"Sherman's March" (1986)
Remember what we were saying about personal movies rarely finding favor in the Documentary category? "Sherman's March" may be the best example of that. The film, from director Ross McElwee, set out to follow the footsteps of General Sherman's devastating path through the South during the Civil War, and the scars it still leaves today, but just before he began production on the film, McElwee was devastatingly dumped by his girlfriend, and his movie turned into something much more sprawling, taking in his fear of nuclear war, elements of religion, and, more than anything else, McElwee's romantic life, as he falls for a series of women across his journey through the south, none of which ever end particularly well (the film is subtitled "A Meditation On The Possibility Of Romantic Love In The South During An Era Of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation"). Very much ahead of its time in its wear-its-heart-on-its-sleeve transparency (it's a movie for the Facebook age, twenty years before the creation of Facebook) it's a sprawling and transgressive piece of work that will madden some—at two and a half hours, it arguably outstays its welcome—but it's so stacked with memorable characters, incidents and landscapes that it absolutely confirmed McElwee as a hugely exciting voice (his subsequent films have often been variations on a similar theme, to less exciting ends). It's a portrait both of a person, and of a place (or series of places, really) that feels totally fully-formed on both counts, and stuffed full of charm and humor. A surprising hit at the time (on release, it was the tenth-biggest grossing documentary of all time), and the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, nowadays it would certainly have been in the Oscar conversation, but was superseded by less playful, formally inventive work back in '86.
In defense of the documentary committee, "Shoah" is one of the most intimidating prospects in cinema history—an oral history of the Holocaust, told by its survivors, that runs at nearly ten hours long. But given that it delivers the definitive take on the 20th century's greatest atrocity, you'd think they could have tried a little harder. Made by French director Claude Lanzmann over the course of eleven years, and assembled from 350 hours of interviews, it eschews contemporary found footage and relies entirely on first-person testimony, both of Jewish survivors and occasionally their guards and captors (some of which was captured with hidden cameras; the discovery of one caused Lanzmann to be beaten and hospitalized for a month), centering on the death camps of Treblinka, Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau, and of those in the Warsaw Ghetto. As you might expect, it's as wrenching and nausea-inducing a film as you'll ever sit through, but one, almost by definition, of deep humanity, even as it deals with the worst examples of inhumanity you can imagine. And it's about as vital a film as has ever been made: a last chance for those who were there to testify as to what they witnessed, and as a result, it's historical value is unquestionable. But it's also a beautifully made film, impeccably constructed by Lanzmann from the first minute to the 566th. For it to be overlooked by the Academy is inexcusable, but it always had a much greater, higher purpose, and one that it lives up to entirely.
"The Thin Blue Line" (1988)
One of the best known documentarians working, Errol Morris finally won an Oscar in 2004 for his "The Fog Of War," and while that's a very good film, it's hard not think that it was something of an apology to the filmmaker for overlooking his earlier work, and in particular his 1988 film "The Thin Blue Line," a legitimate crossover hit that, nonsensically, was considered "nonfiction" rather than documentary, and was thus disqualified by the Academy. About as gripping a true crime story as has ever been made, the film relates and recreates (those scenes being the ones that led to the film being disqualified, though it's now a more accepted practice) the miscarriage of justice that followed the death by shooting of Dallas police officer Robert Wood in 1976. There were two men in the stolen car that Wood had stopped before he was shot—16-year-old driver and car thief David Ray Harris, and 28-year-old Randall Adams, who'd accepted a lift from Harris, and on whom the murder was pinned. Adams, despite being totally innocent, was charged with capital murder, in part because Adams was a minor and wouldn't face the death penalty, and he spent twelve years in prison for the crime before Morris' film helped him to be released. Morris had worked as a private eye in the past, and he builds a solid case for reasonable doubt in Adams' conviction, but also admits and engages with the idea that the truth is essentially unknowable. Morris has a point-of-view, certainly, but it's far from the only one. It's also a fine example, as are most of the director's films, that a documentary doesn't just have to be a series of talking heads and archive footage. The beautifully shot re-enactments might have caused the film to miss out an Oscar nomination, but they also make the movie linger far longer in the memory.
Honorable Mentions: It's almost easier to name the great films that were Oscar-nominated in the documentary category than the ones that weren't. But to name but a few, there was also "Roger & Me," "The Interrupters," "Grizzly Man," "The Last Waltz," "Grey Gardens," "A Grin Without A Cat," "Lake Of Fire," "Hearts Of Darkness," "Sans Soleil," "American Movie," "Dogtown and Z-Boys," "The Celluloid Closet," "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" and remarkably, any Frederick Wiseman films (though we're not sure of their potential eligibility in a lot of cases). Any other notable ones we've missed out? Just let us know in the comments section.