And the winner should be . . . .

by Michael Young | April 24, 2021
6 min read
My Octopus Teacher poster
Source: Netflix

Editor’s Note: Which of the five Oscar-nominated feature-length documentaries reviewed by movie critic Michael Young in these pages over the past few weeks does he believe deserves the Academy Award to be presented tomorrow night? Hint: here’s how Young rated them: “The Mole Agent,” 3 stars; “Time,” 3.5 stars; “Collective,” 4 stars; “Crip Camp,” 4 stars; “My Octopus Teacher,” 4.5 stars.

Documentaries are a unique viewing experience because they offer multiple grounds for enjoyment and, ultimately, judgment.

First, one must consider the intrinsic message of the film, which often confronts strongly held feelings, beliefs and understandings. “Time,” for example, examines how a Black family copes while the husband and father serves a 60-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Some people will undoubtedly react to this documentary with a shrugged “If you can’t do the time, you shouldn’t do the crime.” Others will be appalled at the unfairness of the sentence—far longer than would have been meted out to a white person who committed the same crime.

One’s sociopolitical opinions color one’s receptivity to a documentary’s message. Viewing “Crip Camp” may either trigger admiration for the resilience of the handicapped, or deep-seated cultural prejudices that consign them to second-class citizenship. “The Mole Agent” deals with the potential abuse of the elderly nursing home residents—an important subject, but one that doesn’t necessarily resonate with all viewers. (I suspect that you need to be either old, or have elderly loved ones, before you would choose to make an evening of watching this film.)

Secondly, documentaries can be rated on their craftsmanship. How well did the filmmakers utilize cinematic tools and techniques? The makers of “Time” chose to film it entirely in black and white. How did that decision serve the film’s message? And how do you compare the aesthetics of “Time” with that of “My Octopus Teacher,” filmed in rich, saturated colors much like a National Geographic special. Some cinematographic choices work better than others, and they definitely have an effect on how the film affects the viewer.

A film’s honesty is even more important to me. When filmmakers fail to make it clear where they are coming from and end up trying to manipulate the viewer into adopting a particular perspective, I’m turned off. That was my problem with “The Mole Agent.” The filmmakers set out to make one kind of movie, but, when they found that they couldn’t substantiate their original premise, they tried to turn the documentary into a live-action drama. The whole enterprise ended up feeling artificial and, for that reason, I rated “The Mole Agent” at the bottom of my list. Similarly, “Time” apparently left out important facts about the crime at the heart of the family’s troubles, and that lack of transparency lowered my overall impression of the film.

Some documentarians start filming with a crystal-clear vision of what they are trying to do and then, relentlessly, pursue it. But perhaps the best documentaries are those where the filmmaker identifies a problem and then starts to investigate, following narrative threads to their obvious and often surprising ends. “Collective,” prompted by a tragic fire in a nightclub, ultimately ends up revealing the corruption at nearly all levels of the Romanian government. The film evolves into a thriller, keeping us on tenterhooks about how it will conclude.

Similarly, “My Octopus Teacher” starts with the simple discovery of an octopus in its ocean habitat. Over almost a full year of the filmmakers’ daily observation, we witness a series of remarkable behaviors by an animal that most people know absolutely nothing about. The revelations are amazing, not just in terms of what they say about the intelligence about this particular species, but also because of what they say about our relationship to nature. “My Octopus Teacher” shows us that the underwater world and its inhabitants are much more complex, and arguably, more beautiful than we initially imagine.

Another measure of excellence in documentary filmmaking—which I’ve written about in my reviews—is the effort made to explore the topic at hand. I particularly admire movies that take what I call the “really long view.”

With the exception of “The Mole Agent,” all of the documentaries under consideration have shown impressive initiative. In “Time,” the director assembles footage from 20 years of the Rich family’s home movies to paint the picture of their perseverance in the face of the loss of their patriarch. In “Crip Camp,” the filmmaker cobbles together home movie footage from the 1960s to illustrate the camping experiences that produced leaders of the national disability movement and then follows their activism over the next several decades. The makers of “Collective” gained remarkable access to the private meetings and deliberations of government and journalism leaders over the course of the year. Finally, the “My Octopus Teacher” filmmakers follow the development of a highly unusual relationship between a man and an octopus for nearly every day of the 12-month lifespan of the latter.

So, in evaluating documentary films, multiple scales have to be balanced. After thinking again about all five films in preparation for making my selection of 2020’s best feature-length documentary, I’m going to stick with the rankings I awarded in my reviews of each of the contenders. My favorite documentary this year has to be “My Octopus Teacher,” which I awarded 4.5 stars. There is really nothing to criticize about this film. The filmmaker and the narrator are honest about their purpose and their methods.  And they learn and grow, as does the audience, as the film progresses. The emotional impact of this film is immediate and long-lasting.  And, of course, who isn’t overwhelmed by the beautiful photography?

The documentary I like the best is not necessarily the one that will be selected by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They come, after all, with their own biases and motivations.

What is my prediction of which documentary will win the Oscar?

Here are a few factors to consider. 2020 was a tough year. COVID-19 introduced unexpected stresses and serious dislocations into our lives. The election—and the nightmarish events that came afterward—reinforced our political divisions.

Because of all that, I think people are tired of political statements. As good as “Collective,” “Crip Camp” and “Time” are, I think the Academy might be looking for a way to avoid stirring up controversy. At a time when their racial, ethnic and gender diversity is being questioned, Academy members may want to play it safe. That would suggest that they might go for “My Octopus Teacher,” the only nominated documentary that isn’t overtly political.

If I’m wrong, then, I believe they will choose “Collective.” For one thing, its subject—political corruption—couldn’t be more pertinent, but because the action takes place in a foreign country, choosing to honor a film about an investigation into official wrongdoing won’t cause many ripples here at home. Furthermore, “Collective” has received the highest accolades from professional critics, whose judgments are more similar to the tastes of the Academy than to the general public.

There you have it. I liked “My Octopus Teacher” the best, and I think the Academy will agree with me. If not, then “Collective” will bring home the Oscar.

Share this:

Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

Scroll to Top