To help make sense of what this might mean for the Oscar race, I called documentarian A.J. Schnack, who tracks all things doc on his blog All These Wonderful Things. We both feel that the doc race is wide open this year, with fewer obvious front-runners.
Of the European Film Award nominees (listed on the jump), we both agree that Agnes Varda's well-reviewed The Beaches of Agnes is a strong contender. This career-wrapping, personal, heartfelt film could yield a career nomination. "She's clearly someone who is very respected and revered," says Schnack, who compares her to veteran Werner Herzog, who finally got his props last year. "People might get on board for this train."
Anders Østergaard's prize-winning Burma VJ kicked off strong at Sundance and took the grand jury prize at the Full Frame Film Festival --the winner at Full Frame has gone on to win an Oscar or Spirit Award nomination in each of the past four years. While the film has faded from view since its small release in May, Schnack thinks it could pick up steam again when HBO starts to promote it. Yoav Shamir's Defamation could fill the Academy's holocaust slot this year. There's usually at least one, says Schnack, who points out that the film is also on the London Film Festival's shortlist for their Grierson Award, or best documentary prize.
Otherwise, Schnack agrees with me that environmental docs The Cove and Food Inc. are Oscar front-runners, partly because they fulfill the Academy demand for serious social issue topics.
No matter how successful, pop-culture entertainment like Every Little Step, Tyson, Valentino, Racing Dreams and The September Issue will be fighting for only one or two slots. But September Issue director R.J. Cutler is a respected member of the documentary club, which gives him an advantage. And music films like It Might Get Loud and Anvil! The Story of Anvil face an uphill climb. "It would be a big departure," says Schnack.
We both agree that Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story could go either way. There's no guarantee that the Academy will want to include Moore, but it could still easily happen. Having won before (Bowling for Columbine), he doesn't really need their help.
While Of Time and the City was embraced by critics, it may be "too borderline experimental" for the Academy, says Schnack.
His sleeper dark horse Oscar candidate is The Way We Get By, which we awarded a special jury prize at SXSW. The heart-tugger about old folks greeting returning war veterans at the Bangor airport was screened on Capital Hill last week by vice president Joe Biden. POV will screen it soon as well. Shnack also cites Mugabe and the White African as a movie that is screening well and won the silver Docs international prize.
UPDATE: IFC will qualify the fest hit Art of the Steal for consideration next year.
The nominated European Award docs are:
THE BEACHES OF AGNES (Les Plages d’Agnès)
Agnès Varda, France
BELOW SEA LEVEL, Gianfranco Rosi, Italy / USA
BURMA VJ, Anders Østergaard, Denmark
COOKING HISTORY (Ako Sa Varia Dejiny)
Peter Kerekes, Slovakia / Austria / Czech Republic
THE DAMNED OF THE SEA (Les Damnés de la Mer)
Jawad Rhalib, Belgium
DEFAMATION, Yoav Shamir, Denmark / Austria / Israel / USA
THE HEART OF JENIN (Das Herz von Jenin)
Leon Geller & Marcus Vetter, Germany
PIANOMANIA, Lilian Franck & Robert Cibis, Germany / Austria
THE SOUND OF INSECTS – RECORD OF A MUMMY
(Das Summen der Insekten – Bericht einer Mumie)
Peter Liechti, Switzerland
THE WOMAN WITH THE 5 ELEPHANTS (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten)
Vadim Jendreyko, Switzerland / Germany
Berlin, 8 October 2009