2023 Oscar Documentary Films

An Overview and comparison of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary films.
2023 Oscar Documentary Films
A House Made of Splinters

A House Made of Splinters (4.5*)

All That Breathes (4*)

Navalny (3.5*) OSCAR WINNER

All The Beauty and the Bloodshed (3*)

Fire of Love (3*)

Three of this year’s five documentaries are certainly worth viewing and the other two only if you really like documentary films.

My favorite documentary this year is A House Made of Splinters (4.5*). Maybe because it involves kids (or because it involves kids in situations similar to my daughter’s son) or because it involves Ukrainian children, I’m not sure, but I connected with this film.  The degree of trust the filmmaker acquired in order to capture these kids most intimate feelings was extraordinary.  Documentaries are indeed supposed to educate you, but the best one’s also make you feel.  I dare you to watch this one – but if you do, bring a box of kleenex!

All That Breathes (4*) probably won’t make you cry, but you do come away from this film with a very different feeling about the relationship between humans and the natural world.  Although at one level it conveys the story of three men in India who have taken on the responsibility of providing animal rescue to meat eating Black Kite birds.  At another level there are their own personal problems of confronting human caused disasters like flooding, air pollution, and persecution of their Muslim identities.  If that isn’t enough, there are the often beautiful scenes of animal life unfolding in and around all the human detritus, adapting as they have always done.  It is a bridge between documentary and art film.

Very different, Navalny (3.5*) unfolds like a political thriller.  But when you realize that this is all factual and that it casts Vladimir Putin as the villain, it takes on additional significance.  The facts of this true story are worth the viewing all by itself, but the reason for my less than stellar rating is that the filmmakers are hardly responsible for the drama.  The editing is exceptional, but it is only a quirk of fate that they were able to capture the mind-warping conversation during the “prank call” to a Russian chemist.  So the film should be watched, but should it be rewarded when so much of its content was totally beyond the control of the filmmakers?  I don’t think so.

The last two documentaries on my list you should only watch if you really like this genre of film.  All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (3*) is an overblown film that is billed as focusing on the opioid epidemic and the Sackler family.  However, it is really about the life of art photographer Nan Goldin as she navigates the underworlds of Baltimore, Berlin, and New York City.  The film improves on the second viewing if you go in with modified expectations.  But how many of you are going to watch a two hour documentary twice?  The other not-so-great movie is National Geographic’s homage to the married volcanologists, Katie and Maurice Krafft who were killed doing what they love the most, exploring a volcano, Fire of Love.  The filmmakers proposed a theme of a love triangle with the two of them as one side and their love of volcanoes as the third element.  The problem is there is little evidence of their love for each other and thus her film fails to document her message.  Still the volcano imagery is the best you are likely to see anywhere.

All five of last year’s documentaries are also worth a view.  My favorite, and the Oscar winner, was Summer of Soul (4.5*) which covers the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free summer concerts.  If you have any memories of the music of the sixties, you will want to see this film.  Attica (4*) also focuses on the Black experience in America, but covers the deadliest prison uprising in US history.  Although not at all a pleasant film to watch, it is one all American adults should see.  FLEE (4*) is an amazing film because, although it is a documentary, it is told as an animated feature and, from Denmark, it was also an international feature.  It tells a complicated story of a man who has to flee not just one home but two due to political issues.  Ascension (3.5*) tells the disgusting story of how capitalism has dehumanized China and Writing with Fire (3.5*) documents the incredible story of untouchable women journalists in India as they take on a corrupt system while trying to live their own lives.

If you like documentaries, there are plenty over the last two Oscar years to keep you occupied.

Oscar Documentaries
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