Some of the best films I saw in Toronto were docs, and there's no question that the doc Oscar race will be one of the most competitive in years.
That's because not only are such big names as Oscar-winners Davis Guggenheim and Alex Gibney in the fray with education expose Waiting for Superman and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, respectively, but so is Charles Ferguson's incendiary Wall Street expose Inside Job, which I predict will ignite a firestorm of controversy. Ferguson has scheduled screenings this week in Washington, where the Obama administration is dead-set against the film, which is critical of the Wall Street friendly government, especially Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner.
Ferguson, who turned to Gibney for producing help on his first film, No End in Sight, now has learned the ropes and then some. Both films are about Wall Street shenanigans, finally. Both played great and earned raves in Toronto. (Here's my flipcam interview with Gibney); Oscar-wise, Client 9 will clearly trump his other less successful 2010 film Casino Jack and the United States of Money.)
Controversy sells, and there's already blowback from the villain of Guggenheim's piece, the Teachers' Union. Paramount staged a Bill Gates event in Toronto without officially booking the film in the fest.
Another excellent Toronto entry, Errol Morris's Tabloid (another flipcam interview still to come), is still seeking distribution, so it will have missed meeting the Academy's arcane submission and exhibition demands. That also applies to John Turturro's crowd-pleasing music doc about Naples, Passione (flip cam to come), and Werner Herzog's 3-D doc Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which IFC /acquired here.
When I want to consult an expert on all things documentary, I turn to filmmaker/blogger A.J. Schnack, who weighed in recently on the over-heated Oscar doc race. Schnack thinks that my other fave Sundance doc Restrepo will be a leading contender, which frankly surprises me. I agree that it should--it's a must-see document--but many folks inside the doc community seemed disturbed by its lack of narrative or POV. Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded themselves and show rather than tell--with devastating emotional impact. They don't say that our efforts in Afghanistan are doomed and futile. But the movie shows us that truth, I think. (If you missed it, they talk to me about the film here.)
Also on my Oscar short list is producer Lawrence Bender and director Lucy Walker's nuclear threat expose Countdown to Zero, which Schnack doesn't seem too high on. (He also doesn't take seriously the two controversial what-are-they-really docs Exit to the Gift Shop and Catfish.) I adored music doc Thunder Soul at SXSW, which would have to be considered a long shot. I had trouble with Waking Sleeping Beauty, which took a great subject---the golden era of animation at Disney under Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Schneider--and turned it into a promo film about those execs, without looking at the artistry of the folks who actually made the films.
Schnack adds the following as possibilities for the Oscar race:
ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, A FILM UNFINISHED, GASLAND, THE OATH and THE TILLMAN STORY. In our opinion, the exclusion of any of these five films from the shortlist would be a shock - or at least as shocking as things get for the Documentary Branch.
Of that group, I agree that The Tillman Story is a strong contender; I have not seen the others. I also don't think Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will wind up in contention, because the Academy tends to reward the serious over the funny, even though this is an exquisite portrait of a misunderstood entertainer.