The Act of Killing

Oscar Predictions 2014: Documentary

Documentaries deserve their own category, not jut in order to spotlight nonfiction films additionally but also separately, because they aren’t easily pit against narrative works. Yet while it’s fair to say it’s too difficult to weigh something like 20 Feet From Stardom or The Act of Killing against Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, it’s just as difficult to weigh this year’s nominees for Best Documentary – Feature against one another. It’s one of the few years in which every contender is an exceptional and unique work in this area of filmmaking and not two of them is alike in any way. One may be the most enjoyable of the five, another the most important. Another is the most creative with the art of documentary storytelling, and another is the most necessary at capturing history in the making, another the most moving in telling of a history already made. Let’s give them all an Oscar! Obviously that’s not possible, and so we’re left with a race that’s not easy to predict. To do so, we must look at not only how these nominees are doing with other honors and audiences leading up to the Academy Awards, but we have to consider how they might be campaigned for as well as how they’ll be voted on. I’ve tried to do my best in that regard. Keep reading for a look at all five nominees for Best Documentary – Feature along with my predicted winner in red… READ MORE AT NONFICS


Dallas Buyers Club Movie

All we need now is for Shia Labeouf to streak across the stage of the Dolby Theatre during the 2014 Academy Awards, copying Robert Opel’s famous stunt of 40 years ago as a bold bit of promotion for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, to make this year’s event possibly the most controversy-laden of all time. Or throw in an honorary Oscar for Roman Polanski, give another special tribute to Elia Kazan or give Best Picture to a Frank Capra film. Let Michael Moore on stage to criticize Obama, Sacheen Littlefeather to protest The Lone Ranger‘s nomination and have Rob Lowe back to ruin his resurrected career by dancing this time with all of the Disney princesses. Actually, we’re probably pretty set with controversies for the 86th Academy Awards show, which will be held only three weeks from now. From a nominee’s disqualification to the usual issues with documentary contenders, from complaints about a specific drama’s depiction of and its actors’ sensitivity to the LGBT population to problems with one of the Academy’s most recognized filmmakers, we might be in store for some extra picketing or contentious remarks or any number of other surprises on March 2nd. Let’s look at what we’ve got so far in the controversy basket below. 


discs the act of killing

Welcome back to This Week In Discs! If you see something you like, click on the title to buy it from Amazon. The Act of Killing Indonesia, like many countries, has a dark and bloody past filled with brutal death squads and mass killings. The difference is that unlike those others the people of Indonesia continue to celebrate the murderers, and many of those killers still walk the streets as heroes of a cruel and sadistic history. This documentary puts us in the killers’ midst as they tell their story using the medium they love so much, film. Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film is an absolute marvel both in what it sets out to do and in what it accomplishes. The “characters” here are madmen in charge of their own fates and world, and the view they have of their shared history is more disturbing than any horror film. The only thing more terrifying than hearing them talk about what they’ve done and how they feel about it now is watching their efforts to recreate it all in front of the camera. [Blu-ray/DVD extras: Theatrical and director’s cuts, interview, commentary with Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog, featurette, deleted scenes, trailers, booklet]


cc the act of killing2

The Act of Killing is a fascinating piece of cinema that illuminates not only a tragic and disturbing slice of history but also the humanity behind it all. The term is usually used in a positive light, but one of the film’s points is that these aren’t monsters committing such acts of barbarity. They’re people. Director Joshua Oppenheimer‘s film is one of the year’s best, and while he received a helping hand from two big names in the documentary field both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris give him full credit for the accomplishment. Drafthouse Films’ upcoming Blu-ray release includes the theatrical cut with some solid special features, but it also comes with a second Blu featuring the 166-minute director’s cut (an additional 44 minutes). Even better? The longer cut includes a commentary track with Oppenheimer and Herzog. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The Act of Killing.



Before Midnight! Gravity! The Wolf of Wall Street! Fruitvale Station! The Great Beauty! Philomena! Frances Ha! Blue Jasmine! Spring Breakers! Nebraska! Dallas Buyers Club! The Wind Rises! Saving Mr. Banks! None of the thirteen critically acclaimed films above are on my list of the thirteen best films of 2013 below. Make of that what you will, but of the whopping 241 new releases I watched this year these are the thirteen that have stuck with me the strongest. That said, I did make a conscious effort to focus on U.S. releases for the list since I have a separate Top 13 for Best Foreign Language films. It’s been a fantastic year in cinema all around, and I could just as easily offered a list twice as long. Keep reading to see what I feel are the thirteen best movies of 2013.



What a year for nonfiction cinema. The power and the poetry and the perspective of documentaries in 2013 all reached groundbreaking levels. Films are changing minds, maybe some industries, perhaps even eventually some national histories. They’re illustrating imaginations and emotions and memories in ways that expand the mode beyond realism to points of greater truth. We saw things this year that we’ve simply never seen on film before, and we also embraced the very familiar through totally fresh points of view. Whether it was a story of one family’s secret or of the shockingly unhidden yet unexplored travesty of a whole country, or of an investigation into the covert dealings of our own military or of the previously unspoken complexities of a serious issue of medical and moral controversy, the best docs of this year dove deep into the unknown and came out offering astonishing tales and testimonies. Or they blew fiction films out of the water in terms of their cinematic spectacle and narrative creativity, their capability to depict romance and suspense and humor and even a sense of magic. Below are the 13 titles that Nonfics has democratically determined to be the greatest U.S. theatrical releases of the year. Compiled and tallied from the individual lists of columnist Robert Greene and critics Daniel Walber, Dan Schindel and Landon Palmer, as well as Nonfics Managing Editor Christopher Campbell, the selections do well to represent the bounty of varied works we had this year that continue to broaden the scope […]



This week’s list of movies to watch is not inspired by a single new release, because there isn’t anything big enough out this weekend to warrant such a focus. Instead, I’ve got a year-end feature for you inspired by the entirety of 2013 in film. I can’t sum up every title released this year with only ten recommendations, but the movies I’ve selected are, I believe, the best representatives of the more notable titles and trends seen in the past dozen months. Most of the selections are familiar. Chances are you’ve seen more than a few. But obviously this edition has to involve more popular fare because they have to be influential movies to have informed so much of this year’s crop, even if unintentionally. Just take it as a call to watch them again, along with whatever you haven’t seen before, as a special sort of year in review of the most important movies of 2013 released before 2013.



Topping this year’s list of the best films (as chosen by international critics and curators), The Act of Killing is unique for being a documentary on the prestigious roster (as well as the rare documentary to chime in at number one), but its selection isn’t all that surprising given the flavor S&S’s lists usually take on. Decidedly international without a comedy in sight (or, you know, sound), it’s much stranger to see a Hollywood blockbuster amongst its ranks. But Gravity has pulled it off — grossing beyond $600M worldwide and earning the S&S street cred. Not to say that it’s an impossible feat, but within the past few years only a few mainstream/Hollywood studio films have made it to the top ten. If an American picture breaks through, it’s typically from Focus Features or Wes Anderson or both. For a hint of recent context, the last studio project on the year-end list was The Social Network (2010). Before that, Up and Inglourious Basterds (2009) shared the space as did There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage counts, right?) and Wall-E (2008). In fact, Pixar retreating into sequels and prequels seems to have had a direct effect on how many studio movies are featured.



By the time I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, I had already read a few Harry Potter books and I couldn’t help but think of the earlier sci-fi work initially as “Harry Potter in space.” It’s a comparison that continues for many now that the movie is out. “Harry Potter meets Star Wars,” claims a blurb used in UK ads credited to Sky Movies host Craig Stevens. And if you search Twitter for “Ender’s Game and Harry Potter” the results of both titles mentioned together is aplenty. All this is natural for the lazy way we relate movies to each other. The sad thing is some kids might think of the new movie as a derivative piece of YA fiction modeled after J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard. I don’t know if Potter was at all influenced by Ender’s Game. It’s not like Card’s book was the first messianic tale. The website TV Tropes even labels the relevant trope as “A Child Shall Lead Them,” a Biblical quote that also appears at the top of the New York Times review of the movie, in which critic Manohla Dargis breaks out the ol’ “Christ figure” descriptor for the main character. Still, I wish that I’d both read and seen the Harry Potters after reading/seeing Ender’s Game. If you’ve somehow avoided all the Hogwarts adventures before going to Battle School with the new Ender’s adaptation, consider yourself lucky. Watch the entire series now to see what I’m talking about. And right there I’ve got […]



In 1988, a documentary about a man in Texas convicted of a murder he did not commit made it to the top of numerous critics’ best-of lists, became one of the most widely-seen non-fiction films of its era, and even created enough publicity to overturn the conviction of the film’s subject.  However, The Thin Blue Line, despite the considerable attention and critical praise it attracted, was absent at that year’s Academy Awards because it was reportedly not considered a documentary. One can easily make a case inverse of the Academy’s evaluation, that this particular work actually defined what the documentary is, and can be, in North American filmmaking since. In what seems to be a decade-plus-long mainstream renaissance of the non-fiction form, The Thin Blue Line’s influence is palpable to a level nearing ubiquity. At the same time, nobody makes films quite like the intimidatingly intelligent and perceptive Errol Morris: filmmaker, investigative journalist, essayist, perceptive tweeter, and arguably (depending on who you ask) the first postmodernist documentarian. So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who inspired Werner Herzog to eat a shoe.



There’s plenty of violence in Hollywood summer tentpole movies. In superhero films and toy adaptations, it’s become something resembling common practice to have a climax that involves the probable off-screen collateral deaths of thousands of nameless civilians. But most Hollywood film violence is of the largely inconsequential, routinely PG-13 variety, with the bad guy inevitably receiving their comeuppance, all of it “tastefully” lacking realism. As if Hollywood’s representations of violence didn’t seem cartoonishly inconsequential enough, in a move approaching self-parody, this weekend saw the major release of a film involving supernatural cops who hunt down perpetrators that are already dead. Early this year, in response to the controversy over the representation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, I quoted the argument from a friend’s rather great book that “movie violence” is a floating, elusive signifier; it hardly means one given thing, and its possible meanings and potential affects are largely dependent upon a great many intersecting factors. While I stand by this assertion, during the summer more than any time of year, it’s clear that Hollywood film violence can be relatively homogenous: typically passive, unimaginative, unserious, stultifying. But during past few weeks, the limited release/arthouse sector has seen an abundance of films that represent violent actions in myriad ways, using and exploring violence towards varying ends, none of which involve a fleeting moment of utilitarian spectacle.


review act of killing

Editor’s note: Our review of The Act of Killing originally ran during this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the movie opens in limited theatrical release. While everyone has experienced situations in which someone has upset us and we demand an apology, everyone also knows that you cannot truly force someone to apologize. The documentary The Act of Killing presents an almost social experiment exploring what happens when you give those who have done something terrible (in this case, killing thousands) a forum through which to tell their story to see if a new perspective changes their attitude. Back in 1960’s, Indonesia was riddled with “gangsters” and death squad leaders who persecuted and murdered thousands of alleged Communists throughout the region. The fear these unjust murders created is still alive today, with large paramilitary organizations like the Pancasila Youth continuing to grow in staggering numbers. The Act of Killing asks these former killers to make a movie about their experiences and then allows the film’s subjects to run the show from forcing friends and family to act in the film to selecting elaborate costumes.  The film focuses on Anwar Congo, a former gangster, who begins as a bit of a showboating caricature – a man proud of what he’s done and constantly talking about how he mirrored himself after the actors in the films he also scalped tickets for. Congo clearly has an interest in film and takes on the role of the director, explaining how the film needed comic […]



At the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary, The Act of Killing, is an interesting experiment. The general conceit is that he’s contacting mass murderers who are living in a culture that celebrates rather than vilifies their crimes against humanity, and he’s challenging them to film reenactments of the murders they’ve carried out in their real lives, but in the dramatic film genre of their choice. As you can see in the new trailer for the doc, some of their short films end up looking like crime films, some experimental art films, and some gaudy Bollywood musicals, but the tie that binds them all together is that they’re really disturbing to watch, and they just may leave you examining how you react to the murder you see so frequently projected up on the big screen, and why it is you react the way you do.

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published: 01.29.2015
published: 01.28.2015
published: 01.28.2015
published: 01.28.2015

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