Looking through the shortlist for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature announced yesterday, there are a few things that jump out. For me, the biggest is how many cable premieres are present. It helped my focus that someone tweeted that a number of the contenders are currently available on HBO GO. Those would be Life According to Sam, The Crash Reel, First Cousin Once Removed, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (which is an interesting choice given how much of it is set during the 2011 Oscar ceremony). Additionally, you’ve got the CNN Films ratings smash hit Blackfish.
Mind you, most of those are acquisition titles, but it’s still noteworthy given how much the recent changes to the voting process for this category was intended to get us away from TV docs being so heavily represented (the lot of them will probably receive Emmy nods, too). Yet those are so easily seen by voters, and they all managed to sneak in qualifying runs ahead of their cable debuts, so they count. As David Poland of Movie City News points out, another thing that benefitted most of these 15 titles was their being released so early. He notes that in these past two years under the new rules the shortlist has included a predominance of docs that opened in the first few months. Probably because everyone had a longer time to see them.
It all comes down to the current issue with the doc branch voting being about how many voters there are now and how many films are qualified and how many of those films are lesser-known titles that just aren’t going to be squeezed into consideration by a selecting group made up of busy folks. So, we have a lot more familiar and popular titles now than we’d had in prior years, and none of those four-walling self-distributed docs that manage to technically count by showing up but haven’t the ability to stand out and garner attention from the masses. Even with there being a message board for Academy voters to recommend titles to others, there’s still the matter of those voters likely only knowing and talking about docs that are already on some sort of radar.
To be honest, I don’t mind that the shortlist is rather predictable. And safe, in terms of there not being a whole lot of immediate reactionary tweets highlighting snubbed titles (the only disappointment I’ve seen is with the exclusion of Casting By, Call Me Kuchu and After Tiller — the last hardly shocking since abortion docs never make it even this far). And complaining is always difficult with this category since we don’t always know what wasn’t qualified or submitted. I know Caucus wasn’t in the running this year, unfortunately. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the makers of Leviathan and At Berkeley weren’t concerned with Oscar (though both qualified, according to The Wrap) — which is too bad since the former is exactly the sort of cinematically imperative creative nonfiction that former doc branch head Michael Moore was promising with the rule changes. And it’s also too bad since the latter is Frederick Wiseman’s best work in years and it’s about time the Academy recognized his prominence.
Speaking of status in the community, let’s see what kind of Oscar vets we have in the bunch. The Armstrong Lie is directed by two-time nominee and one-time winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Taxi to the Dark Side) and produced by five-time Best Picture nominee Frank Marshall (Raiders of the Lost Ark; The Color Purple; The Sixth Sense; Seabiscuit; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The Act of Killing is executive produced/presented by one-time nominee Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World) and one-time nominee/winner Errol Morris (The Fog of War). The Crash Reel is directed by two-time nominee Lucy Walker (Waste Land; The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom).
God Loves Uganda (which got a spot over the better Kuchu, a film about the same subject but probably less heard about) is directed by one-time nominee/winner Roger Ross Williams (Music for Prudence). Life According to Sam was directed by two-time nominees and one-time winners Sean Fine & Andrea Nix Fine (War Dance; Inocente). One of the directors of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is one-time nominee Mike Lerner (for producing Hell and Back Again), who also was an executive producer on The Square. The writer-director of Stories We Tell is one-time nominee Sarah Polley (for scripting the fiction film Away From Her). And Which Way is the Front Line From Here? is directed by one-time nominee Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) and about his fellow nominee Tim Hetherington.
That leaves six films without Oscar history, and the funny thing is that among them, Blackfish, 20 Feet From Stardom, Dirty Wars and Tim’s Vermeer really might wind up being four of the five nominees. But that’s really hard to say, because the fact that all the shortlisted docs are rather familiar and a bunch are really popular, and since the whole Academy is voting for them, it could go almost any which way. Each one has a good deal of fans and a variety of reasons why they’re resonating with those people. The ones I can see having the least amount of support are maybe Uganda, Armstrong (mostly because it came later and Gibney has enough accolades) and, this may be shocking to you, Act of Killing, which I believe could be a difficult and potentially controversial work for some voters in the end. Especially if they’re concerned about the point about Hollywood influencing the genocidal subjects.
I’ll be happiest if Killing isn’t nominated, too, not because I’m cooler on it than most critics (I am very mixed on different aspects of it, as you can hear me discuss on the Realness podcast) but because I’m annoyed with it on a purely principled level. Basically, I’m upset with the film having a shorter version in the U.S. than in almost the entire rest of the world, simply in order for it to be more accessible to audiences here. And the main reason why the longer cut hasn’t been simultaneously released here is that it would ruin its Oscar chances. There is far more value to this film than whether a ton of Americans see it and definitely than whether it is honored by the Academy. I don’t really dislike any of the others I’ve seen (10½ of the 15), though I don’t think First Cousin is aesthetically deserving of the award.
Not that we should care about the Oscars at all, though, right? Here are 15 other really great docs that reportedly qualified but weren’t shortlisted that you should see anyway: Leviathan, At Berkeley, Casting By, After Tiller, Call Me Kuchu, Don’t Stop Believin’, American Promise, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, Gasland II, Gideon’s Army, Informant, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Medora and The Trials of Muhammad Ali.
Less than 24 hours after the announcement, here is my current expectation for what will go on to be nominated:
Stories We Tell
20 Feet from Stardom