In a face-off between fashion divas, food activists, Broadway dancers, and guerrilla videographers, a film about a Bourne Identity-like mission to rescue dolphins, triumphs.
When the Oscar short list for the Best Documentary category was announced recently, there was much guffawing. Where was Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a funny and touching movie about an aging Canadian big-hair band that is still head-banging as though it were 1986? Where was Tyson, a critically acclaimed film about another, more famous, banger of heads? And how was it possible that documentarian emeritus, Michael Moore—and his latest diatribe, Capitalism: A Love Story—had been snubbed? Then there was the glaring irony that one of the most talked-about documentaries in years— This Is It, the MJ film—was ineligible because it was released after September 30th.
Ric O’Barry has an Old Man and the Sea quality—weathered face, arm tattoos, eyes that alternately flare up in outrage and well up in sorrow—and The Cove’s director Louis Psihoyos wisely allows him to tell the story of heartbreak, horror, and hopeful, if not certain, redemption.
Yet a look at the 15 films that actually are eligible to win, shows that the Academy didn’t get it all wrong. Six films, in particular, stand out for their superior achievement, and The Daily Beast proudly nominates them as the year’s best. The group couldn’t be more varied in terms of style and sensibility, from Robert Kenner’s terrifying, organic-all-the-way Food Inc.; to Matt Tyrnauer’s ode to high fashion and male divas, Valentino: The Last Emperor; to Every Little Step, a behind-the-scenes look at the angst of auditioning for a Broadway musical; to Anders Ostergaard’s Burma VJ, a film made from footage compiled by renegade vj’s—video journalists—who surreptitiously chronicled the monk-led demonstrations against Myanmar’s military government in 2007.
But the most compelling documentary of the year is The Cove. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer, The Cove is, on its face, eco-advocacy at its best. But even more so, it’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, complete with villains—the Japanese fishermen who slaughter 23,000 dolphins a year in the sleepy town of Taiji, as well as the government officials who protect them—and a Bourne Identity-like mission, led by a crack team of activists, divers and filmmakers to document the killings and expose them to the world.
Most important, The Cove has a heart, and it belongs to Ric O’Barry, the original Flipper dolphin trainer, who has spent the last 35 years trying to make up for what he sees as his hand in the booming dolphin captivity industry by risking his life to rescue the animals from bondage; he’s even served prison time for setting dolphins free. O’Barry has an Old Man and the Sea quality—weathered face, arm tattoos, eyes that alternately flare up in outrage and well up in sorrow—and Psihoyos wisely allows him to tell the story of heartbreak, horror, and hopeful, if not certain, redemption. In The New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote that The Cove “is no angry enviro-rant but a living, breathing movie whose horrifying disclosures feel fully earned.” Variety’s Justin Chang called the film “a love letter to a beloved species, an eye-opening primer on worldwide dolphin captivity, a playful paranoid thriller and a work of deep-seated (if sometimes hot-headed) moral outrage.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.