Thursday, November 13, 2014

Contending With Variety's Best Documentary Feature Contenders

We are still two months away from the announcement of the 87th Academy Award nominations and three months away from the ceremony itself, but Variety is already weighing in on one of the least closely followed but always fascinating categories, Best Documentary Feature.  The industry paper lists 18 films contending for a nomination, ranging from the usual Best Documentary fare (Middle East relations and health care exposes) to far more unusual - and perhaps unlikely - selections.

While several of these choices appear to be strong contenders for a nomination, others seem unlikely.  I have only seen a few of these selections, but based on the Academy's recent history of nominees, I would like to take a quick look at the chances of each of Variety's selections to receive a Best Documentary Feature nomination.

Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt was the first film listed, and it is not hard to see why. The film is directed by Robert Kenner, who received his first career nomination a few years ago for Food, Inc. after a long career of filming television documentaries.  The film is inspired by the book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and focuses on professional deniers: those whose job it is to deny the effects of climate change in order to slow attempts to address it.  Environmentally focused documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove have taken home Academy Awards in recent years, and Inside Job, which focuses on corruption of policy by interest groups, also won the Oscar.  Merchants of Doubt isn't a shoo-in, but it has all of the ingredients of a Best Documentary Feature favorite.

Nas: Time Is Illimatic
It's unlikely that Academy voters (median age: 62) hold the the Nas album Illimatic with the same reverence as do hip hop fans, but we should be careful before we write off the chances of the Academy recognizing hip hop.  The Academy awarded Oscars to Eminem and Three 6 Mafia and also nominated M.I.A. (Pharrell also received an Oscar nomination, but it was for the decidedly un-hip hop "Happy").  Most significantly for Nas: Time Is Illimatic's chances, Tupac: Resurrection was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, paving the way for a hip hop documentary to receive a nomination.  However, Tupac was much more well known than Nas, and his untimely death more dramatic than the story of the creation of an album.  Still, with music-centered documentaries like Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom recently gaining favor with the Academy, this doc has a chance.

The Salt of the Earth
Director Wim Wenders is a favorite of the documentarians branch, having been nominated twice before in this category (for Buena Vista Social Club and Pina).  The Salt of the Earth is a profile of photographer Sebastiao Salgado, co-directed with Salgado's son Juan Ribierto Salgado.  This doesn't seem like the type of subject matter that makes the Academy jump up and down, but Wenders's track record means that he should be taken seriously in prognosticating this category.

Life Itself
When I first saw Life Itself in August, I declared it a shoo-in for a nomination, and my opinion hasn't changed at all.  Roger Ebert, the film's subject, was a beloved figure in the film industry, beloved even by those whose films he criticized.  The film is a lovely retrospective of Ebert's life and career, but the scenes of he and his wife Chaz living through his illnesses are touching and beautifully rendered.  This film should be catnip to Academy voters, but is also entirely deserving of a nomination.

Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier has done well at some of the more progressive film festivals, but a documentary about a street photographer is unlikely to receive a nomination.  The film's chances are further hurt by the presence of The Salt of the Earth; the Academy is unlikely to nominate two films that profile photographers, and if they are to choose one they will almost certainly go with Wim Wenders.

Dancing in Jaffa
Along with Life Itself, this is one of the two films I am most confident in predicting a nomination.  The Academy famously loves to award trophies to films about Middle East relations, and this is the rare feel-good documentary on the subject, telling the story of Jaffa schoolchildren - both Israeli and Palestinian - finding commonality and fraternity in dance lessons.  It's hard to imagine this one getting left out.

Plot for Peace
This is a tough one to call.  Plot for Peace looks at Jean-Yves Ollivie, a South African diplomat who brokered many significant peace deals.  Any film about South Africa in the 1980's should get the Academy's attention, though Ollivie is a little known figure in the United States and thus this film could be forgotten.  After years of mostly irrelevancy at the Oscars, South Africa was nominated at the 77th Academy Awards for Zulu and won the Oscar the following year for the wonderful Tsotsi and garnered all kinds of attention for District 9.  This South African-produced film would also follow in the footsteps of Searching for Sugar Man, which, although not a South African film per se, prominently featured Cape Town.  This film has an uphill climb, but festival audiences have loved it.  If enough nominators see Plot for Peace, it could grab a nomination.

Fed Up
With Food, Inc. receiving a nomination a few years ago, Fed Up has to be taken seriously as a contender.  The film looks at the obesity crisis and the processed food industry, and if you believe the stereotype of Hollywood as a land of kale-chomping vegans, Fed Up would seem a natural fit.  Yet with constant news stories about the obesity crisis, it would take a unique viewpoint or an exceptionally well made film to get the attention of the Academy.  I haven't seen the film and thus can't say if Fed Up achieves this, but it would take a great film on this subject for a real possibility of a nomination.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Elaine Stritch is a beloved figure in the entertainment community, and this film is said to be a great telling of her life.  Still, the story just doesn't have enough emotional weight, outrage, or uplift to be much of a contender.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Tales of the Grim Sleeper has HBO Documentary Films behind it, and thus has a great chance of receiving a nomination.  It's a dark story that touches on many subjects that Academy voters love, and from everything I have heard it is a terrific film.  Definitely one to watch.

Code Black
Code Black was distributed by The Long Shot Factory, and while the film isn't necessarily a long shot, it's also not a favorite.  The film looks at the happenings of an emergency room, using the action to indict the American health care system.  While Academy voters have supported films of this subject, health care is not at the top of their minds the way it was before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.  There is still just as much to be outraged about in American health care, but unless this film is truly great (I have not seen it), this doesn't seem to be an Academy-favored subject.

Keep On Keepin' On
I am a huge jazz fan and occasional jazz writer, so a nomination for a documentary about the great Clark Terry working with prodigy Justin Kauflin would please me greatly.  Keep On Keepin' On has been picking up hardware on the awards circuit, but it isn't likely to get an Oscar nomination, especially with arts-centered films like Life Itself in the mix.  Still, this is the documentary I most want to see.

Virunga
A film about saving the mountain gorillas of Congo produced by Leonardo DiCaprio?  This film has everything going for it: an environmental theme and major star power.  This film is amongst the strongest contenders for a nomination, especially if DiCaprio and Netflix put their weights behind it.

Happy Valley
When the Academy rewards sports-themed films, they look for feel good stories.  Happy Valley documents the recent Penn State scandal, exactly the opposite of what the Academy likes.  It's hard to imagine a depressing documentary about college sports in rural Pennsylvania getting much love from Oscar voters.

Kids for Cash
Unlike Happy Valley, this Pennsylvania-set film is more in the wheelhouse of the Academy: an outrageous story of corruption and injustice perpetrated on children.  Kids for Cash is neither a lock nor a long shot, but it is easy to see the film outraging Academy voters enough to pick up a nom.

The Great Invisible
The Great Invisible picked up the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest, instantly making the film an Oscar contender.  It's a meticulously produced expose of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, looking at both the damage perpetrated on the environment and Gulf Coast residents who rely on the Gulf waters for their livelihoods.  I'd be surprised if The Great Invisible isn't nominated.

Jodorowsky's Dune
Ever heard of the cult Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky?  Neither have all but the most avant-garde Academy members.  This film details the filmmaker's aborted attempt to adapt Dune for the screen.  If the much more accessible Lost in La Mancha couldn't get nominated, it's unlikely Jodorowsky's Dune can.

Alive Inside
As mentioned earlier, the average age for Academy voters as of 2012 was 62, and films about the aging tend to get noticed by the Academy.  Alive Inside was given the Audience Award at Sundance, and an inspiring look at the benefits of music therapy for senior citizens.  If the category is dominated by emotionally draining, hard-hitting films, look for Alive Inside to eke out a nomination.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Backdraft (1991)

3 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing - Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns
Nomination: Best Effects, Visual Effects - Mikael Salomon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar
Nomination: Best Sound - Gary Summers, Randy Thom, Gary Rydstrom, and Glenn Williams


Firefighter GIF

I was seven years old when Backdraft was released, and though my parents - in a rare but understandable moment of parental censorship - did not allow me to see the film, I lost many nights of sleep while dreaming of my house burning in the fires shown in the trailer for Backdraft and experienced at the Backdraft attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.  While countless films and television shows have had scenes of dramatic fires since Backdraft, none have felt as real or dangerous. 

One of the best remembered (and most ridiculed by real firefighters) lines from Backdraft comes from Robert De Niro's character Donald Rimgale: "(Fire is) a living thing.  It breathes, it eats, and it hates."  Yes, this line is goofy and overtly anthropomorphic, but it accurately describes the film's fires.  The team of Mikael Salmon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar did outstanding work in creating the film's fire scenes.  Though computer-generated effects can offer cinematic experiences that could never be produced by conventional effects, there's something about traditional effects that hasn't yet been replicated by computers.  The fire scenes are dramatic in large part because the audience knows that real people are running through the fires as the scene is being filmed.  Yes, they are stuntmen, but they are in much more danger than an actor in front of a green screen.  Director Ron Howard and the effects team, working with the sound effects team of Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns, do wonderful work together in creating suspenseful, exciting, and oddly beautiful action sequences.

The scenes without fires, however, were not nearly as successful.  One of the film's very first decisions - casting Kurt Russell in the dual roles of a father and a son - left me questioning Howard's judgment, and the bad decisions keep coming.  William Baldwin's performance is easily mockable, the motivations behind the actions of characters are as silly as they are confusing.  The film's biggest issue is that there are just too many plotlines, causing the film to wander.  I loved De Niro's Rimgale, and would have gladly watched a film about his inspections of fires.  Donald Sutherland is equal parts campy and scary, and J.T. Walsh is as great as always.  Each of these characters could have been the protagonist of a film, and it's hard not to get the sense that any of these films would have offered a more compelling story than Backdraft.  

The main story of the film, the rivalry and battles between brothers Steven and Brian (Russell and Baldwin, respectively), isn't terribly interesting.  We've seen these brotherly battles before and since, and there are no surprises here.  I always enjoy Kurt Russell, and his screen presence is undeniable, but with a weak script and a co-star that is fighting far above his weight class, Russell can't do much.

The structure is a mess, the acting is uneven, and the personification of fire all drag the film down.  Yet with the one-two punch of unforgettable action sequences and the gifted trio of De Niro, Sutherland, and Walsh, I'll never change the channel when Backdraft is on TV.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis
Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC


2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Cinematography - Bruno Delbonnel
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland

Since watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I have read several glowing reviews and articles about the film, searching for an explanation of what I missed.  The vast majority of critics and thinkers about film, including several who I deeply respect, loved Inside Llewyn Davis, praising the Coen Brothers for the moody and ambiguous nature of this brooding film.  Though I loved a few aspects of the film - especially its musical performances - and take no exception with its two nominations, I still feel that I must be missing something.  I thought Inside Llewyn Davis was a terrible film.

This shouldn't be the case.  I have more Bob Dylan songs in my iTunes library than any other artist, and have many tracks by Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the two primary models for the film's protagonist.  I watched Martin Scorsese's epic Bob Dylan documentary while vacationing in the Bahamas, choosing to watch black and white footage on my iPad rather than gaze at the technicolor beaches.  I blazed through Greil Marcus's often rambling but never boring discourse on Dylan, and have inhaled every tale of the early days of the New York folk scene.  This was a film that was made for me, and yet I hated it.

Joel Coen said, perhaps speciously, that the film "doesn't really have a plot," which is why they "threw the cat in," referring to an ongoing element of the plot in which Llewyn loses his friends' cat.  It's hard to know if Coen was just being glib, and he and his brother have certainly made similar dismissive comments about their other films.  Yet the comment is all too true regarding Inside Llewyn Davis.  The lack of a plot isn't the problem, it's the thrown in elements.  We are left to watch Llewyn wander, sabotaging himself and making more poor choices than a prom queen in a slasher film.  We don't know what drives these self-destructive choices, we don't know why he's making the choices, and, as a result, we don't care about the choices.  Something meaningful is clearly happening to Llewyn, but we're never let in on the secret.

The film would be almost completely unwatchable if it weren't for Bruno Delbonnel's moody cinematography and the wonderful music produced by T Bone Burnett.  When a film features musicians as its subjects, the importance of the music is elevated, and T Bone Burnett was both the obvious and perfect choice to handle the film's music.  The recurring folk standard "Dink's Song" is lovely throughout, and is at its best when duetted by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.  Several other songs are simultaneously evocative of their era and completely original, but "Please Mr. Kennedy" is by far the most memorable.  Sung by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, the song is a desperately needed moment of levity in the film, and one of the film's true delights.  

The Coen Brothers are never boring, and I have always found their worst films compulsively watchable.  Inside Llewyn Davis made me question this.  The film is saved, to an extent, by its music; without the Cafe Wha?-esque music, I'm not sure I could have made it through Inside Llewyn Davis.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)

Johnny Knoxville in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Photo Courtesy Paramount Pictures

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling: Stephen Prouty

Had Stephen Prouty won the Academy Award for his work on Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, it would have supplanted Three 6 Mafia's victory for the song "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" as the oddest victory in Oscars history.  Sadly, we missed out on this opportunity for true weirdness when the Academy gave the nod to Adruitha Lee and Robin Matthews for Dallas Buyers Club, the only "serious" film of the three nominees.

What is interesting about the makeup work in Bad Grandpa is that it is the only one of the three nominees, and one of the few films ever made, to have actual and tangible proof of the success of its makeup work.  Bad Grandpa is the type of fake documentary that puts a made-up character in the real world, and thus the reactions of everyone except the film's stars are genuine.  While we don't know how many of the people approached by Johnny Knoxville saw through his disguise, we know that at least several people were fooled by Prouty's makeup, even while standing just a few feet from Knoxville.

Yet despite its realism, Prouty's work was in no way deserving of the Oscar, and not just because of the moronic film of which it was a part.  While the work is technically impressive, there have been countless films that have successfully employed aging makeup, and Bad Grandpa doesn't push the form forward in any meaningful way.  While Knoxville's transformation was impressive, it doesn't compare to the transformation of Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger or Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.

At this point in my review, I am pretty proud of the fact that I have written three paragraphs and included just one reference to the lameness that is Bad Grandpa.  I don't see myself as one of the stuffy old critics unable to appreciate the juvenile humor of the film.  In fact, I am a member of the generation reared on Jackass, and I will gladly admit that I have often laughed at their stunts.  However, what is successful in a brief television show often is not successful in a feature film, and the humor from seeing a fake old man act grossly wears thin all too quickly.

I found myself thinking about Borat, a film that I loved with a similar premise: an actor plays a character who acts inappropriately in real-world situations, causing actual people to respond with horror.  I started to wonder how I could love Borat but hate Bad Grandpa.  Was it just that the jokes were funnier?  That seemed too simple.

The truth is, Bad Grandpa and Borat are very different films, despite their seeming similarities.  Borat is a complete joke, while Bad Grandpa is just a setup without a punchline.  What makes Borat so funny isn't just the ridiculous things he do, but the reactions that his behavior solicits.  The character of Borat is so disarming that the people Sacha Baron Cohen interacts with slowly begin to reveal who they truly are.  This moment, in which people show a side of their true selves to the camera, is where the best humor of Borat comes from.  Yes, his ridiculous questions to his driving instructor about women driving are funny.  But the punchline isn't Borat's questions, but the reveal of who the instructor really is through his response.  Bad Grandpa, on the other hand, finds little humor in the response.  Most of the people that Knoxville interacts with just look at him with horror or laugh uncomfortably.  Yes, Knoxville's behavior and dialogue is ridiculous and sometimes funny, but without a meaningful response, it's just a setup with no punchline.

It has been awhile since I've seen Borat, and if nothing else, I'm glad Bad Grandpa made me recall and appreciate that far superior film.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Captain Phillips (2013)

Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures


6 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Motion Picture of the Year - Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, and Michael De Luca
Nomination: Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role - Barkhad Abdi
Nomination: Best Achievement in Film Editing - Christopher Rouse
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Oliver Tarney
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro
Nomination: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay - Billy Ray

I expected to hate Captain Phillips.

I'm not sure why this was the case.  There might not be a working actor with a better "lifetime batting average" than Tom Hanks (though Larry Crowne was bad enough to impugn his credibility for awhile), Paul Greengrass is a talented director with a strong individual voice, and the true story of Captain Richard Phillips is the stuff of which great suspense films are made.  Maybe it was the bland title of the film, the long running time, or my reluctance to sit through any film in which a non-New Englander attempts to perform the accent.  If nothing else, the name Billy Ray on the screenplay should have been enough to give me faith in the film, as Ray wrote and directed two of my favorite political suspense films of the past few decades, Breach and Shattered Glass.  While my concern about the film's running time was well founded, the filmmaking team behind Captain Phillips more than assuaged the rest of my films, and Captain Phillips was one of the films of 2013 that I most enjoyed.

Captain Phillips is really two films.  The first is the story of the takeover of the Maersk Alabama by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his team of Somali pirates and the response of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his crew.  This section takes up approximately half of the running time, and Ray's script beautifully and methodically reveals the characters through the rising action.  Lesser screenwriters write two kinds of scenes: scenes that move the plot forward and scenes that develop characters.  Like the best writers, nearly every scene in Ray's screenplay does both.  Christopher Rouse's editing is superb in these scenes, and the first half of the film flies by with Rouse's editing and Greengrass's sharp direction.

The second half of the film begins (minor spoiler alert to follow) once the attempt to trade the captive Muse for Phillips is botched, resulting the pirates escaping with Phillips as their hostage onto a lifeboat. Though there are some wonderful moments of suspense and emotional drama in these scenes, the film loses its momentum.  The suspense of these scenes is not nearly as intense as in the first half of the film.  The script shifts its focus from the relationship between Muse and Phillips to a greater focus on "Will Captain Phillips survive or not?"  Because Captain Phillips is based a true story and Phillips was prominent in the news after the highjacking, the suspense of the film evaporates.  Hanks, however, is brilliant in these scenes, portraying deep vulnerability even as he performs the bravest of acts.  His final scene of the film is one of the great moments of a legendary acting career, and in another year might have been enough to secure him his sixth Academy Award nomination.

The revelation of the film is Barkhad Abdi, appearing in his first film after previously working in mobile phone sales and limousine driving.  Abdi is an untrained actor, but I never would have guessed this if not for the fact that it was mentioned a thousand times in the month before the Academy Awards.  Abdi walks with a natural swagger that belies his slight frame, yet also shows a vulnerability similar to that of Hanks.  This is the type of role that is probably going to be career-defining rather than career-making, but Abdi is brimming with talent and will hopefully continue to find opportunities to develop as an actor.

Phillips and Muse are two men who have very few choices available to them to support themselves and their loved ones, and though the film never forgives the acts of piracy and violence, it does successfully provide context to the actions of the pirates that elevate them from stock villains to developed characters.  This allows them to be fully realized foils to Phillips, and the interactions between the men provide just as much suspense as the film's most action-oriented scenes.

Captain Phillips didn't have much of a chance in the technical categories, with Gravity dominating the below-the-line awards.  I can't argue with the voting of the Academy.  Captain Phillips was the second or third best in each of the six categories for which it was nominated, but wasn't the best in any category.  Rouse's editing work is the one possible exception to this, but it's hard to argue with the absolutely brilliant editing work by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity.

If you can ignore the bland title and the occasionally suspect accent voiced by Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips is a wonderful and memorable film well deserving of the six Oscar nominations it received.


                      

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

Jo Lawry, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer from 20 Feet from Stardom
Photo Courtesy TwentyFeetFromStardom.com

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Features

It has long been a truism that if you are having difficulty picking the winner of either the Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject in your Oscar pool, choose the film that deals with the subject of the Holocaust or AIDS.  Rather than judging the film that best documents its subject, the Academy has a tendency to reward the film that tackles the most serious subject.

For this reason, it has been surprising that the Academy has bestowed its Best Documentary Feature award to crowd-pleasing documentaries about musicians for the past two years, first to Searching for Sugar Man and then to 20 Feet From Stardom.  While I thought that Searching for Sugar Man was an enjoyable but underwhelming documentary and that the Oscar should have gone to David France's How to Survive a Plague, 20 Feet From Stardom is an absolutely wonderful documentary that is much deeper and it first appears to be.

20 Feet from Stardom Poster
Photo Courtesy of TwentyFeetFromStardom.com
Director Morgan Neville, a veteran of documentaries on the subject of music (he has made documentaries about Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, and Stax Records), both follows the current lives and documents the long careers of several of the most notable backup singers in the history of popular music, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Taga Vega, and several others.  These women, though largely unknown to the majority of music lovers, have played essential roles in some of the most significant records ever made, with perhaps the best example being Merry Clayton's searing vocals on "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones.  Neville documents how these women came to become unknown legends of the music industry, the significant challenges they faced as they grew older and the music industry evolved, and celebrates their accomplishments.

But while the film at first seems to be merely an attempt to rectify the lack of attention these women have received by celebrating their contributions to music on film, Morgan Neville uses this story to explore the idea of how our dreams evolve as we get older, and how we either adapt or fail to respond to the unexpected directions our lives takes us.  None of the women profiled in this film set out to be backup singers, and each did so only to support themselves while they continued to seek their own stardom.  As the title suggests, these women stood a mere twenty feet from the stars they sang behind, but so much more separated them than physical distance.  For whatever reason, these women never became the superstars that they believed they would become, and it certainly wasn't due to a lack of talent, as they were more talented than many of the stars they supported.  As Sting explains in the film, to become a star requires more than just talent and hard work, and there is some essence that these women just did not have.

As their own attempts at stardom faltered, some of the women were able to accept this about themselves and were content to be great backup singers, while others could never give up on their dream of becoming true stars.  Few people achieve exactly what they dreamed they would when they were young, and we all to some degree accept unexpected roles for ourselves and must decide how we will respond.  While few of us achieve our exact dreams, few get even 20 feet from these dreams, and what these women accomplished and the legacies they made for themselves are truly incredible.

20 Feet from Stardom is a celebration of the amazing careers of these women, even if these careers are far different from what they dreamed of for themselves.



          

Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Academy Award Nominee Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger

Jeffrey Karoff, Director of CaveDigger, in a Ra cave
Jeffrey Karoff, Academy Award nominated director of CaveDigger



Of all of the Academy Award nominated films I watched last year, none surprised me more than Jeffrey Karoff's CaveDigger, nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.  Prior to watching the film, I was unaware that the art of cavedigging even existed, let alone that there was a practitioner capable of such awe-inspring beauty as what the film's protagonist Ra produces.  Karoff's film is unlike anything I have seen before, and I give it my highest possible recommendation.  CaveDigger can be viewed on Amazon, Vimeo, and iTunes.  Links to all three formats are available here.

Jeffrey Karoff was generous enough to speak with me about CaveDigger and his experience as an Academy Award nominee.  

First, can you briefly tell me a little bit about CaveDigger, how you found out about Ra's work, and why you decided to tell this story?

I met two of the principal characters in the film, Shel and Liz, during the time they'd commissioned a Paulette cave and while Liz was battling cancer. The cave in progress was astonishing and its sheer visual, visceral impact made it seem ripe subject matter for film. But even after I launched into the filmmaking I wasn't sure what story I was telling beyond the glory of Ra's work. It wasn't until I was well into the process that I stumbled upon a recurring theme that included Shel and Liz's consternation with Ra's process, and an age-old artist/patron conflict.


At what point after you started screening CaveDigger did you start to realize that an Academy Award nomination was a real possibility? 

Ra in his cave, from Oscar nominee CaveDigger

Never. I was entering a lot of festivals and completing the Academy qualifications was really a continuation of that festival-entry process.  I knew that CaveDigger was the kind of serious subject matter that the Academy might appreciate, so it wasn't entirely a Hail Mary, but I didn't actually think it would be nominated. But there was a turning point that led me to submit the film: At my very first screening to an invited audience, another filmmaker, Alex Rotaru, told me I should shorten CaveDigger from 47 mins to under 40 and submit it to the Academy as a short because, he said, "...the Academy eats this stuff up." I thought he was smoking crack, and I had no intention of going back into the edit bay after so many months of labor to get it finished. Weeks later, Sandra Ruch, a consultant who was helping me navigate the festival terrain, again suggested I shorten the film to allow it to compete as a short in all festivals. That was the push I needed, and I did so. Shortening the film, obviously, was a terrific idea.


How did you find out you had been nominated for an Oscar?  What was your reaction?


I had a colleague who was at the Academy on the day. She'd told me that she would text me the second she found out, 'yes' or 'no'. The phone buzzed -- my wife looked at the text and broke into tears of joy. I shot it all on my iPhone. It was a stunning day.


Did you attend the pre-Oscar ceremony luncheon for all of the nominees?  This luncheon famously mixes up people from all of the categories at the various tables.  Who did you dine with?  Any good stories from the luncheon?


Just about every nominee, in every category and including me, was at that luncheon. I sat at a table with Jeff Pope, one of the writers from Philomena, and right next to Bradley Cooper, who was kind and funny and interested in my film. He told me a great story about living with his mother, a version of which I heard a few days later on Ellen.


Were you particularly starstruck by anyone at the Oscars?  What was it like to walk the red carpet? 


I'm not starstruck. But I am an admirer and appreciator of talent. I was able to thank personally, for what I consider gifts, Scorsese, Amy Adams, and Roger Deakins. And Bradley Cooper, whose performance in American Hustle was outstanding. I approached all these people at the luncheon, which was more intimate and presented an easy environment in which to interact.


Other than your own film, if you were an Academy member, which of the films in your category would you have voted for?


My favorite was Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal. Important subject matter, sensitively handled. Our culture has a 'throw away the key' mentality about prisoners. Edgar's film humanized even capital criminals. I found the genuine affection amongst the men deeply moving.


What does it mean to you to have the title "Academy Award Nominee" for the rest of your life?


It's not bad. Really not bad.


What's next for you?  Are you working on any films?


I have a couple of doc projects swirling, but for the moment I'm at my day job, directing commercials and fundraising films. I just finished a mini doc for Robin Hood Foundation, a NYC-based philanthropic organization, about New York's immigrant population. They showed it at their annual fundraiser and brought in about $60mil that night.