Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oscar Update: The Documentary Shortlist

So this week, the Academy announced the 15 documentaries shortlisted for the five nomination slots in the category announced in January. As always, a considerable amount of controversy has ensued, not so much over what was included, as to what wasn’t included. Before we get into that, here are the 15 shortlisted films:

· The Beaches of Agnes
· Burma VJ
· The Cove
· Every Little Step
· Facing Ali
· Food, Inc.
· Garbage Dreams
· Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders
· The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
· Mugabe and the White African
· Sergio
· Soundtrack for a Revolution
· Under Our Skin
· Valentino The Last Emperor
· Which Way Home

So, you have probably noticed some major absences. We all knew that Michael Jackson’s This Is It did not meet the release requirement, which meant the year’s highest grossing doc was not going to make it. I’m not about the eligibility of Disney’s Earth, which is the second highest grosser of the year, but it isn’t on the list either. Neither of these is all that shocking though.

The biggest shock has to be Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story not making the cut. True, it is Moore’s weakest documentary in more than a decade, and did not quite penetrate popular culture like his last three films did, but you had to figure that his reputation alone would get him in. Not so apparently.

My favorite doc of the year so far, James Toback's Tyson, also did not get shortlisted. In part, this is probably because Toback is a feature film director normally, and they don't like him invading his turf, and probably also in part because Mike Tyson has become so overexposed this year. Still, this was an honest look at a fascinating man, no matter what your opinion on him is.

Other major titles not included are Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Collapse, The September Issue, We Live in Public, It Might Get Loud, Crude, Afghan Star, No Impact Man, More Than a Game, Outrage, Enlighten Up, Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love and The Yes Men Fix the World. Some of these are shocking, some of them aren’t, and some were probably eligible last year, and didn’t get selected, or perhaps could be eligible next year, given the strangeness of the rules here. I have long since given up trying to figure out what was eligible and what wasn’t.

2009 has not exactly been a banner year for documentary films, and I have to admit that I have slacked off a little bit in terms of watching some of the titles released. Of course, it doesn’t help that many titles were never really released in my area.

At this point, I have seen but two of the fifteen titles shortlisted – The Cove and Food, Inc. Out of the other 13, there are only two I could have seen in commercial runs this year – Every Little Step and Valentino: The Last Emperor (both now available on DVD where I will try and catch them this weekend). I really did try to see The Most Dangerous Man in America when it played in September at the Toronto Film Festival, but it sold out remarkably quickly for a documentary. Hopefully it gets a release date soon. And Facing Ali apparently has a DVD release date of December 29th, so I’ll catch that title then.

Still though, that’s only 6 of 15 that I even had or have a chance at seeing by the time the award is given out. True The Beaches of Agnes, Burma VJ and Under Our Skin did true theatrical releases, but as far as I know I didn’t get a chance to see them in Toronto, and no DVD release date is set for any of them either, as far as I know.

All told, only 7 of the 15 documentaries have box office returns listed on box office mojo. Apparently Which Way Home qualified in January, The Most Dangerous Man in America in June, Garbage Dreams in July, Mugabe and the White Africa, Living in Emergency and Soundtrack for a Revolution in August and Facing Ali and Sergio don’t even release when they qualified for the award. But none of these films have any sort of box office return listed. Whether any of these 8 films will have an actual theatrical run remains doubtful, but if any of them get an actual nomination, it could easily happen.

But therein lies the problem I have always had with this category. I do not fault the films or the filmmakers themselves – for all I know these really are the best 15 docs of the year. And after all, they are playing by the rules set forth by the Academy. They are the ones that are really to blame.

Of those 8 films that have not reported any box office receipts, and do not have theatrical release dates upcoming as of yet, can we really call any of them “theatrical” documentaries? Or are they just made for TV and DVD documentaries that played some lonely theater in LA for a week with as little fanfare and advertising as possible? Say what you want about the 17 films I listed as being overlooked, but all of them were genuine theatrical documentaries released to audiences in 2009 and all that entailed.

But whatever. The Academy makes their choices for this category, and doesn’t really care that by doing so, they are making the documentary category even more marginalized then it already is. If even people who love documentaries do not have a chance to see all the nominees by the time of the ceremony, do they really expect anyone to care?

Anyway, enough with the politics of the list, and let’s get into the films themselves. I have ranked them in the order that I think they are most likely to be nominated.

1. The Cove – Undeniably the most talked about of all the shortlisted titles, this doc has stunned audiences everywhere it goes with its story of illegal dolphin slaughter in Japan. The film is exciting and important, and brilliantly well made. This is most likely your winner.
2. Food, Inc. – The highest grossing documentary on the list by far, they may feel the need to add it in considering that they left off everything more popular than it. A fine doc, and one that inspired discussion, although if you know anything about the topic going in, this doesn’t provide anything new.
3. Every Little Step – Quite popular when it was released earlier this year, as it follows a group of dancers as they audition for a Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, and explores the history of the show. It could be too “lightweight” for Oscar, but people do seem to love it.
4. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers – A popular title at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, the film details the inside story of what Ellsberg did when he smuggled out classified documents and gave them to the New York Times, exposing the Vietnam war and other nasty secrets, that ended up helping to bring down Nixon. Will certainly find a friendly reception among Hollywood Liberals, a theatrical release would help, but if the film is as good as I hear, it will get in.
5. Burma VJ – A popular festival title, and a modest box office success, Burma VJ is made up of footage smuggled out of the country about the 2007 protest by Buddhist monks against the government. I suspect that this one will be among the nominees.
6. The Beaches of Agnes – An autobiographical documentary by legendary filmmaker Agnes Varda about her life. This has been a huge critical favorite – I expect it to pick up some critics awards – but could be hampered by the fact that she is not exactly a huge name in America.
7. Valentino: The Last Emperor – A popular documentary when it was released earlier this year, this movie looks at the life of legendary fashion designer Valentino. I wonder though if it’s going to be too lightweight for the Academy to fully embrace.
8. Garbage Dreams – The movie is apparently a look at the lives of Egyptian trash collectors, and the impact globalization has had on them. The film has some fans, but it will need to get more if it’s to get in ahead of some of the more high profile titles.
9. Soundtrack for a Revolution – This movie tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement through the music of the era that helped to inspire it, and how it grew out of slave songs and music in the black churches. This is one that I am actually very interested in, but I wonder if the Academy will be. It doesn’t really sound like their cup of tea, but Liberal guilt could move it up.
10. Which Way Home – This movie tells the story of child migrant workers from South America who try to make their way to the USA by themselves in order to support or reconnect with their families. Undeniably important subject matter, it will need to tug a lot of heartstrings to move up past some of the bigger titles.
11. Under Our Skin – This one is undeniably helped by the fact that it has an actual theatrical release behind it, and in a year where health care has been talked about constantly, this story of lyme disease, and the problems in the medical establishment of addressing it, could strike a nerve. Still though, I highly doubt it.
12. Sergio – A look at the life of UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Sergio Vieria de Mello, and the explosion that injured him in Baghdad and the ensuing rescue operation. I hate to sound crass, but the Academy seems to over Iraq docs right now, and even if this one is more wide reaching, I doubt it will get in.
13. Mugabe and the White African – The story of a white African farmer in Zimbabwe who took the President Robert Mugabe to court and tried to prove he was racist and defend his land against takeover. The Academy has embraced stories of whites helping blacks in Africa before – but not really in this category. The buzz is awfully quiet on this film right now.
14. Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders – An undeniably important subject, as the film follows four doctors in war torn areas like the Congo and Liberia as they try and give medical services to the people in the area. Still, no one is talking about the film, and it hasn’t garnered the film festival praise other titles have.
15. Facing Ali – The documentary is made up of interviews with 10 of Muhammad Ali’s opponents in the ring including George Chuvalo, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. I’m sure it will be entertaining, but I think with When We Were Kings winning this award (even if it was more than a decade ago now), this will have kind of a been there, done that feel to it.

So that’s the way I see it right now. Of course, given the lack of mass reviews for many of these films, and of course the fact that I have not had a chance to see many of them, I could easily be wrong.

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