The PGA nominations, always a good hint at where the Academy Awards are heading, has begun to announce their picks for the year. Today, they released their nominations for Best Documentary and the list is, per usual, half solid and half inexcusable. The nominees are: Dancer, The Eagle Huntress, Tower, O.J.: Made in America, and Life, Animated.
If you’ve been paying attention to documentaries at all this year, you’ll notice that there are some conspicuous, even shocking omissions here, beginning with Ava DuVernay‘s unrelenting, unvanquishable 13th. Here’s a film that turns information that you very well may have already known on paper and turns the assemblage of facts, experiences, memories, and history into a bracing, terrifying telling of the history of black Americans, centered around the passing of the 13th amendment. The fact that it’s not here is simply an insult and that it’s been replaced with such familiar, unquestioning works as Dancer and The Eagle Huntress is salt in the wound.
O.J.: Made in America, an engrossing, tremendously well-researched chronicle of the life of Orenthal James Simpson, is more than worthy of this award and shares some of 13th‘s more pointed criticisms of America’s intertwined denial and acceptance of racism, but it lacks the feverish pacing and personal touches – the workmanlike backgrounds, the atmospheric lighting, etc. – that Duvernay gives her film. Tower, a great, inventive work that considers filmmaking as inseparable from historical reckoning, is also a worthy choice. But where oh where are similarly unique works as Cameraperson, Weiner, or the upcoming, essential I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck‘s harrowing vision of James Baldwin and his incomplete final novel, “Remember This House,” about the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. And if you wanted even easier picks, there are two new classics by the unparalleled Werner Herzog: Netflix’s Into the Inferno and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World.
And that’s not even getting into diverse micro-masterpieces like The Witness, Nuts!, De Palma, Zero Days, and a host of others. Regardless, it seems clear that the winner will almost certainly be Life, Animated, a wholly well-meaning and good-natured inspirational tale about how animation helped Owen Suskind, a young Autistic man, come to terms with his disorder. It’s got all the hallmarks of a winner in that it is unabashedly positive, narrow in focus, uncomplicated in the extreme, and celebrates popular artists and the business that keeps them working. There’s nothing inherently wrong about awarding such a movie, just like there’s nothing inherently wrong with giving yourself a pat on the back. The fact that it’s treasured over a genuine truth-bomb like 13th, however, says something not so great about what the PGA is looking for in a documentary.