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10 Great Documentaries That Weren't Nominated For An Oscar

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
February 18, 2014 2:50 PM
17 Comments
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"Hoop Dreams" (1994)
Probably the best-known of the Oscar-snubbed documentaries, and the second of the two 1994 films, along with "Crumb," that finally caused a change in the system (the film had been touted by some as a possible Best Picture nominee, so that it failed to be even nominated as a documentary caused a bona-fide outcry), "Hoop Dreams" still stands today as one of the finest films about sports ever made. Directed by Steve James (whose equally terrific "The Interrupters" also missed a nod more than fifteen years later, and whose new Roger Ebert tribute "Life Itself" is pretty great too), the film was originally intended to be a half-hour short for PBS, but grew and grew over time into a three-hour epic that took eight years to shoot. It follows William Gates and Arthur Agee, two hugely talented young basketball players recruited by a scout for a mostly white high school with a top basketball program. At one level, it's a tiny story, about two good kids who struggle with everyday pressures to get by and maybe build a better future. On the other (like several of these movies), it's a film about America, and the American dream, unsentimentally drawing a picture of the low-income households from which the kids come from, while never promising that their sporting prowess will actually prove to be their way out. It captures real life in a way that the form so often promises, but very rarely manages, which isn't to say that there's no artifice, but more that it's hidden masterfully by James (who really is a top-flight filmmaker). It was never lacking in acclaim—Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990s, and it did even manage an Oscar nod for Best Editing, deservedly so. But that the documentary committee couldn't see its worth (reportedly, it was turned off after twenty minutes) simply begs belief, given that it's one of the crowning achievements of the documentary artform.

"Paris is Burning"

"Paris Is Burning" (1990)
To its credit, the documentary category has often been a way for the Academy to spotlight certain minorities or subcultures that might yet take decades to make an impact in the mainstream categories. But there was a limit to that, and that must have been one of the reasons that "Paris Is Burning" was ignored by the Academy, despite being probably the most acclaimed documentary film of its year. Directed by Jennie Livingston, it peeks behind the curtain of "ball culture," walk-offs between drag artists who belonged to a system of houses. Hitting just as Madonna's "Vogue" was helping to bring the world into the mainstream, it takes an expansive and in-depth look at the scene, deftly introducing wider audiences to a culture that must have been rather alien to many (including, presumably, those voting for the Documentary Oscar). The performance scenes are vivid and energetic, capturing the buzz and appeal of the balls, but just as memorable is the way it draws the politics of the scenes (the rivalry between the different houses), and the personality of its figures, permanent outsiders who've found a scene where they finally fit in. The film's undoubtedly dated a bit in the intervening years, and one almost wishes for a sequel, given the tragic fate of some of its protagonists (one prominent figure, Dorian Corey, died in 1993, at which point a mummified body, dead for over 15 years, was found in her apartment), but it's still a beautiful snapshot of a time, a place, and the people who lived there. Given that it was something of a hit at the time (one of the films that helped make the name of Miramax), and that it won prizes from Sundance, Berlin and the New York Film Critics Circle, it's very puzzling that it was so ignored by the Academy.

"Point Of Order" (1964)
That "Point Of Order" was rejected from the New York Film Festival for "not being a real movie" is symptomatic of the lack of imagination that the Academy's documentary branch can bring to their picks. As recently as "Grizzly Man," they've been (often incorrectly, as in the case of the Herzog film) disqualifying movies that are only made up of archive footage, and few of those films that slipped through the crack have been better than "Point Of Order." Directed by Emile de Antonio (the legendary groundbreaking political documentarian, who was nominated for the 1968 film "In The Year Of The Pig," about the origins of the Vietnam war), it creates a 90-minute collage reconstructing the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, in which the U.S. Army's accusations that Senator Joseph McCarthy had attempted to win influence for a former employee, Private G. David Schine, helped to ruin McCarthy's reputation, and end his reign of terror. It's an admittedly academic and dry approach, without cutting to later recollections, or ever even leaving the room of the hearings, but it's incredibly rigorous in its formal restrictions, and all the more fascinating for it. There's a hypnotic quality to its rhythms (not least in watching the repulsively charismatic McCarthy work his magic), and it's quietly, subtly constructed into a real courtroom thriller. By the time it reaches its emotional climax—as the dignified, powerful Joseph Welch tears McCarthy to shreds, telling him, famously, "At long last, have you left no sense of decency"—you realize the powerful craft of de Antonio's cutting. You can see for yourself now—the film is available in full on YouTube.

"Salesman"

"Salesman" (1968)
Almost no filmmakers have had the kind of impact on the form of documentary cinema that Albert and David Maysles did—they're endlessly influential, and their films, including "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens," are still regarded as absolute classics of the genre. And yet, the pair's only Oscar nomination came for Documentary Short in 1974 for "Christo's Last Curtain," which means that not only were the aforementioned two features overlooked, but also the earlier, equally great "Salesman" (co-directed with editor Charlotte Zwerin) which might be their most fully realized and satisfying film. Having helped popularize the direct cinema style in the U.S., the brothers, inspired by Truman Capote's description of "In Cold Blood" as a "nonfiction novel," set out to make a nonfiction feature film with this picture, which tracks a quartet of bible salesmen, loosely en route to a meeting in Chicago. Echoing Arthur Miller (not least in its depiction of Paul Brennan, the film's most compelling and unforgettable character, whose becomes more and more depressed at his lot in life as the film progresses), it's an examination of the American dream, and the link between religion and capitalism, but more importantly of four people: the film's compassionate viewpoint on its central quartet never forgets their humanity (it's why we'd pick it over "Grey Gardens," which feels exploitative in a way that this never does). The film's less well known these days than some of its contemporaries, but one only has to look back at it to realize the extent of its influence—everything from "Glengarry Glen Ross" to the movies of Paul Greengrass to "The Office" and "The Simpsons" have been touched by "Salesmen." History has spoken up where the Academy hadn't.

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17 Comments

  • Phoenix | June 23, 2014 9:42 AMReply

    What about The Paradise Lost documentaries?

  • Lynette Finch | February 28, 2014 6:21 AMReply

    Mr Death, Dark Days, Dig!, We Live in Public, The Cruise

    Yeah, it's a shame that "The Stories We Tell" got overlooked. It was amazing.

  • mark lipson | February 24, 2014 4:46 PMReply

    ha... well as the producer of the thin blue line.. thanks for the annual mention of our now notorious non-mention by the Academy.. we are in good company.. and yes paris is burning and hoop dreams were also very very deserving.

  • andrew | February 24, 2014 4:44 PMReply

    anything by john pilger

  • C | February 24, 2014 10:23 AMReply

    Young @ Heart - I guess it was one of the too personal options. A wonderful documentary.

  • Jen | February 21, 2014 9:45 AMReply

    BUCK

  • Kara | February 20, 2014 11:08 AMReply

    Marwencol!

  • [A] | February 20, 2014 11:02 AMReply

    DEAR ZACHARY is brutal.

  • Julie | February 19, 2014 10:16 PMReply

    Dear Zachary was my all time favorite. King of Kong was pretty epic in a different way, shedding light on the tribulations of slightly autistic people.

  • Jack | February 19, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    Hands On A Hardbody!

  • bomb james bomb | February 19, 2014 12:51 AMReply

    The Celluloid Closet .... saw it years ago
    This Film Is Not Yet Rated .... will watch it today
    and best of all,,
    Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story Of 007
    a dream come true for bond fans (and movie buffs in general)

  • Tom | February 18, 2014 5:11 PMReply

    Ballou (2008)! But then again I was the publicity director so I'm a little biased...still makes me smile though. There's a doc called "The Abortion Pill (1999)" that provides a comprehensive look at the approval of RU486 in the US - which also happens to be probably the most even-keeled and deftly-handled film on a controversial topic that I've ever seen.

  • owdl114 | February 18, 2014 4:48 PMReply

    Senna

  • Expat George | March 16, 2014 9:35 AM

    SENNA, one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, and I'm an American who doesn't like or follow car racing. And how about a foreign documentary? BUS 174 is an all-time great.

  • mary brando falconetti | February 19, 2014 12:53 AM

    stallone wanted to make a biopic of senna that eventually led to DRIVEN
    senna was more or less turned into RUSH
    doc life and times of harvey milk was turned into sean penns MILK

  • yod | February 18, 2014 9:10 PM

    Was average.

  • Paolo | February 18, 2014 4:17 PMReply

    The Up Series by Michael Apted

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