Monday, November 22, 2010

Oscar Update: The Documentary Shortlist

Late last week, the Academy announced their 15 film shortlist for the Documentary Feature Oscar. As always, there were some snubs and some surprises. The biggest snubs including foreign films like Armadillo, Last Train Home and A Film Unfinished. Not surprisingly, they overlooked audience favorites like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (not serious enough), Catfish (probably too many questions about its authenticity, combined with the feeling some have that the filmmakers were exploitative) and Disney’s Oceans (the highest grossing doc of the year, unless you count Jackass 3-D, which was probably a little too “been there, done that” for them.) Two of my favorite docs of the year - 12th and Delaware, about abortion, and The Oath, about Osama Bin Laden’s former body guard, were also surprisingly overlooked. But, since I have only seen 6 of the shortlisted 15, I can’t really comment on the deservingness of all of the following films (I will see at least another one next week, if not two, and I know one of the other shortlisted films will be on DVD in early December, so that could bring me up to at least 9 films - and I will try to see the other ones.

But let’s have a look at the films that did make the list – I have ranked them in the order I think they have a shot at being nominated. This is always a tough task, because we don’t really know what this branch is thinking – but barring any real shockers, I think you are looking at any combination of the top 8 on my list - but I would be shocked if the number 1 film wasn't nominated. Nothing else would really surprise me.

1. Inside Job - Charles Ferguson started his second career as a documentary filmmaker with his great, Oscar nominated No End in Sight (the best of all the many Iraq docs out there). I think Inside Job, which examines the roots of the economic crisis and how it all went so horribly wrong. This is my favorite doc of the year so far - and since I think Ferguson should have won for his last film, I’ll be rooting for him on this one.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop - Nothing made me happier than this wonderful documentary - a completely different kind of doc from what the Academy usually nominates. The film has been a critical success and an audience favorite all year - and who doesn’t want to see what will happen if the notoriously secretive street artist Banksy, the director of the film, will do if he gets nominated. The shortlist was perhaps the biggest hurdle this film had - now that its made the list, it should easily be nominated and may even win.

3. Waiting for Superman – The only thing standing in the way of Davis Guggeinheim getting a nomination for his highly acclaimed, word of mouth hit about the problems with America’s education system is that another film about the same thing, The Lottery, is also in the running. But this film has much more buzz, is much more widely known, and comes from a previous winner of this award. This will be one of the frontrunners all season.

4. Gasland - This film hasn’t made a lot of money, but it is one that has been talked about all year - perhaps the films distribution method hurt its box office. The issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to drill for natural gas - a process that has led to huge pollution of drinking water. The film has become part of a conversation going across the country and has become so huge that even CSI did an episode based around it. I think this is one of you five nominees - and while I don’t think it’s quite that good, I do this is worth seeing and discussing.

5. Restrepo – This has been one of the most acclaimed, most talked about docs all year. It is a film where the filmmakers embedded themselves with an American army regiment in Afghanistan and filmed the action. It got great reviews and has strong box office for a documentary. I unfortunately missed it when it came to Toronto, but the DVD is scheduled to be released in December, so I will undoubtedly check it out.

6. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer - Former Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) had a busy year, directing this, Casino Jack and the United States of Money and a segment for the doc Freakonomics. But this one was the most acclaimed of the bunch - a look at the life of former NY Governor Elliot Spitzer. This is one that I cannot wait to see - it opened in TO this week, so I will try to catch it soon. This could quite easily move up into the top five.

7. Waste Land – The Academy often finds room in their nominees for an inspirational doc like this one. I haven’t seen it yet, but everything I have heard about suggests that this doc, about a modern artist who makes art out of the people who live as garbage pickers in the Rio De Janerio dump, is a truly inspiring doc, and should tug on some heartstrings. This film is just now garnering buzz, so watch for this to be an underdog nominee – and perhaps an upset winner.

8. The Tillman Story – There have been lots of docs about the Iraq war in play in the past few years, but I don’t think many are like Amir Bar Levi’s highly acclaimed The Tillman Story (I had an opportunity to see, and missed it, because when it played here in Toronto, I was on vacation). This tells the story of Pat Tillman, who have up his career as an NFL football player to serve his country – and then was killed by friendly fire. The film has had buzz all year, and they will work hard to get this a nomination. I hope the DVD comes out sooner rather than later.

9. Precious Life – Another surprise short list entry, this one could actually surprise again come nomination time. It tells the story of an Israeli doctor, and a Palestinian woman trying to get treatment for the woman’s child who has a rare genetic disease. It is said to be inspirational, so you have to expect it could pull on some heartstrings and get a nomination.

10. Enemies of the People - A look at the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia, where the documentary filmmaker spent years getting to know the members of the famed group responsible for countless deaths. This film didn’t open in Toronto this year, at least as far as I know, and I have no idea when it will come to DVD, so I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to see it before the nominations come out. This got some strong reviews, so it’s a possibility, but was largely ignored by audiences. It could surprise.

11. The Lottery - The inclusion of The Lottery is interesting. It is a fine little documentary about charter schools in New York City - and as such has generated controversies just like the schools themselves. But that’s not why I am surprised - I am surprised because this film made it in even though they also found room for the much higher profile Waiting for Superman - which is about the same thing. And the criticisms leveled at Waiting for Superman - that it is essentially an advertisement for charter schools goes doubly for this one.

12. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe - William Kunstler, the famed lawyer who represented some of the most notorious radicals in the 1960s and 1970s, and then represented some of the most hated people in the 1980s. This documentary is made by his daughters as an attempt to work through their conflicted feelings they have about him. This was actually released late last year (strange eligibility rules they have for this category). It has got good reviews, decent box office and I felt was a good doc. Not Oscar worthy - this has to be seen as a long shot to be nominated.
13. Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould - The famed Canadian musician Glenn Gould won’t seem to go away - there seem to be movies about him all the time. It did good with critics, and is doing fairly well at the box office (at least for a doc). It has to be seen as a long shot. I will try to see this at some point, but I have no idea if I’ll be able to. The Canadian in me would like this doc to get in, but I haven't really heard it getting the reviews or the buzz of the frontrunners.

14. This Way of Life – The inclusion of this doc has to be seen as a surprise – since I hadn’t even heard of it before it made the list. Apparently, it is a film about a father in New Zealand trying to raise his large family in simple surroundings, raising horses, until he gets into a fight with his own father, who tries to ruin his plan. Since I have no idea how good the film is, I can’t really handicap its odds of getting in – but I would put it as a long shot at best.

15. Quest for Honor- At only 63 minutes, I’m surprised this even qualified as a feature, let alone made the shortlist. Its chance for a nomination have to be seen as slim, but since I have heard very little about it – and just know it is about honor killings in the Muslim world – you never really know. However, seeing as how they couldn’t be bothered to put a poster together for the movie, I doubt this one has any chance.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your take on the potential nominations, you have some good insight I didn't realize. I do mostly agree.

    I don't think "Waiting for 'Superman'" and "The Lottery" will both make it, and I'm guessing you competely agree. But I also think that: "Inside Job," "GasLand," and "Waiting..." won't all make it. We have financial (inside or gas), we have child theme (waiting), we have bio/political (Client 9), we have unique (Exit..), we need international. So I think gasland will be pushed out by either "Waste Land" or "Enemies of the People."

    We'll see, thanks for the good post.