The Oscars come complete with lots and lots of categories you probably don't care about — generally, all the ones that don't involve "Picture" or "Director" or acting or "Screenplay."
In particular, that applies to the categories of movies most people have almost no chance to see, like the ones honoring documentaries, short films, and foreign films.
But digital distribution has made many of these films readily available to just about anybody with an internet connection and a subscription to a streaming service. Indeed, four out of this year's five Documentary Feature nominees are available on either Amazon Prime or Netflix, while the fifth is available for digital rental.
And since all five films are terrific, why not spend a weekend with some of the best nonfiction films around?
Here are this year's five Documentary Feature nominees, reviewed and ranked (though you can't go wrong by watching all five).
1) The Look of Silence: a moving film about the need for justice, no matter how minor
Director Joshua Oppenheimer's tremendous film traces the efforts of an Indonesian eye doctor as he attempts to elicit some measure of forgiveness from the men who were responsible for the death of his brother in the 1965 genocides that swept the country. His journey is a microcosm of any attempt to set right something that's been profoundly broken — and just how impossible such a task is.
Oppenheimer previously visited this territory in big-picture form in 2012's The Act of Killing, which considered the ways many people still celebrate the Indonesian genocide of the past in pageants and song. The Look of Silence is at once a sequel to and spinoff of that earlier film, picking up where it left off but also digging ever more deeply into the idea that some sins are unforgivable — even when forgiveness might be the only thing that can heal someone enough to move forward.
This is a rich, emotional, often agonizing film. I wrote much, much more about it here.
Where to watch: The Look of Silence is available for digital purchase or rental.
2) Amy: a thoughtful, moving biography of a damaged genius
Director Asif Kapadia's two most recent films (the race car driver documentary Senna and this one) transform collages of found footage into what amount to unofficial biographies of people who died far too young and far too tragically. In Amy, his subject is musician Amy Winehouse, and he charts the singer's rise and long, long fall in excruciating close-up, refusing to let you look away as seemingly no one around Winehouse tries to prevent her from pitching forward into the void.
But the best thing about Amy is that it reminds you of what a primal talent Winehouse truly was. Rather than reduce her to a series of cautionary tales or punchlines about the addictions and eating disorders that would eventually claim her life at age 27, Kapadia displays all sorts of footage of Winehouse performing, pairing it with recollections of friends and rare behind-the-scenes footage that captures her as a happy young woman with the world ahead of her.
The film's strongest sequences arrive after she's hit the height of fame, but when she still has a shot at avoiding the downward spirals of addiction. In particular, look for footage from immediately before and after she wins at the Grammys, as well as a rehearsal with a kindly, paternal Tony Bennett for the final recording Winehouse would ever make.
Where to watch: Amy is available to Amazon Prime subscribers for free. It's also available for digital download.
3) Cartel Land: a rich, complicated portrait of the US-Mexican border
The rise of digital filmmaking has led to lots and lots of documentaries that tackle hot-button issues, but fewer that play their cards close to their vests instead of explicitly taking a side. Watch enough of Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land, and you'll get the sense that he's interested in pursuing ideas about the cost of zealotry and vigilante justice. But he's mostly interested in putting you in the middle of the immigration and drug war debates and showing you the complicated situations of everybody whose lives intersect with those issues on both sides of the US-Mexican border.
Consider, for instance, Tim Foley, a man who takes it upon himself to patrol the Arizona border for anyone who might be trying to enter the country illegally. Foley is a member of an organization that's been dubbed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — and Heineman films him saying things that suggest exactly why it might be considered as such. But Foley also emerges as a complex, human figure, one who is driven by impulses that will be recognizable to almost anyone.
Add to that a portrayal of the Mexican side of the drug war (with the anti-cartel group Autodefensas becoming the subject of half the film) and some gorgeous images from Heineman and his crew, and you have a work that will leave those looking to score political points frustrated, but one that succeeds mightily in forcing viewers to consider these issues from new angles.
Where to watch: Cartel Land is available to stream on Netflix, or for digital rental or purchase.
4) What Happened, Miss Simone?: Nina Simone's life, largely in her own words
The second of this year's two richly deserving musical biography nominees, What Happened, Miss Simone? is slightly more conventional in structure than Amy. For one thing, director Liz Garbus assembles the film via the usual collection of talking heads interspersed with period photographs and performance footage. For another, its central arc, tracing Nina Simone's early rise, politically driven fall, and late-period resurrection, is incredibly standard.
But What Happened, Miss Simone? differentiates itself thanks to Garbus's willingness to embrace everything about her subject, even the things viewers might find less than admirable. Simone was a transcendent artist, a political radical, and a deeply complicated woman trapped in a variety of abusive relationships, both romantic and otherwise. Every time you think you have a read on her, she does something to completely change your point of view.
That's the mark of a great character, whether that character is a real person or a fictional one, and as a character study, What Happened, Miss Simone? is tremendous. Its title — taken from a Maya Angelou poem — doesn't interrogate Simone herself, but instead asks why the things she stood for were never accomplished. It's a film as much about the civil rights movement as about an incomparable jazz singer.
Where to watch: What Happened, Miss Simone? is available to stream on Netflix.
5) Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom: This is what revolution looks like
Evgeny Afineevsky's Winter on Fire is by far the most conventional documentary on this list, but that doesn't mean it's not jaw-dropping. Afineevsky's footage — shot in 2014, at the heart of protests against a corrupt Ukrainian election — is tremendous, the sort of "you are there" stuff that great documentaries have always offered. It's also a reminder of just how difficult revolutions can truly be — as those who are protesting fight and bleed and even die for their cause.
Winter on Fire perhaps runs a touch too long, and at times its scope is slightly larger than its handheld aesthetic will allow. But in its best, most potent moments, it places the camera in the middle of people standing up in defiance of their government, or weeping openly over the corpse of one of their own.
It's also a great portrait of how a movement like this can start as something relatively small, then grow bigger and bigger as it agitates others to join its cause. And the film's ending shows that, yes, pushing for change can be back-breaking, death-defying work, but it's sometimes the only way to get the ruling classes to listen.
Where to watch: Winter on Fire is available to stream on Netflix.