Finally, the cinephile's favorite night of the year has arrived. Despite the fact that 2020 was a tough year for movies, this year's Oscar nominees are quite impressive. Among them, one of the most overlooked categories—the documentary—manages to perform at the high standards set for awards season. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that the pandemic provided me with ample time to learn more about obscure topics that I will rarely, if ever, address in my daily life. But what can I say? I love to LEARN!
Below, I'll be providing my (unwarranted as always) reviews of the five Oscar-nominated documentaries of 2020.
THE MOLE AGENT
If you, like me, go into this having only read the brief Letterboxd description, you’ll find yourself completely turned around by the end of the documentary. What we are led to believe is a documentation of an old man infiltrating an elderly home turns into something that is more heartwarming and gut-wrenching than anything you could have expected.
The Mole Agent follows Sergio Chamy, who is hired by a private detective to infiltrate an elderly home in San Francisco after a client claims that her mother is potentially a victim of elder abuse in the form of robbery and neglect. As it turns out, this is not actually true, but what Sergio—and we as an audience—uncover is significantly more upsetting. What we’re really consuming is an unfiltered view of loneliness and old age—the two things many people fear above all else. For good reason, The Mole Agent will leave a pit in your stomach and a weight in your chest that can only really be rectified by a good hug and some sincere companionship. Thankfully my roommates were in a good mood the day I watched this.
It’s hard not to fall for this doc for a lot of reasons, but Sergio is without question the best part of this 84-minute adventure. He is adorable, charming, and genuinely kind. It’s immediately visible to the viewer just what kind of impact he leaves on the lives of those around him, and it’s just as interesting to track his relationships with the other people in the elderly home as it is to genuinely watch them navigate their lives in their old age.
The weirdest thing about The Mole Agent is that it really doesn’t feel like a documentary at all; I had to pause the film multiple times to confirm via various online outlets whether or not the entire thing was scripted. And while it has been unquestionably been promoted as a documentary and by all accounts seems to be just that, there is a small part of me that remains skeptical. The story is almost too cohesive, the people almost too character-y—but I guess that really just speaks to how well the doc was conceived and executed.
My rating: 7.5/10
MY OCTOPUS TEACHER
This film is a jaw-dropper for a plethora of reasons, but the main one is that you really just watch a man have an AFFAIR with an octopus for two hours. The relationship he had with that animal was not normal, but I won’t judge him that much, because I think many of you would say the same thing about me if you ever saw me with my dogs (not really, but kind of, you know?).
My Octopus Teacher is an absolute gift to anyone who had a marine biologist phase as a child (or a teen, or two years ago). The ocean is fucking awesome, and the octopus is indisputably one of the smartest and coolest things down there. Essentially, this doc follows the life of a female octopus as she learns to trust a cameraman enough to let him visit her on a daily basis for almost a year. It’s like a Nat Geo documentary on steroids, because instead of focusing on a family of animals or an entire ecosystem, we zero in on the life of one individual octopus, and by the end of the film, we are all-in on her prosperity (I guess it’s presumptuous to speak for everyone who watched this, because I get weirdly obsessed with things a lot and should by no means be the standard of comparison). The guy who made this, Craig Foster, isn’t super likable. For some people, that detracted from the value of the doc, but I personally found that to be beneficial, as I was able to tune out some of his self-serving nonsense and use the time to focus on learning about such an awe-inspiring species.
I would absolutely recommend My Octopus Teacher if you are into this kind of thing, but I find myself rooting against it during awards season because there are so many other unique projects out there that aren’t being dampened by a white male (sue me, brothers!) that deserve a chance to shine this year.
My rating: 6.5/10
Right at the beginning of this doc, someone made a comment along the lines of “I’m honestly just shocked this story hasn’t been told before.” After watching, I can say I wholeheartedly agree. Crip Camp is cool because it’s about a movement that almost nobody has ever heard of, and one that a lot of very privileged people, myself included, probably never even thought about.
We start by learning about “Crip Camp” itself—a small campsite called Camp Jened hidden away in the Catskills. It looked exactly like any other camp we’ve seen in pop culture, except for one major difference—all of the campers were disabled. The camp counselors were a bunch of open-minded, self-described hippies who spent the entirety of the 60s and 70s looking for something better to do. It is quite clear that they were successful—the camp was a high point in the lives of hundreds of kids and young adults, all of whom felt they fit in at this place in a way they couldn’t back at home.
Eventually, we shift away from the camp itself and toward the campers. Many of them went on to have long, successful lives advocating for disability rights, which is what this film is truly about.
I’m not going to get overly analytical, because I know nobody is here for that (Is anyone here anyways?). However, I would regret it if I didn’t discuss how profound of an impact this documentary had on me because I think that is how we distinguish a good documentary from a great one. Crip Camp opened my eyes to the ways in which society and mass media have conditioned abled people to fear, pity, and even dismiss those with disabilities. When a system works well for you, you rarely ever think about why or how it should be changed for others who aren’t as fortunate. As one camper put it, “[when I went home,] I had to fit into this world that wasn’t built for me”.
This documentary did an amazing job of making a movie about a movement, rather than focusing on, and trying to make us sympathize for, the strong and capable people who carried it on their backs. I always love to learn about the parts of history they never teach us in school, and the disability rights movement of the mid-1900s was a huge gap in our curriculum. I suppose it has been overshadowed by the civil rights movement and women’s rights movement that launched around the same time, but that isn’t to say that the disability rights movement was any less important; that’s why Crip Camp is such a great watch.
My review: 9/10
I have to be upfront with you guys. When I saw Parasite for the first time in theaters, I didn’t touch my phone for the entire movie. This made it easy to follow the plot, regardless of the fact that it was subbed and I had to read the entire time. I watched Colectiv in my living room on a Wednesday night and do not have the willpower to put my phone away if nobody is making me, so I think it’s fair to assume I probably didn’t understand this in its entirety. The fact that I can tell you with certainty that it was still interesting is about as nice of a compliment as I can give.