You’ve probably heard all about Cartel Land, the documentary about the Mexican drug trade and two vigilante movements, on either side of the border, that have risen up to combat it. The film had a lot of buzz when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, winning Best Director and Best Cinematography awards. I heard that it was “Hollywood-y,” by which I gathered that it was stylish, which I took to be promising. But somehow I had missed it until this past weekend. After opening in the summer and playing at select theaters across the country, it’s now playing at the IFC theater in New York City and on iTunes. It is also showing Thursday night as part of the “shortlist” of films that DOC NYC considers frontrunners in the Oscar race.

With just two days left before the deadline for Academy members to vote for the actual Oscar shortlist of 15 films, this makes right now a pretty important last moment in the life of films such as Cartel Land. If this doc doesn’t make that list, it will probably recede from most radars and not quite live up to its strong word of mouth and potential (although $700,000 at the box office is nothing to scoff at) which would be tragic in my mind, because it is one of the best documentaries of the year and if it gets on the shortlist, it has a good chance of getting nominated (but not to win, as I’ll explain in a bit.)

When was the last time you watched a hero of a film order an execution? You’ll find that here in one of the many jaw-dropping moments of Cartel Land. Great vérité filmmaking is about a great subject, access, knowing where to put the camera and being there for the right moment. In Cartel Land, director Matthew Heineman has it all.

And rarely, if ever, do we get to see such dramatic yet complex characters as found here, especially Dr. Jose Mireles who rallied the people to fight off the cartels in the Michoacan state. But then things, including himself, turn against him. Cartel Land isn’t a happy film. It’s hard to find a silver lining in its subject or subjects. (And in order for a documentary to win the Oscar, it has to either be uplifting and/or have a shining knight as its lead…Unfortunately.)

The film isn’t perfect and I think for a vérité film to be seamless, the director has to have a heavy hand or the scope of the film needs to be limited. Neither is the case with Cartel Land. It’s big. And it’s uneven, most notably in its dual structure; Heineman parallels the half-baked vigilantism of US citizens on the Arizona border with the vigilantism in Mexico. But the U.S. story can’t compete. In Mexico, the stakes are so high, the violent exchanges so intense, the characters so compelling. In the U.S., it’s boys with toys. And, yes, that juxtaposition may shed light on both storylines, but as a viewer, the U.S. scenes become filler before we return to the action south of the border.

Could Heineman have just done away with the U.S. storyline? I imagine that would be hard to do after spending eight months with his primary subject. But it’s a question I’d like to discuss with him some day.

Cartel Land reminds me of Jesse Moss’s much-touted The Overnighters (POV 2015), which I wasn’t as fond of as most people. Moss also focused on a complex lead subject. It also has vivid and nuanced vérité filmmaking. And it also feels as if Moss, like Heineman, didn’t get the whole story and ended up making a film with what he had. But with Cartel Land, I didn’t mind so much only getting a couple chapters rather than the whole book on the subject. Maybe that’s because the drug problem is so vast that my expectations were kept in check.

Its flaws not withstanding, or perhaps partly because of them—like a rocking guitar solo with some distortion—Cartel Land is a fantastic film, action packed and yet also nuanced. It is the rare documentary that is as thrilling as a feature film but which allows for the frustrating complexity of real life. It’s the best of what documentary film should be.

Find Cartel Land by Matthew Heineman at the IFC Center and on iTunes.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen