With "The Act Of Killing," "Cutie and the Boxer" and "The Square" among the nominees, this year's Best Documentary Feature category is one of the strongest we can remember. But that doesn't mean that the Academy got everything right. Many of the year's most notable non-fiction films were ignored, most notably Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," a movie which managed to top many critical lists and was widely acclaimed as not just one of the best documentaries of 2013, but as one of the best movies of any kind.
But Polley's in good company. Perhaps even more so than with the main Best Picture prize, the documentary branch have a long history of overlooking the towering classics of the form completely. Sure, some great docs have been recognized by the Academy—"The War Game," "Woodstock," "Hearts And Minds," "Harlan County USA," "When We Were Kings," "4 Little Girls," "Man On Wire"—but it's far from uncommon for the truly classic contenders to be completely ignored in favor of movies that are about the right issues, or tug the heartstrings in the right way.
So with the Oscars now less than two weeks away, in commiseration with "Stories We Tell," and to celebrate IFC’s Sundance Now Doc Club for the month, which features a number of non-nominated films hand-selected by non-fiction mover-and-shaker Thom Powers, we've picked out ten phenomenal documentary movies that failed to even get an Academy Award nomination, let alone win the prize. To narrow it down a little, we mostly excluded concert films and music documentaries, along with multi-part movies like "The Sorrow And The Pity" and the "Up" series, and other films that were ineligible. The ones left, below, all qualify as essential viewing.
Still a high watermark by which the biographical documentary is judged, Terry Zwigoff's "Crumb" makes high art out of low, and even two decades on, proves to be a bleakly funny, deeply moving look not just as its principal subject, but of those who surround him, digging deeper into the Crumb family whereas so many similar films only skim the surface. Zwigoff (who'd go on to make acclaimed comedies "Ghost World" and "Bad Santa") here examines his long-time friend Robert Crumb, a legendary underground comic book artist (creator of Fritz the Cat, among others), whose cult work won him countless fans, as well as attacks for the alleged racism and sexism of the work. Zwigoff gets into all of this, and his close relationship with his subject makes him unusually forthcoming on camera, almost as though he has no filter (not that there was ever much filter present in his work), but Zwigoff doesn't make it into a beatification, giving a voice to the artist's critics as well as his fans. But there's a reason that the film is called "Crumb" and not "Robert Crumb"—the heart of the picture lies in the way that the director gives almost as much focus to Crumb's brothers Max and, in particular, Charles. While Robert found an outlet for his hangups and obsessions through his art, the others weren't saved in the same way, with Max living a monkish, masochist existence, and Charles troubled and lonely (he killed himself not long after the movie was shot). There are acres of unexpected feeling in their scenes together, and the result is a bleakly beautiful film about how the past haunts us, and how some are able to escape that, while others end up stalling. Praised to the skies when it premiered at Sundance in 1994, the film, along with one other movie on this list from the same period, caused so much outcry when it was snubbed by the Oscars that it caused the Academy to revise their voting process for the category (previously, the committee had been dominated by documentary distributors, who favored their own films).
"Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father" (2008)
As the lack of a nod for "Stories We Tell" demonstrated, the Academy tends to have a certain tendency to ignore the more personal side of the documentary world in favor of films that are more issues-driven. But you'd have thought that 2008's "Dear Zachary" might have done better, given that it's both a searing, incredibly powerful true story with a very personal angle, and an emotional appeal for victims' rights. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne grew up as best friends with Andrew Bagby, who even appeared in, and even helped to finance, some of Kuenne's shorts. So like many, Kuenne's life was upended when Bagby was murdered by his unstable older lover, Shirley Turner. Turner fled to Canada, and announced that she was pregnant with Bagby's child, who was later named Zachary. As the extradition process dragged on, and Bagby's parents fought for custody of Zachary, Kuenne began making his film as a quiet tribute to his friend for his son (as the subtitle goes, "A Letter To A Son About His Father"), but sadly, there was one more tragic twist in the tale to come. It's a terrible, devastating story—one that it's impossible not to be moved by—and Kuenne deftly manages to make it, simultaneously, into a potent tribute to a dear friend, an impassioned how-the-fuck-was-this-allowed-to-happen cri de coeur, and a propulsive true-crime thriller. It's rough around the edges, certainly, but that gives the film an unrefined, raw quality that makes it feel all the more powerful and truthful as a result. The film never got an especially wide release, and it may be that the Academy thought that the film wasn't objective enough—but how could you possibly remain objective to a story like this one?
"F For Fake" (1973)
We'll acknowledge that, were "F For Fake" to be nominated for an Oscar, there probably would have been a fair old fuss about it. Orson Welles' final masterpiece is nominally a documentary, beginning as a BBC project about art forger Elmyr de Hory, originally only to be narrated by Welles. At some point, after it emerged that Clifford Irving, who'd featured in the footage in his guise as de Hory's biographer, had himself pulled off a giant hoax by fabricating an "authorized" biography of Howard Hughes, Welles took over the project, and turned it into something quite different, and quite remarkable, a meta-tastic, undoubtedly self-indulgent and self-satisfied examination into fakery, to the extent that much of the film's last half-hour, involving Welles' girlfriend Oja Kodar and Pablo Picasso, appears to be made up. But truth is subjective, and the playfulness of the way Welles approaches his subject enhances its themes in a way that a more straight-ahead film probably wouldn't be able to manage. And it would have to be a film: Welles is commenting on the artform that dominated his life as much as he is on anything that Hory and Irving have managed. It's a dense film, heady with ideas, but hugely entertaining too, even as its digressions occasionally spin off into dead ends. It's sort of unclassifiable, which is probably one of the reasons it didn't get an Oscar nomination (along with the fairly mediocre tastes of the selection committee, and Welles' general outsider status in Hollywood at that point). But if there'd been a category for best documentary/fiction/cinematic essay/experiment/trick, it surely would have been a shoe-in...