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Oscar Watch: Documentary Branch Snubs Capitalism: A Love Story

by Anne Thompson
November 19, 2009 12:14 AM
4 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

The Academy documentary branch has named their short list of fifteen films (full list on jump), which will be narrowed down to five on Oscar nominations morning February 2.

Winning the Oscar would seem to have been a disqualifier this year, as the doc committee snubbed this year's highest-profile documentary, Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story as well as It Might Get Loud, whose director David Guggenheim won the Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth. This group tends to lean toward social activism like The Cove or Food Inc. (the only film to score top noms at the Gotham, Cinema Eye, and IDA Documentary Awards) more than music movies. Showbiz doc Every Little Step did score a slot, along with the Civil Rights era Soundtrack for a Revolution, but Anvil! The Story of Anvil did not. There was room for one fashion world portrait (Matt Tyrnaur's Valentino the Last Emperor) but not two (R. J. Cutler's The September Issue). And ex-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson's recent news appearances, telling Oprah he wanted to "sock" Robin Givens, or his brawl with airport paparazzi, did not help the cause of James Toback's Tyson. Instead, Facing Ali, a tribute to another champion, made the list.

Check out the latest Gurus 'O Gold Oscar poll.

[Photo: Burma VJ]

So many docs were in contention this year that there were bound to be some disappointed high-profile hopefuls, including such fest hits Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public, Joe Berlinger's Crude and Chris Smith's Collapse. Only six of the fifteen films were theatrically released, which suggests that the committee is trying to help movies that still need a boost. The rest did qualifying runs, which will likely be the extent of their theatrical release, despite Academy exec director Bruce Davis's protestations in that regard. The future for documentary releases --if not all releases--is digital, and I hope the Academy will recognize that when evaluating their eligibility rules for next year.


“The Beaches of Agnes”
Agnes Varda, director (Cine-Tamaris)

“Burma VJ”
Anders Ostergaard, director (Magic Hour Films)

“The Cove”
Louie Psihoyos, director (Oceanic Preservation Society)

“Every Little Step”
James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, directors (Endgame Entertainment)

“Facing Ali”
Pete McCormack, director (Network Films Inc.)

“Food, Inc.”
Robert Kenner, director (Robert Kenner Films)

“Garbage Dreams”
Mai Iskander, director (Iskander Films, Inc.)

“Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders”
Mark N. Hopkins, director (Red Floor Pictures LLC)

“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, directors (Kovno Communications)

“Mugabe and the White African”
Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey, directors (Arturi Films Limited)

“Sergio”
Greg Barker, director (Passion Pictures and Silverbridge Productions)

“Soundtrack for a Revolution”
Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, directors (Freedom Song Productions)

“Under Our Skin”
Andy Abrahams Wilson, director (Open Eye Pictures)

“Valentino The Last Emperor”
Matt Tyrnauer, director (Acolyte Films)

“Which Way Home”
Rebecca Cammisa, director (Mr. Mudd)

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More: Awards, Genres, Oscars, Documentaries

4 Comments

  • Suzanne P. | November 20, 2009 2:32 AMReply

    I can't believe CRUDE was snubbed...Why does Berlinger always get ignored by the Academy? "Brother's Keeper" has inspired many young filmmakers; Paradise Lost launched an international movement to free the West Memphis Three and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is considered one of the great rock and roll films of all time. And CRUDE is one of the best reviewed films of the year...what gives?

  • Brian | November 19, 2009 7:47 AMReply

    The only reason there are documentary, animated and short categories at all is because the major studios used to make lots of documentaries, shorts and cartoons. Once the studios stopped making them after the 1950s, the Academy sought out nominees from the non-theatrical market, which was thriving once upon a time (when schools, campuses, libraries, etc. used to rent 16mm films on a vast range of subjects). Since then...it's gotten much more complicated. I, for one, wish they'd keep the honorary Oscars in the ceremony (Yay, Corman! Yay, Bacall!) and eliminate the documentary and short categories altogether. They've gotten increasingly irrelevant to the larger purpose of the Oscar ceremony. (Not that I'm sure exactly what the larger purpose is, but I AM sure that documentaries and shorts are not part of it.)

  • Thom Powers | November 19, 2009 7:20 AMReply

    You reference COLLAPSE. But that film wasn't eligible for the Oscar doc slot this year because of the unfortunate AMPAS rule that requires docs to play theatrically before Sept 30. Even though COLLAPSE was in theaters this fall, it didn't make the punitive deadline. Frederick Wiseman's LA DANSE suffered a similar fate. Actually, COLLAPSE has an additional hitch over its VOD release. The Academy needs to enter the 21st Century...and perhaps refrain from invoking Playhouse 90 in its explanations (could that letter be a forged joke?)...

  • Doc Nerd | November 19, 2009 5:42 AMReply

    I couldn't disagree more with the idea that the solution is for the Oscars to embrace MORE non-theatrical documentaries. The Academy Awards are for theatrical motion pictures. The Emmys already have categories for TV docs. And the web has various awards for internet content.

    The solution for both the Documentary and Foreign Language categories is to do away with all the paperwork and qualification run nonsense, and just let the full Academy nominate their favorite documentaries and foreign films of the year. Just like they do for Best Picture. Sure this means that tiny movies will be pushed out of theses categories and the "market" will decide the nods. But that's the exact same thing that happens with the Best Picture category, where tens of millions of dollars are actually on the line.

    The current rules, while admirable for wanting to level the playing field for smaller films, actually marginalize docs and foreign films even more than they already are. By only allowing committees to pick the nominees, the Academy is saying that docs and foreign films are the same as Sound Mixing or Production Design; namely that you can't really appreciate or understand docs and foreign films unless you work on them professionally. Which is horseshit. I thought the goal was to open these films up to as many people as possible and show them that these types of films are accessible and enjoyable and that everyone should be seeing them. These rules do the exact opposite.

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