[EDITOR'S NOTE: It's over! With her inclusion of Best Documentary Shorts in this series, Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com has succeeded in watching every single film nominated for an Oscar this year. Congratulations, Sarah, for winning the Oscars Death Race. You can catch her down at the local bar treating herself to a pleasant alcoholic beverage, celebrating her hard-won victory. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here. ]
Documentary Shorts Sarah 61, Oscars 0; 24 categories completed, race won
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement. A salute to the many men and women who took enormous risks for the movement without needing name recognition, TBoB introduces us to James Armstrong, a barber in his eighties, on the eve of Barack Obama's election. You can't necessarily separate the man from his relationship to the fight for integration (his sons integrated Graymont Elementary in Birmingham), but I'd rather have seen a tighter focus on the man himself, letting those stories come through him. The talking heads and footage of the inauguration made the film a little flat overall.
God Is The Bigger Elvis. The film that completed the Death Race, it will always have a special place in my heart — but it's a visit with Dolores Hart, once an up-and-coming starlet who foreswore Hollywood to join a Benedictine order almost 50 years ago. Now a mother prioress, she and other nuns talk about that decision, the process of communing with God, and the evolution of their understanding of intimacy. The bittersweet reveal towards the end is lovely and sad.
Incident in New Baghdad. The film is told from the POV of Ethan McCord, an infantryman present at said incident, and runs footage that is truly stern stuff as McCord gives his perspective on what really went down. Its strength is the way it acts as a confessional for McCord, but I think it needed a few more minutes of him and a few less of pointed Fox News coverage.
Saving Face. This one knocked me back a step. I hadn't known about the epidemic of women getting acid thrown on them in Pakistan, but this horrible problem (if that's a big enough word for it; I feel it isn't) was on the rise. In 2011, a member of the parliament got a bill through that made it punishable with a life sentence, but prior to that, many victims had to continue living with the husbands and in-laws who had maimed them. Others tried to rebuild their lives and self- esteem through plastic surgery and support groups. Some very upsetting footage; a fairly conventional triumph-over-adversity doc, but well done of the genre.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. Starts out rivetingly, with home movies of the March 2011 tsunami carrying a moving carpet of destruction towards a hillside — houses, cars, fleeing people. The tension dissipates once the film moves into its central topic: that the cherry blossoms which return to Japan each spring are a symbol of national spirit and resilience. Unpoetic shots of aftermath debris, contrasted with Malick-y portraits of the blooms themselves, get repetitive, but there's interesting stuff here; look out for the tree wrangler (who refers to himself as "the cherry master") who talks about the beauty and terror of nature, and how "we forget the terror."
Should win: No clear leader in my opinion, but the one that really stuck with me is Saving Face.
Will win: My sense is that The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossomhas the lead here.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.