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If We Picked the Winners 2016: Best Documentary

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Matt Fagerholm makes the case for the best documentary of 2015: "Amy." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.

I had no familiarity whatsoever with English singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse prior to viewing Asif Kapadia’s documentary, “Amy.” I had known her primarily as a late night punchline—the go-to name for a cheap drug addiction joke—until her death at age 27 rendered such gags no laughing matter. Now that I’ve seen Kapadia’s film, I regret every instance in which I chuckled thoughtlessly at the misfortunes of another person. 


Like the director’s previous effort, 2010’s “Senna,” “Amy” is constructed entirely of archival footage, inviting the audience to view Winehouse from as many angles and perspectives as possible. Though her family has spoken out against the film, there doesn’t appear to be any trace of bias in Kapadia’s direction or the editing by Chris King. Both men are merely portraying the events as they unfolded with brutal honesty and the utmost respect for Winehouse herself. 

“It was about taking us out of the picture,” Kapadia told me during an interview last year. Though a wealth of interviews were conducted for the film with various friends, family members and acquaintances of the late icon, they are utilized purely as voice-overs. Nothing distracts from the film’s laser focus on its subject, and the harrowing emotional journey she endures under the intense scrutiny of a celebrity-obsessed media. It’s intimate and immersive filmmaking that somehow never manages to be exploitative. 

There’s no question that Winehouse was a musical genius. Her lyrics artfully materialize onscreen, courtesy of ace designer Matt Curtis, who also handled the subtitles in “Slumdog Millionaire.” They provide a poignant and nakedly honest look at her inner evolution and the struggles that kept her from evolving further. She was a raw, unfiltered talent unprepared for the searing magnifying glass of fame. I never knew Amy Winehouse, but after seeing this film, I miss her terribly.

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