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Fifteen Docs Vie for Oscar Top Five; Wenders is In, Herzog is Out

by Anne Thompson
November 18, 2011 5:01 PM
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Wim Wenders' Pina

The Documentary Branch Screening Committee looked at the one hundred twenty-four pictures that qualified for the Oscar documentary short list, but only fifteen were chosen. Left out again is Werner Herzog, whose "Into the Abyss" seemed straightforward enough for the Academy, while his German colleague Wim Wenders "Pina," which is also the official German Oscar submission, made the cut even though it was shot--but not screened for the branch-- in 3-D, just like Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" last year, which did not get nominated. The doc branch looks at submissions on screeners because they do not want to force low-budget filmmakers to have to screen their films in 35 mm. Sundance hits "Project Nim" (interview here) and "Buck" (interview here) made the cut.

The doc branch often does not to respond to name directors but rather films that meet their professional and artistic criteria. Also left out in a very competitive year were films by Morgan Spurlock, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, as well as dramatic racing doc "Senna." It's not so surprising that the Academy did not recognize "The Arbor," which is unconventional at best, with actors syncing to real voices. The most shocking omission, however, is Steve James yet again ("Hoop Dreams"). His Chicago doc "The Interrupters" is at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The 15 films are listed below in alphabetical order by title, with their production company:
"Battle for Brooklyn" (RUMER Inc.), 
"Bill Cunningham New York" (First Thought Films),
"Buck" (Cedar Creek Productions), 
"Hell and Back Again" (Roast Beef Productions Limited),
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC),
"Jane's Journey" (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
,"The Loving Story" (Augusta Films),
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" (
,"Pina" (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
,"Project Nim" (Red Box Films),
"Semper Fi: Always Faithful" (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.),
"Sing Your Song" (S2BN Belafonte Productions, LLC),
"Undefeated" (Spitfire Pictures)
,"Under Fire: Journalists in Combat" (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
,"We Were Here" (Weissman Projects, LLC).

Doc voters will now select the five nominees from among the 15 titles on the shortlist, to be announced nominations morning, January 24.


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More: Awards, Oscars, Awards, Documentaries


  • Kuba | November 18, 2011 10:21 PMReply

    Truly surprised that "The Bully Project" did not make the cut.

  • Steve | November 19, 2011 2:56 PM

    I believe that Weinstein decided to hold The Bully Project and qualify it next year.

  • GE | November 18, 2011 8:55 PMReply

    I long ago gave up trying to figure out what mood the prescreeners must be in when they watch the docs submitted. They see them at home where they can scan through them at double speed take a break for dinner or a phone call, check email, take a nap and we'll leave the rest to your imagination. I would hate to be the maker of the 5th film screened in a day.

    These are all respectable films, a few even approaching greatness. But there were several brilliant films that missed the cut in favor of movies that only played festivals and TV/cable, presumably with a one week qualifying run sneaked in somewhere.

    Herzog and Morris deserve special awards for their amazing body of documentary work since they continue to be ignored.

  • Nel | November 18, 2011 8:31 PMReply

    Shame that the Academy has snubbed world cinema docs and instead put forward 12 x US films, 1 x Canadian film, 1 x German dance film by name filmmaker, and 1 x German Animal Planet bio. What message does this give considering the world class films and stories out there this year? Makes a joke of it being a top world documentary award. Something needs changing to restore credibility to the documentary branch.

  • MJ | November 19, 2011 7:09 PM

    WMH, these are the Academy Awards we are talking about, not the LA Film Fest or Hollywood Awards. Yes, the Academy Awards are based in Hollywood but for Feature Documentaries they represent the ultimate recognition as a filmmaker and there is not a rest of world category. The feature documentary category is supposedly for both US and International films all treated equally. The entire nomination process was set up by the Academy documentary filmmakers to reflect the global theatrical documentary community. Favoritism to US only films is a very embarrassing and sad development. The global filmmaking community is watching.

    The Cesars are the French National Film awards and should not be compared to the Academy Awards. Even regular film festivals reflect a global industry. Could you image Cannes to snub totally from selecting US films. This years top honours went to "Drive" due to the jury being an international mix. The problem seems to be having a 100% US election committee who are unable to be objective to the outside world. In one year the Academy has stepped back 20.

  • WMH | November 19, 2011 4:13 AM

    This is the award ceremony of Hollywood though, not the entire world. That's what film festivals/Critic's awards are for. You can't really blame members for showing favoritism to their own. It would be like complaining that the César Awards show favoritism to French films.

  • James | November 18, 2011 8:27 PMReply

    Bill Cunningham New York was an excellently reviewed film and somewhat of a hit at the box office. I'm so pleased it made the cut. Out of 51 reviews on rottentomatoes, only 1 review is negative and it's courtesy of, you guessed it, the infamous Mr. Armond White. Who cares if a few acclaimed films didn't made the cut? Critics have their own awards. The Oscars are voted on by industry insiders and I admire their unpredictable choices in the documentary category. How boring would it be if the Oscars were just award to whatever films the critics loved best.

  • JB | November 18, 2011 7:56 PMReply

    A slightly ridiculous list. Must be something wrong with the voting system?


  • RayWats | November 18, 2011 7:12 PMReply

    It's kind of interesting that out of all these films, only one of them -- "We Were Here" -- is on BOTH the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatotes lists of the best movies of the year and only two of them -- "We Were Here" and "Hell and Back Again" have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Which isn't to say that 99% for "The Interruptors" is anything to sneeze at. But, out of the 15 films recognized by the Academy, only THREE are also recognized by critics as among the year's best. Very interesting.

  • Keil Shults | November 18, 2011 7:01 PMReply

    I'm also directing a documentary entitled The Interrupters. It's about a group of former Academy doc branch voters who failed to recognize films like The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, and Crumb. They show up at the doorsteps of current Academy voters, slap the ballots out of their hands, and fiercely declare things like, "You don't wanna make the same mistakes I did!" It should be ready in time for SXSW.

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