Pity the poor Academy documentary branch voter. Under democratic new rules pushed through by then-Academy governor Michael Moore and implemented for the first time last year, over the course of 2013 the 210 doc branch members were supposed to screen some 149 would-be eligible Oscar contenders, up 23 from last year. (Before that, various branch committees each viewed a small selection of the entries, which meant that personal taste played a huge role in dive-bombing films by the likes of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog.)
So this year, each voter had to plow through a tall screener pile. What was on top, and what remained unseen? More than ever, festival play, reviews and awards, publicity, marketing and distribution played a bigger role in determining the choices these documentarians made as they handed in their preliminary nominations ballot November 22 for the Oscar shortlist of 15 documentaries.
Moore was fighting for docs that he considered theatrical as opposed to television to be on a level playing field with other Oscar categories. The busier a filmmaker is, the less likely they will be to get through the pile and see many underdog entries, including a whopping 13 films submitted by HBO, even if there is a doc branch chatroom for members to bring up worthy titles. One proposed change to the documentary rules would involve festival play as a factor in eligibility, as opposed to expensive theatrical qualifying releases accompanied by a New York Times and Los Angeles Time review.
Last year's list of fifteen, however, led by Sony Pictures Classics frontrunner and eventual winner "Searching for Sugar Man" ($3.5 million domestic gross) was deemed an all-around success: the branch even picked some lower-profile films, from "Detropia" to "The Waiting Room." We'll see how the branch does this time.
Crazy we may be, but TOH! has compiled a list of what we think will make the cut. We'll see how right we were when the shortlist is announced, in advance of selecting the final five.
1. "20 Feet From Stardom": Morgan Neville's irresistible, affecting, crowd-pleasing music doc about largely anonymous and prodigiously talented backup singers premiered at Sundance in January, where it was nominated for both the Grand Jury Prize in documentary and the editing award, and was acquired by Weinstein Co. boutique label RADiUS out of the fest. They've delivered the year's highest-grossing doc to date ($4.7 million). Our TOH! interview.
2. "The Act of Killing": With his harrowing documentary festival hit, Joshua Oppenheimer reset the bar for a hybrid tragi-comedy-musical. "The Act of Killing" is disturbing on so many levels that it defies description and takes time to digest. It's like a ride to Hell in a meandering fun-house tram. Our TOH! review.
3. "Blackfish": Gabriela Cowperthwaite's white-knuckle investigative thriller about the corporate negligence and dangerous working conditions of SeaWorld -- for killer whales and their trainers alike -- combines unsettling testimonial with a back history of whale maltreatment. Our TOH! review.
4. "The Square": When Jehane Noujaim brought her spectacular documentary on the Egyptian Revolution to Sundance it knocked out critics and won the Audience Award too (no small feat). But it was also clear that an ending to the story had not yet arrived: A rebellion had toppled the Egyptian government, new elections had been held, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mosri had risen victorious. But the dust hadn’t settled, and the movie needed an update. Our TOH! interview.
5. "Stories We Tell": Sarah Polley's alternately tear-jerking and hilarious detective work into buried family secrets will make the shortlist, despite having an early in the year release date. Polley examines the fickle nature of memory and mythologizing by incorporating recreated "home video footage" into the film to tell the story of her late mother's life. Our TOH! interview.
6. "After Tiller": Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's documentary takes an incendiary subject -- third-trimester abortion -- and treats it with dispassionate observance. A must-see for anyone on any side of the abortion debate spectrum. Our TOH! review.
7. "The Armstrong Lie": Alex Gibney's second film of 2013 looks at the rise and fall of former Tour de France titan Lance Armstrong. Gibney, originally called to make a doc on Armstrong's "comeback" in 2009, combines his original fandom of Armstrong with his feelings of disillusionment following the scandal break for a portrait of the cyclist in all his ruthless, self-branding, unpredictable complexity. Our TOH! interview.
8. "Casting By": While this HBO doc is critical of the Academy, it's a winning portrait of original casting director Marion Dougherty, and also a plea for industry recognition of the profession (including backup from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen), which is currently without an Oscar category. Our TOH! review.
9. "The Crash Reel": From Oscar perennial Lucy Walker comes this moving and shocking verite doc, which follows snowboarder Kevin Pearce after he suffers a debilitating brain injury while training for the Olympics. It has screened well at Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, LAFF and at the Academy. Our TOH! interview.
10. "Cutie and the Boxer": Zachary Heinzerling's film on aging Japanese artist couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, currently eking out a humble living in New York City, is both moving and mesmerizing -- the perfect companion piece to the Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis," looking at the beautiful, sad world of the underappreciated artist. Our TOH! interview.
11. "Dirty Wars": This riveting documentary by journalist Jeremy Scahill and director Rick Rowley probes the shadowy world of U.S. paramilitary operations--and almost didn't get made. Or rather, it almost didn't become the film that premiered at Sundance in January to critical plaudits and hit theaters on June 7, via IFC Sundance Selects. Our TOH! interview.
12. "Tim's Vermeer": Lovely and concise, magician Teller's documentary on inventer Tim Jenison, and his mission to discover the trick behind Dutch master Johannes Vermeer's photo-realistic paintings, is a mind-boggling and wondrous portrait of dedication, obsession, and the intersection point between art and technology. Our TOH! interview.
13. "The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld": Errol Morris takes on Donald Rumsfeld in this fascinating mano a mano confrontation with an oily politician with a real gift of gab and prevarication. Morris focuses on his word skills, his blizzard of memos, his sneaky generalizations. Rumsfeld was close to the seat of power in this country for decades, from the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations through George W. Bush and the aftermath of 9/11. The biggest reveal is that Rumsfeld wished that Bush had allowed him to tender his resignation after the damning Abu Graib pictures were revealed. Our TOH! interview.
14. "Valentine Road": Marta Cunningham looks at the 2008 school shooting of Lawrence "Larry" King, a gay teen and foster kid living in Oxnard, California, who was sought out and gunned down by a humiliated classmate. The balanced film looks at both the hate crime issues at hand, as well as the failure of the justice system, which could have incarcerated the teen shooter for life without parole based on an act related to gang violence. Our TOH! interview.
15. "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks": Alex Gibney's taut documentary on Julian Assange's Wikileaks as seen through the prism of the Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) disaster is breathlessly fascinating from beginning to end -- quite a feat, given the detailed, techy nature of the subject material. Our TOH! interview.
Long Shots: "American Promise," "Blood Brother," "Bridegroom," "Call Me Kuchu," "Caucus,""F," "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners," "God Loves Uganda," "Inequality For All," "Leviathan," "Muscle Shoals," "Narco Cultura," "Room 237," "Running From Crazy," "Gideon's Army" and "The Summit."