Reviewing the 2021 Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

Crip Camp (2020)

When Oscar nominations were announced last week, the Documentary Feature category was among the most surprising; acclaimed docs like Dick Johnson Is DeadAll In, and Boys State were all shut out, in favor of five diverse films, ranging from terrific to a disappointing and ineffective. Here are my reviews of the nominees, in order from best to worst. 

Crip Camp

Directors/Screenwriters: James LeBrecht, Nicole Newnham
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language including sexual references
Release Dates: 1/23/20 (Theatres); 3/25/20 (VOD)
Runtime: 1h 46min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Where to Watch: Netflix
Grade: A

Is it so surprising that my favorite documentary of the bunch is one produced by Higher Ground Productions, the Obamas’ company? While American Factory, their first film, wasn’t my favorite of that particular year, it was still a solid film and giving the Obamas more awards is never a bad idea. Also, as an individual with autism, I was interested in learning more about the disability rights movement, which was akin toe the civil rights movement and occurred around the same time — but so little was previously known about it. Crip Camp is a fascinating documentary that tries to tackle a lot, but it does so in such a way is comprehensive without being overwhelming. Who would have known that there was a camp for disabled children (and counselors) in the 1970s? There are interviews with surviving former campers and counselors, as well as others in the movement. This is interspersed with a an impressive amount of [mostly] black-and-white footage, of both the camp and the movement. We see individuals with all sorts of disabilities, though primarily physical, and we root for them as much as we did for African American during the civil rights movement.


Director: Alexander Nanau
Screenwriters: Alexander Nanau, Antoaneta Opris
MPAA Rating: NR
Release Date: 11/20/20 
Runtime: 1h 49min 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy
Grade: A-

The Romanian-based Collective is the second documentary is recent years — after Honeyland — to be nominated for two awards (which makes it easier to catch up on all of the nominees): Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film. While the narrative style of the filming is a bit scattershot at times (I wasn’t always sure who was/were meant to be the protagonist[s]), it’s still a very engrossing film that is never uninteresting. Filmmaker Alexander Nanau obtained unprecedented access to Romanian journalists and politicians as they dealt with the revelations after a club fire that resulted in more deaths than would have occurred elsewhere. There’s a lot of politics and political intrigue, which just goes to show that even other countries have messed-up political and health care systems. 

The Mole Agent

Director/Screenwriter: Maite Alberti
MPAA Rating: NR
Release Date: 1/25/20 (Theatres); 9/1/20 (VOD)
Runtime: 1h 24min 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Where to Watch: Hulu
Grade: A-

The Chilean film The Mole Agent starts out as a sort of mystery/noir that’s in the form of a documentary, but it unexpectedly morphs into something else: a meditation on loneliness and the kindness of strangers. The film is about an 83-year-old recently-widowed man who signs up — I’m unsure if he’s getting paid for this or not — be, yes, a mole agent, at a nursing home where there are suspicions of abuse on one particular resident. While the man gives daily reports of the home’s happenings, he becomes extremely popular (especially among the women, who far outnumber the men) as he is kind and seems to genuinely care about the others’ wellbeing. This all leads to a heartbreaking conclusion that is not surprising by deserved. While the film feels a bit gimmicky and forced at times, it is sure to tug at your heartstrings.

My Octopus Teacher

Directors/Screenwriters: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
MPAA Rating: Rated TV-G
Release Date: 9/7/20
Runtime: 1h 25min 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Where to Watch: Netflix
Grade: B+

You might ask yourself: Why is a vegan animal lover like myself not ranking an animal-focused documentary #1? Well, as compelling and educational as is the octopus narrative in the documentary, the human narrative is far less so. It not only becomes too spiritual and otherworldly at times, but also is almost creepy (in an inter-species sexual manner), the latter of which was undoubtedly unintentional. I honestly can’t remember the guy’s name — the guy who bonds with a female octopus — or that much about him, aside from the fact he’s South African and has a son, who he brings along on his dives. It’s a wonder why we’re supposed to care about him, but the film is more about the unique relationship that develops between a human and a cephalopod. It’s also beautiful shot, providing a intimate glimpse into the daily lives of octopuses and other sea creatures. For those who didn’t already appreciate the ocean [enough], you certainly will now, and you may now think twice about consuming calamari (or other seafood). 


Director: Garrett Bradley
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language 
Release Date: 10/9/20 (Theatres); 10/16/20 (VOD)
Runtime: 1h 21min 
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
Grade: C-

I’m really, truly, flabbergasted by the positive reviews of this film, mainly by critics (IMDb users have slammed it). I can understand why the topics is so prescient and important: the mass, often lengthy, incarceration of people of color. But, unlike the way in which this topic is discussed in films like the terrific documentary 13th and even in 2019’s Just MercyTime is a poorly-made effort featuring a protagonist who is incredibly unlikeable. In some scenes, she — who, for a reason that’s never really explained, has two names — appears to be nice but then we see her for who she truly is: a fairly obnoxious, annoying woman who uses the word “r*tard” (as someone with autism, this is highly offensive). And, we’re supposed to empathize with her? Also, she, along with her long-imprisoned husband, engaged in an armed bank robbery for no real reason other than money (this is hardly explained). I found myself empathizing much more with the children, two of whom never even knew their father. They save the film from being a complete disaster, but for such a short movie (it’s 81 minutes long), I still couldn’t wait for it to end.