The Cinema Eye Honors are perhaps the most discerning and well-rounded of all documentary awards, so it figures that they’d be no less idiosyncratic when it comes to narrative cinema. This is where their Heterodox Award, now in its second year, comes in, and it’s one of the more unusual categories on the awards beat, recognizing “narrative film[s] that imaginatively incorporate nonfiction strategies, content and/or modes of production… illuminat[ing] the formal possibilities of nonfiction filmmaking while raising provocative questions about on-going documentary orthodoxy and the perceived boundaries between narrative and nonfiction filmmaking. ” Whew.
Obviously, it’s not every film that fulfils that brief, making for an idiosyncratic list of nominees — the highest-profile of which is “Beginners,” Mike Mills’s autobiographical indie about late-blooming romance and self-realization. The bulk of the film’s awards recognition thus far has centered more on Christopher Plummer’s Oscar-bound performance than Mills’s own rather singular achievement, so it’s nice to see the writer-director-designer honored specifically for his hybrid qualities as an artist, acknowledging the personal history he brought to the project.
I regret to say I haven’t seen any of the other four nominees: “The Lips,” “The Mill and the Cross,” “Snow on the Bluff” and “My Joy,” though I know at least one colleague who will be delighted to see the latter surfacing on any awards list. Last year’s inaugural winner, incidentally, was Matt Porterfield’s “Putty Hill,” so the award is off to a thoughtful start — perhaps they’d consider a few more fiction categories? We could use this kind of thinking.
The award will be presented at the Cinema Eye Honors ceremony on Wednesday. Below are details of the five nominees, as described in the press release:
Beginners: Drawing from autobiographical elements, including his relationship to his dying father, Mike Mills has made a sensitive, insightful, and whimsically funny ode to romance and reinvention. Starring Ewen McGregor, Melanie Laurent and Christopher Plummer, Beginners mixes drama with not only humor but also brief documentary essays that examine everything from art to the history of California gay culture.
The Lips: Ivan Fund and Santiago Loza’s Argentine picture, “The Lips” (“Los Labios”), a subtle and challenging mix of documentary and narrative filmmaking, follows three women who deeply inhabit their cinematic roles as social workers interacting with members of an impoverished rural Argentine community. Facing desperate poverty that threatens to overwhelm even the greatest reserves of calm, humor, and empathy, the trio moves into makeshift living quarters and records data on the needs of the community, while still taking time for an occasional night out.
The Mill and the Cross: Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is an epic restaging of and journey into Pieter Bruegel’s celebrated 1564 painting, “Way to Calvary.” Rutger Hauer stars as Bruegel, Michael York is his art collector friend, and Charlotte Rampling is the inspiration for his Virgin Mary. Majewski explores not only the rich iconography of this work but, using digital technology to make his picture a dialogue with not only the past but the nature of creativity itself.
My Joy: Ukranian documentary director Sergei Loznitsa made his debut drama with My Joy, a harshly riveting journey through the countryside of contemporary Russia. Following a truck driver as he makes his various deliveries, Loznitsa draws upon his own experience shooting and traveling through the Russian provinces in this bold and terrifying film.
Snow on tha Bluff: As authentic a document of the life of a young, black, crack-dealing single parent as you will ever see, Damon Russell’s “Snow on tha Bluff” audaciously mixes footage from the camcorder of the film’s real-life inspiration with dramatic scenes to create a sometimes indecipherable mixture of real life and fiction, documentary authenticity and cultural mythmaking.
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