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Morning Pour: Discussing the Best Documentary Oscar Shortlist

Awards
by Christopher Campbell
November 21, 2011 10:32 AM
7 Comments
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"Under Fire"

Morning Pour is your daily stop for quick links, news commentary and trend-spotting. Here are your five discussion topics involving the Best Documentary Feature Oscar Shortlist for Monday, November 21, 2011: 
 

1. The snubs

As the headline at /Film puts it, the story with the Best Documentary Feature shortlist is always about the snubs. And most other sites' headlines focus on what didn't make the cut, mentioning such stunners as "Senna," "The Interrupters" and "Into the Abyss" most commonly. In both my two news posts on the story I somehow completely forgot about Toronto audience winner "The Island President," which Samuel Goldwyn recently acquired with hope that the global warming-centered doc would earn a nomination. According to their press release recently, it was to qualify for this year's race. Most interesting is the fact that "Senna" director Asif Kapadia has been one of the most hardcore critics regarding the "Interrupters" snub. Kartemquin Films tweeted that maybe they'll now get an editing nomination (like "Hoop Dreams" did). Others say now it should get a Best Picture nod, which it deserves anyway.

Of course, once everyone has a chance to vent about the excluded, they hopefully get excited about the included. There are some great titles on there, many underseen and/or underrated.
 


2. What is the point in even releasing the shortlist to the public?

Whatever the Academy's reasoning is, I'm unaware, and it just seems to be an annual method of tormenting both fans and filmmakers, including those who made the cut. While it does these days -- thanks to social media -- allow for some congratulating and minor celebration on the part of documentarians and their distributors, those with a shortlisted film are forbidden from actually advertising the works as being shortlisted. I guess this technically means on posters and websites and in trailers. And yet the list is out there for the public to see, complain about or agree with, for no real purpose at all.

The same goes for the shorts categories, and last month I noticed on one short documentary's website what could be considered a form of publicizing the "honor." The mention was later removed, probably because it was against the Academy's rules. But are all the tweets actually excusable? I bet they are frowned upon but hard to control. Still, I just don't get it. Imagine if there were similar shortlists for other categories released months before the nominations were announced. What if this month we got to narrow down Best Picture to only 15 contenders yet we weren't supposed to think of them as finalists?

I think each year's snubs in the Documentary Feature category would seem much less insane if we didn't know of any until the nomination stage. At that point only five titles would be selected, and whether we agreed with them or not, we might at least think "The Interrupters" and "The Island President" were only barely edged out. The way things are now, the Academy may as well just number each qualifying documentary after the nominees are announced, so we know exactly how each film stands, like a disagreeable Current_TV special.

3. Where are all the social issue films?

Over at Reel Politik, Anthony Kaufman notes a surprising shortage of social issue documentaries this year, in spite of the fact the Academy's doc branch is typically criticized for too often being interested in causes over quality nonfiction storytelling.

I was suprised not to see "Better This World" -- more than even Herzog or Errol Morris -- on the short-list, for example, with its timely social issues about the government crackdown on civil disobedience, and its engaging story and filmmaking style (and its IDA and Gotham noms). Or Steve James' harrowing and emotionally weighty examination of inner-city violence, "The Interrupters," also snubbed. So now what do we have: films about dance, photography, horse whispering, a monkey, Jane Goodall, inner-city football -- it's not exactly global warming.

Where is this year's "Gasland"? he asks. Where is the film that could make an impact on our lives today? He picks "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," which just happens to be the only doc I was disappointed to see on the shortlist.

4. Was there only room for one film for each subject?

I thought about this with Kaufman's note that "Better This World" was not nominated but the other domestic terrorism doc, "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," was. Is this a trend? Gothamist's Jen Chung keeps me wondering:

the Academy did include Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third film following the wrongful convictions of three teens accused of murder and sentenced to death (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's films are considered important to helping the case get more attention and the teens—now men—out of prison), but didn't include Werner Herzog's meditation on the death penalty, Into the Abyss. Bill Cunningham New York, the charming documentary about the NY Times' 80-something style photograph Bill Cunningham was included, but, Page One, the documentary about the Times' media reporters was snubbed.

Given that I prefer "If a Tree Falls" and "Bill Cunningham," I don't mind at all. I also like the shortlisted "Hell and Back Again" more than the other Afghanistan War homecoming doc, "Where Soldiers Come From," and the shortlisted "Project Nim" more than the other animal adoption doc, "One Lucky Elephant," and the shortlisted "We Were Here" more than the other AIDS doc, "Making the Boys" (which might have actually qualified last year anyway), and the shortlisted "Pina" more than any other dance doc. Then again, there are two docs involving Civil Rights ("The Loving Story" and "Sing Your Song") and two involvling people being evicted from their NYC homes ("Bill Cunningham" and "Battle for Brooklyn") and two involving chimpanzees ("Nim" and "Jane's Journey").

5. What will make the final 5?

Now that we've discussed the shortlist, it's time to think about the shorter list, the nominees. Some blogs have now made or revised their picks based on Friday's development. More will do so this week, I'm sure. I'll update as I see them. My prediction, though I need to see a few more of the shortlisted titles: "Buck"; "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"; "Hell and Back Again"; "We Were Here"; "Semper Fi: Always Faithful."

Even though "Nim" is my favorite movie of the year I'm skeptical it will be picked since Marsh already won a few years ago.
 

Adam Benzine of Real Screen:

As for the five nominees, to be named in January, it could be presumed that Buck, Project Nim, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Pina and Hell and Back Again are the most likely to make the cut. However, given the Academy’s willingness to omit The Interrupters and Senna, it is now difficult to make predictions with any real kind of confidence.

 

Kyle Turner of Very Aware:

-          PINA

-          PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY

-          PROJECT NIM

-          BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

-          UNDER FIRE: JOURNALISTS IN COMBAT


 


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7 Comments

  • Lee | November 23, 2011 10:55 AMReply

    Asif Kapadia & Steve James have been tweeting like mad that they were each robbed but no way were their films the best docs of the year. They were the best backed by publicity campaigns but it terms of original story & filmmaking craft they were not the best this year or most Oscar worthy. Call me cynical but each director has since dissed the Oscars in a tantrum as were not shortlisted but the tweet mania from each has since increased in a last ditch attempt to swing another category such as editing or picture. I could name a dozen better docs that Senna or The Interrupters that didn't make the cut this year and their directors have been much more gratious in accepting that the shortlist can be sometimes crazy.

    Could never say Senna is the best film (fiction & dons) of the year. It totally sits on the fence and ends up a vanity project for F1 & the Senna family where as the amazing Ali doc a few years back was brave in that showed Ali's flaws towards Frazier aswell as his genius.

  • Christopher Campbell | November 23, 2011 12:39 PM

    Lee,

    Can you please name those dozen better docs? I'm not doubting you, I'd just like to take note of any I've missed. Thanks!

  • Jeffrey | November 21, 2011 5:49 PMReply

    11 of the 15

  • Victor Morton | November 21, 2011 2:56 PMReply

    Not to quibble, Chris, but do you really think MAKING THE BOYS is an AIDS film? I'm not crazy about the movie and I saw it 18 months ago, so my memory may be a bit fuzzy. But I don't recall AIDS coming up at all until relatively late in the film, and it MUST then, simply because of the biographical facts surrounding the people involved in the play/film.

  • Christopher Campbell | November 21, 2011 4:47 PM

    I guess I see what you mean. Mostly what I left thinking about was how so many of the people died of AIDS in the end. But yeah, it's not entirely about AIDS. Also, I wasn't too crazy about it in general either. I recall it being a relatively bad looking film.

  • Jeffrey | November 21, 2011 2:01 PMReply

    Best doc of the year: "Senna," not on this list. It may be the best movie of the year. On this list? Hands down the best is "We Were Here." By a mile.

  • documenTed | November 21, 2011 5:01 PM

    Really? You saw all 15 of the shortlisted movies?

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