flashbacks via home video footage, “Cutie and the Boxer” gives an impression of two immigrant artists’ lives as husband and wife; they struggle to pay the rent and share their work, but their different styles separate them in their work and home life. Rating: A-

Dirty Wars – Jeremy Scahill is a slightly famous investigative journalist. After researching a questionable night raid in Afghanistan, Scahill realizes multiple attacks are unaccounted for but are responsible of many civilian deaths. His investigation uncovers a secret department, referred to as JSOC, that becomes famous shortly after being nearly invisible. Scahill focuses on JSOC’s dangerous level of power in "Dirty Wars," but his narrative is a little hard to follow. Rating: B-

The Square – A surprisingly well documented film, “The Square” has an incredible amount of footage of events over years in Egypt. As Egyptians become increasingly dissatisfied with their government, “The Square” follows a variety of leading protesters as they group in their nation’s Tahrir Square to demand change. An honest presentation of events, “The Square” bravely portrays the different perspectives while their government keeps changing. The violence shown is gripping but stomach-wrenching, yet the brutality is necessary to honestly portray the suffering and savagery. Rating: A+

Twenty Feet from Stardom – A feel-good film acknowledging little known talents, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is the history of back-up singers, especially of the leading African American singers, over decades with perspectives from these talents and some of the leads they’ve complemented (Sting, Mick Jagger, etc.). Going in chronological order, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” actually becomes a little confusing due to a huge volume of work referenced for each of these minor stars. The film is likeable for its purpose, giving credit to these voices, but it is not a powerful film. Rating: B+

Comparing the five films, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is clearly the most enjoyable film, but “The Square” should be cherished not only for its achievement in film but for its remarkable current events coverage. More so than the others, “The Square” succeeds in being a source of information, documenting its events clearly and understandably. "Twenty Feet from Stardom" won the Oscar, though.