(photo: Dave_B_ )

Last year, I made picks here at The Dissenter. I greatly enjoy cinema and make a list of top films that I post every year. Here are some reflections on the films nominated this year.

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The front-runners for Best Picture all have facets that lead me to be not particularly excited about the fact that either of them may win, but the nominees for Best Documentary are each incredibly compelling films.

Argo, on the CIA operation to rescue US diplomats from Iran in 1979, is likely to win. However, as much as I enjoyed the film when I viewed it, it is hard in retrospect to overlook the American exceptionalism that appears to have inspired a rewriting of history, which forms the basis of the film. Ken Taylor, ex-Canadian ambassador to Iran, has expressed valid criticism about how the film makes Canada appear like a “meek observer.” On CNN, former President Jimmy Carter said, “90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian” yet the film “gives almost full credit to the American CIA.”

Though it is the 150-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and it would seem appropriate to revel in the spirit of Lincoln, as someone who subscribes to the principles and values that run throughout Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, it is hard to get past the conviction I have that the acts of African-American abolitionists, which pushed Lincoln to ultimately act, are far too absent in the film. I also was bothered by the opening of the film. Two black soldiers fighting for the Union have a unique opportunity to talk with Lincoln. The scene is convoluted, but it seems typical of liberal filmmaking, as the two “inspire” Lincoln to do what is morally good for the country. (For more, read this critique from Corey Robin: Steven Spielberg’s White Men of Democracy or this interview with Janell Hobson of Albany University professor and expert on race and gender relations.)

Zero Dark Thirty celebrates or, at minimum, excuses the vigilantism of the US government in fighting the so-called War on Terrorism that has become normalized since the September 11th attacks. It exonerates and obscures the inhumane acts of CIA interrogators by placing them into a narrative that appears to contribute to the execution of bin Laden. In service to the national security state, those involved in making the film like screenwriter Mark Boal accepted access to the CIA and other government agencies to develop characters and scenes in the film and they did not honestly reflect on how more than ten years of war and militarism to avenge the deaths of 3,000 Americans on 9/11 has transformed US government. The killing of bin Laden was a natural culmination and possible end of an era yet the military and security-industrial complex is content to press on with permanent war.

Those critiques are why I select Life of Pi for Best Picture. The fantasy and storytelling of that film—in addition to the visual effects and cinematography—were remarkably engrossing (however, I expect Argo to walk away with the Oscar).

Turning to the Best Documentary category, either of the films could win. Peter Knegt of Indiewire points out, “For the first time all Academy members were sent screeners of all the docs and [could] all vote in the category.” In his opinion, that entirely changes voting patterns and gives the category “no precedent.”

Nominated are: 5 Broken Cameras, on the Palestinian struggle to halt construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank; The Gatekeepers, which features former enforcers of Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet, reflecting on the country and what they did; How to Survive a Plague, which presents  the fight by activists for access to medicine and treatment for AIDS that was ultimately won; The Invisible War, which is an unnerving presentation of the experiences of women who have been raped and sexually assaulted in the US military and Searching for Sugar Man, which is the story of a search to find out what happened to Rodriguez, a musician who never broke out in the US but became a legendary star in South Africa.

It is my contention that 5 Broken Cameras should win. The film is the first Palestinian documentary ever to be nominated for an Oscar and deserves an award from the Academy. Emad Burnat, who made the film, is a Palestinian farmer and first-time filmmaker. The story is about the life of Burnat as someone bearing witness to fellow Palestinians being brutalized and repressed by Israeli settlers and soldiers. It also is a story of five cameras he has used. A new act in the film begins each time a camera is destroyed or stops working.

Burnat has the courage to train the camera on soldiers as they are firing weapons (sometimes live ammunition) at Palestinians. He himself has been injured and even been detained by Israeli forces for filming.

His commitment to showing the world the reality of Israeli occupation greatly troubles the Israeli government because they know the video he is recording threatens to undermine the perceptions people have in the world. When Burnat tried to travel to the US to present his film at the Traverse City Film Festival (organized by filmmaker Michael Moore), he was stopped from going to the airport in Tel Aviv and made to go to Amman, Jordan, to get to the US. This time, when he came to Los Angeles to attend the Oscars, he was detained at the Los Angeles Airport by US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). He is doing what he does at great risk to himself and his family, but, despite that, he has talked about making a Part II.

Yet, it is Searching for Sugar Man that has the momentum going into the awards ceremony. Sugar Man is the weakest of the all the documentary nominees, in my opinion, especially since Rodriguez is alive and well but does not appear until about two-thirds of the way into the movie. There’s much more that could have been explored about his impact in South Africa. The filmmakers could have included more music. The film does not even answer all the questions one would have about him as a musician, including a key question raised in the film: If he is so huge in South Africa, who is making the money off him because he lives a working class life in Detroit? It may be someone in South Africa or a record company, but we never find out.

Both How to Survive a Plague and The Invisible War are profound documentaries. A win for Invisible War would be a nice statement in support of the women in the film and not in the film, who have been victims of the systemic rape culture in the US military. There should be more accountability and justice and supposedly the film was seen by Leon Panetta, members of the Defense Department, lawmakers and others in government and has had an impact. A win for Plague would acknowledge the struggle and sacrifice of gay and lesbian activists, many whom were dying from AIDS, and still put their bodies on the line until the government gave those suffering AIDS access to care and treatment that could stop an epidemic.

In other categories, Jennifer Lawrence should win the Best Actress Oscar. The script for Silver Linings Playbook is so well-written and the honesty Lawrence brings to the character is memorable. The theme for Skyfall by Adele spectacularly carries on a cinematic tradition that goes all the way back to Shirley Bassey with her “Goldfinger” theme in 1964. Django Unchained has become a top contender for Best Original Screenplay. To see that win over Zero Dark Thirty would be satisfying. Life of Pi deserves many of the technical achievement awards, like visual effects and cinematography. Ang Lee winning over Steven Spielberg would be a fine upset, but I think Spielberg will walk away with another Oscar.

Finally, Dan Romer & Beinh Zeitlin were not nominated for their score for Beasts of the Southern Wild. They should have because it gives the film a lot of its spirit. The Academy went with more established composers. Here’s a theme from the film:

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OSCAR PICKS

Best Supporting Actor:

Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)

Should Win: Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)

Best Actress:

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)

Should Win: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)

Best Supporting Actress:

Will Win: Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)

Should Win: Amy Adams (The Master)

Best Animated Feature:

Will Win: Brave

Should Win: The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Best Art Direction:

Will Win: Anna Karenina

Should Win: Life of Pi

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Life of Pi

Should Win: Life of Pi

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Anna Karenina

Should Win: Anna Karenina

Best Documentary Feature

Will Win: Searching for Sugar Man

Should Win: 5 Broken Cameras

Best Documentary Short

Will Win: Mondays at Racine

Should Win: Open Heart

Best Film Editing

Will Win: Zero Dark Thirty

Should Win: Life of Pi

Best Foreign Language:

Will Win: Amour

Should Win: No

Best Makeup:

Will Win: The Hobbit

Should Win: The Hobbit

Best Original Score:

Will Win: Mychael Danna (Life of Pi)

Should Win: Mychael Danna (Life of Pi)

Best Original Song:

Will Win: “Skyfall” from Skyfall

Should Win: “Skyfall” from Skyfall

Best Animated Short Film:

Will Win: Paperman

Best Live Action Short Film:

Will Win: Curfew

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: Zero Dark Thirty

Should Win: Life of Pi

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: Les Miserables

Should Win: Skyfall

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: Life of Pi

Should Win: Life of Pi

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Argo

Should Win: Silver Linings Playbook

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Django Unchained

Should Win: Django Unchained

Best Actor

Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Best Director:

Will Win: Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

Should Win: Ang Lee (Life of Pi)

Best Picture:

Will Win: Argo

Should Win: Life of Pi