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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For the most groundbreaking Oscar race this year, try documentaries

By Alissa Wilkinson

Most post-nomination Oscar chatter focuses on surprises and snubs connected to the fiction nominees. But I’m a nonfiction nerd, so for me the documentaries are where it’s at, and in recent years, the picks have grown delightfully unpredictable.

This year, two seeming slam dunks were left off the list: “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” and “American Symphony,” about musician Jon Batiste. Both are artful, and their nominations had seemed assured because, at least in the past, well-made portraits tended to get eyeballs and thus votes.

But here we are, in a strange new world. Biographical documentaries are still hugely popular; next to true crime, they’re what’s hot in nonfiction right now, as our recently reviewed releases “June” and “Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero” indicate. This time around, though, the voters cast their net more widely.

Much more widely, in fact. Don’t look now, but this may be the most groundbreaking category at the awards. All five are international films, centering mostly on geopolitical situations. Three are directed by women. And all five are also, as it happens, very good.

“The Eternal Memory,” a second nomination for Chilean director Maite Alberdi (her first was “The Mole Agent”), landed on my Top 10 list last year. (Stream it on Paramount+.) It deals with the erasure of public memory in Chile, refracted through the relationship of one couple — prominent cultural journalist Augusto Gongora and his wife, Paulina Urrutia, as she cares for him after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. (Gongora died last May.)

The nomination of “Four Daughters” made its Tunisian director, Kaouther Ben Hania, the first Arab woman to be nominated twice at the Oscars. (Her first, “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” was nominated for best international feature.) “Four Daughters” (for rent on most major platforms) explores radicalization in a single Tunisian family and uses unexpected techniques, such as having actors play out scenes in the family’s life.

“Bobi Wine: The People’s President” (Disney+), directed by Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp, is a kinetic look at the remarkable Ugandan musician turned activist and leader of the opposition party. It’s as much a film about his family, especially his wife, Barbie Kyagulanyi, and what it means to commit to a cause.

The moving “To Kill a Tiger” (not yet available) follows Ranjit, an Indian farmer, who takes on the herculean (and, perhaps, Sisyphean) task of demanding justice after three young men in his village raped his 13-year-old daughter. Directed by Nisha Pahuja, it is — like all of these movies — partly a personal story about familial love and partly a searing exposé of how injustice baked into a society can feel like a prison.

And finally, there’s “20 Days in Mariupol” (major platforms), directed and shot by Mstyslav Chernov, an Associated Press journalist. Chernov and two AP colleagues spent just under three weeks in the titular Ukrainian city as the Russian invasion began in 2022, where they were trapped — and kept the cameras rolling. What they capture is a city under siege in real time, the civilians trapped along with them and the extraordinary cost of war, borne by ordinary people.

For these sorts of movies, an Oscar nomination can mean finally getting an audience. Years of work, and even danger, finally pay off. What a thrill, no matter who wins on the big night.

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