There’s nothing wrong with the documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” The film shouts the praises of the unsung hero of rock ‘n’ roll, the backup singer, showcasing the impressive pipes of big-voiced industry legends, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega and Lisa Fischer. This fun, upbeat movie, which touches briefly on racial issues, recently won the Oscar for best documentary, probably because it tickled some nostalgic sweet spot in the memories of the aging members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Directed by seasoned documentarian Morgan Neville, “Stardom” is a perfectly decent work of nonfiction film, but it pales in comparison to at least two of the five nominees, “Cutie and the Boxer” and “The Act of Killing.” Though I haven’t had the chance to watch the remaining nominees — “The Square,” about Egyptian revolutionaries, and “Dirty Wars,” which examines the history of America’s “covert” armed conflicts — I suspect it pales in comparison to them as well. (Nevermind that two of the best documentaries of 2013 were completely overlooked by the Academy: “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s stunning rumination on family, truth and identity, and the damning Sea World expose “Blackfish.”)
“Cutie and the Boxer” and “The Act of Killing” are ten times more compelling, ambitious and important than the entertaining but relatively unprofound “20 Feet From Stardom.” Lucky for us, they also happen to be available for home viewing.
“Cutie” recounts the unusual love story of Ushio Shinohara, an 80-year-old Japanese pop artist known for the “action paintings” he creates using boxing gloves tipped with foam, and his long-suffering wife Noriko, an artist in her own right who lives hidden in his shadow. Playfully and imaginatively directed by Zachary Heinzerling, the film documents the pair’s affectionate yet combative relationship, which raises fascinating questions about art and commerce, love and self-sacrifice and whether it is possible for two artists to live together as equals.
Ushio’s ego may be as outsized as the giant motorcycle sculptures he creates, but it is Noriko — aka “Cutie” — who emerges as the real star of the film. Arriving in New York City as a young art student, she promptly falls for Ushio and his avant garde ideals, despite a 20-year age difference. Giving up her creative dreams to essentially become an assistant to the mercurial, alcoholic artist, she finds herself pregnant, poor — Ushio is celebrated but his art doesn’t sell — and increasingly embittered.
Later in life, however, she begins to emerge from her husband’s shadow, writing and illustrating a striking graphic novel that tells the story of their marriage, following the exploits of the naked, pigtailed Cutie. Suddenly it seems the genuine talent in the family may have been overlooked. The intriguing saga of a remarkable woman becomes a messy, melancholy but transcendent tale of liberation.
Even more astonishing is “The Act of Killing,” an innovative and deeply disturbing documentary by Texas native Joshua Oppenheimer. The film follows Indonesian death squad leader Anwar Congo and his cohorts as they reenact their past crimes against humanity in the style of Hollywood movies.
Anwar and his swaggering friends presided over a bloody extermination that resulted in the deaths of millions of so-called Communists after the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965. Never called to account for the killings, these unrepentant gangsters proudly recount the influence of American cinema on their self-styled thug-dom, relishing the process of turning their violent acts into a movie, complete with gory special effects, makeup, elaborate sets, dancing girls, torture scenes and one particularly rotund gangster in drag.
As they set about making the film they imagine will cement their place in history, with all the enthusiasm of neighborhood kids putting on a show, Anwar and his fellow mass murderers begin to debate the impact the truth might have on their legacy in a running dialogue that gradually becomes as surreal as the images on screen. Even more unexpectedly, Anwar develops a conscience as he’s confronted with the memory of the hundreds of sadistic slayings he committed in his youth.
A dark and complex exploration of a national history steeped in corruption and self-delusion, “The Act of Killing” becomes a portrait of a man haunted by unforgivable sins. There are no backup singers doo-wopping in the background, just an eyeful of human nature at its very worst.