Awards season provides an excellent excuse to reflect on the year in film and take stock of new work. There’s no better place to start than the Oscars. Whether or not you’re a fan, it’s always fascinating to see which films the Academy selected as the standout movies of the year. I thought it would be interesting to take an in-depth look at one of the categories in these weeks leading up to the March 2nd ceremony. Best Documentary Feature is the natural choice as the 5 nominees are all accessible online.
According to the Oscar’s website, an eligible film for Best Documentary Feature is defined as:
A theatrically released nonfiction motion picture dealing creatively with cultural, artistic, historical, social, scientific, economic or other subjects. It may be photographed in actual occurrence, or may employ partial reenactment, stock footage, stills, animation, stop-motion or other techniques, as long as the emphasis is on fact and not on fiction.
Additional conditions further determine eligibility. A brief overview of the criteria a film in this category must meet includes: a running time of more than 40 minutes, a 7 day commercial run in both a theatre in Los Angeles county and Manhattan, and a movie review from either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times.
We’ll jump into this year’s nominees with a look at Cutie and the Boxer directed by Zachary Heinzerling. You may be familiar with this documentary, Lisa featured it this summer for movie night. Cutie and the Boxer explores the 40-year marriage between the celebrated painter, Ushio Shinohara, and his wife, artist Noriko Shinohara. There are three things that stand out for me in this film: the intimate access the director achieves, the layered and complex look at marriage, and the underlying story of Noriko coming into her own as an artist.
Cutie and the Boxer is strong visually. You expect that a film about art and artists will look beautiful and it doesn’t disappoint. But, the real powerful of the camera in this movie is the access and intimacy it grants. At times this documentary plays like a narrative film. The subjects give so much of themselves: we see Ushio get food on his face when he eats, observe Noriko’s frustration, and watch as their son comes home drunk. There is a sense that nothing is held back. Cutie and the Boxer manages to provide the kind of access that reality TV promises and never delivers.
The relationship between Noriko and Ushio leaps off the screen. Their approach to life as a team illustrates their connection after 40 years of marriage. What makes the movie powerful is the way it highlights the complexity of their relationship. Sharing equal screen time with Noriko and Ushio’s affection are examples of them taking each other for granted and expressing frustration with the marriage. Reality is captured through small exchanges over the course of the film. For example, this simple yet loaded dinner conversation:
Ushio: This red snapper is delicious, but it’s so cheap.
Noriko: My cooking is expensive.
Ushio: Yeah. This would cost 10 times more in a restaurant.
Noriko: It’s like you get to eat in an expensive restaurant everyday.
Ushio: What’s the problem?
Noriko: I’ve spent a lot of time on this meal and the way you gobble it up is so gross. That’s why I hate eating together. I made it all pretty but you quickly made a big mess.
Ushio is the well-known artist of the pair, but it becomes clear as the movie progresses that Noriko is the one who holds Heinzerling’s interest. Through Noriko’s cartoons of her alter ego “Cutie” her back-story begins to emerge. These details include marrying a much older Ushio when she was very young and becoming a mother soon after. Our picture of Noriko’s life deepens in subtle ways. For example, she drops everything to help Ushio prepare for an exhibition and he casually comments to the camera, after she leaves, “She is just an assistant. The average one has to support the genius.” Noriko, a talented artist in her own right, is clearly not average. Part of the film’s magic comes from the fact that as we’re realizing this so is she. The camera manages to capture Noriko in transition, as an artist and as an individual.
Cutie and the Boxer’s strength is in the honest and unflinching portrait it creates. If we stop and consider what we want in a documentary Academy Award winner, many will argue it must have an overt social justice theme. The spotlight the night creates is too powerful not to direct on a cause. To comprehend a problem or issue more fully is certainly one of the reasons we watch documentaries. But, I’d argue we also watch them to connect- to better understand others and, by extension, ourselves. Awards aside, this film is worth your time and consideration.
Watch “Cutie and the Boxer” online on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video.