Romanian import Collective offers the latest proof that this is a great Oscar season for documentaries.

By Tyler Aquilina
December 03, 2020 at 08:00 AM EST
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Credit: Neon; Barbara Nitke/Netflix; Magnolia

The new documentary Collective is many movies in one: a journalistic thriller on the level of All the President’s Men and Spotlight, a Kafkaesque exploration of bureaucratic ineptitude, the story of a politician’s loss of innocence. It’s also the latest exemplar of what’s been a great year — and what’s certain to be a great awards season — for documentary films.

We’re living in a glorious time for documentaries, as demonstrated by the last decade or so of Oscar contenders, which have long since proven Best Documentary Feature as a riveting race to watch. In any given recent year, you could assemble a top-tier crop of nominees just from the films that didn’t make the cut: Blackfish. Weiner. Going Clear. This Is Not a Film. Cameraperson. This year-plus (with the Academy’s eligibility window extending into February 2021) will surely be no exception, boasting another superb crop of contenders, many of which will inevitably be left off the final list of five nominees.

Take Collective (now available on VOD), which has already been selected as Romania’s entry for Best International Film. (Last year, Macedonia’s Honeyland became the first movie ever to receive Oscar nods for both Best International Film and Best Documentary; it’s very possible that Collective could be the second.) The doc begins by following a team of journalists in the wake of a deadly nightclub fire, as they uncover staggeringly vast corruption in the country’s medical system. As the reporters dig ever deeper into a mountain of conspiracy and dysfunction, the film boldly switches its focus, turning its eye on Romania’s idealistic new Minister of Health as he attempts to turn a festering system around. Collective packs the experience of an entire season of a David Simon series into less than two hours and shows the power of old-fashioned, cinéma-vérité docs in an era marked by genre-blurring experiments.

But then, what’s wrong with genre-blurring experiments? If the Best Documentary race has a frontrunner right now, it’s probably Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s hilarious, horrifying, heartwarming tribute to her dementia-stricken father. The film is an intensely personal, audacious blend of Jackass-style grotesquerie, intimate family portrait, and memory play, as Johnson “kills” her dad repeatedly through elaborate stunts while attempting to preserve him in cinematic form. That it coheres at all is a miracle, but it does much more, striking a deeply emotional note while upping the ante for documentary filmmaking.

One of the most acclaimed films of the year, Dick Johnson won big at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards in November, netting Best Documentary Feature and Best Director for Johnson. As with any category, though, docs should perhaps be wary of pulling ahead too early in the race. While last year’s Critics’ Choice Best Director winners Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (for American Factory) went on to win the Oscar, 2018’s big champ Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ended up without a nom from the Academy. Still, with the marketing might of Netflix behind it, Dick Johnson is likely headed for a very fruitful awards season.

If there’s anything that could work against Dick Johnson, it might be its lack of socio-political resonance in a field of docs loaded with those qualities. Contenders like Boys State, Time, and All In speak volumes about contemporary America, with the former spotlighting several teenagers well on their way to becoming the next generation of political power brokers. The extraordinary Time, meanwhile, uses the heart-rending story of one family’s struggle with the U.S. criminal justice system to illustrate the human cost of its deep flaws. And All In attempts to tackle nothing less than, as its subtitle declares, The Fight for Democracy, with Stacey Abrams and her voting rights activism in Georgia framing an examination of voter suppression throughout the country.

Then there’s Totally Under Control, which examines not just contemporary America, but the America of this very moment. An astonishing account of how the Trump administration lost control of the COVID-19 pandemic (or never had it to begin with), the film meticulously unpacks the early missteps and malfeasance that got us to where we are now. Of course, being so current has its drawbacks; Totally Under Control already feels a bit outdated, and will only feel more so by the Oscars, when we’ll be three months into Joe Biden’s presidency. But the film is hard to shake off, and the astounding details of its production — it was completed in just five months in total secrecy — could very well work in its favor.

Several upcoming docs, on the other hand, turned their cameras abroad, joining Collective in shining a light on international crises. Oscar-winning Icarus director Bryan Fogel returns this Christmas with The Dissident, digging into the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And before that, on Dec. 11, arrives Assassins, which traces the 2017 murder of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam. Both fit into the “stranger-than-fiction thriller” subgenre of documentary, relitigating recent history in an attempt to dig deeper than its rough first draft. (This type of film often plays well with Oscar voters; see 2010’s winner Inside Job, about the causes of the Great Recession, or 2014’s, Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. The Dissident and Assassins hit VOD in January 2021.)

Still other films looked further into the past to illuminate our present. Fresh off last year’s Best Documentary winner American Factory, the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions and Netflix released Crip Camp, a revelatory look at how people with disabilities fought for their civil rights — a fight that remains frustratingly incomplete — amid the 1960s and '70s movements for change. The upcoming, equally revelatory MLK/FBI (Jan. 15, 2021) is a blistering look into J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance campaign against Martin Luther King Jr., bringing yet another shameful episode in America’s racial reckoning to the screen. And another Civil Rights Movement icon received a fitting tribute with John Lewis: Good Trouble, released just two weeks before the congressman’s death in July.

Even as audiences increasingly looked to escape the real world through entertainment (Tiger King notwithstanding; which, by the way, is ineligible for the Oscars with the new, post-O.J.: Made in America rules in place), this year showed us why we need docs so badly: to help us process and make sense of our reality. Come Oscar night, no matter which films have made it to the final five, they’ll all have that in common.

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