Is "O.J.: Made in America" a movie? A TV show? Does it matter? And can any foreign language film attract enough eyeballs to overtake the brilliant "Toni Erdmann"? I'll answer these questions — and raise a few more — in this look at the Oscar categories of documentary feature and foreign language film.
"O.J.: Made in America"
"I Am Not Your Negro"
"The Ivory Game"
Prime contenders: "Life, Animated," "The Eagle Huntress," "Zero Days," "Weiner," "Fire at Sea," "Gleason," "Hooligan Sparrow," "Tower," "The Witness," "Command and Control"
Analysis: There is not one unworthy title among the 15 movies shortlisted for documentary feature. If you're a Netflix subscriber, you can, right now, watch Ava DuVernay's "13th," a crucial, infuriating look at the history of American racial injustice and incarceration. Netflix is also streaming "The Ivory Game," following the men and women trying to stop ivory trafficking. It will get your blood boiling too, though its ambitious scope makes it a bit less powerful than similar advocacy docs like the Oscar-winning "Blackfish" and "The Cove."
And you could have watched Ezra Edelman's towering, tragic opus, "O.J.: Made in America," on ABC in June. The ESPN Films production, tracking the story of Simpson's glory and infamy along with a history of the combustible relationship between the LAPD and Los Angeles' black community, premiered at Sundance and played for a week theatrically before its broadcast debut. Edelman has always maintained that he saw the work as a film, not a five-part TV series. But most people watched "O.J." on television, which has many maintaining that it's better suited for the Emmys than the Oscars.
But with film critics groups in New York, Boston and Chicago (among many others) honoring it as the year's best documentary, "O.J." seems to be transcending any particular distinction. (The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. honored the movie for its editing.) With storytelling this engrossing and insightful, the medium becomes irrelevant. "O.J.: Made in America" is not just the year's best documentary. You could easily argue that it's the best movie (and television series) produced in 2016.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
"A Man Called Ove"
"My Life as a Zucchini"
"Land of Mine"
Prime contenders: "Tanna," "Paradise," "The King's Choice," "It's Only the End of the World"
Analysis: The foreign language shortlist contains a few head-scratching choices, most notably the inclusion of Xavier Dolan's Cannes Grand Prix winner "It's Only the End of the World." Dolan is a polarizing figure, but he obviously has a few well-placed admirers. I've just yet to meet any of these people in the real world. How Dolan's inert, maudlin movie made it in ahead of the likes of Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," Pablo Larraín's "Neruda" or even "Julieta," one of Pedro Almodóvar's lesser efforts but involving and worthy just the same, will always be inexplicable — and indefensible.
German filmmaker Maren Ade's "Toni Erdmann" stands as the overwhelming favorite here, the movie with the best reviews, the highest profile and a clutch of critics prizes in its possession. It's also 2 hours and 42 minutes long, and its first hour tests a viewer's patience as Ade carefully establishes the weird relationship dynamic between the movie's estranged daughter and father. Watching Ade lay that groundwork is well worth the effort, but I wonder how many academy members will bail early or find the running time a barrier.
A potential spoiler could be the Swedish crowd-pleaser "A Man Called Ove," which has found a substantial audience since its late-September release. The movie follows a lonely old curmudgeon who finds a measure of hope after a lifetime of misfortune. Tears are shed, and I know quite a few people who have found the crying contagious.