Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Documentary Shortlist

Each year, when the Academy releases their 15 film shortlist of films competing for The Documentary Oscar much more focus is dedicated to the films that DID NOT make the cut, then the films that did. The reason for that is quite simple – whoever selects the films for the shortlist often embarrasses the Academy with the films they omit. This year seems to be no different.

Now, I really cannot complain too hard, because most of the films that everyone is outraged were not included are films that I have not had a chance to see yet, or I missed. In addition, out of the 15 films shortlisted, I have only seen 1 – Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (and I really hope it gets the nomination the first two films deserved, but did not receive). Each year it seems after the shortlist is announced, I go on a little documentary spree – watching not only as many on the shortlist as possible, but the titles everyone seems outraged did not make the cut.

Out of the documentaries I have seen, two stand out as being major snubs. The first is Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, which was a fascinating look into a dying industry, and how it effects even an institution as large as the New York Times. A more relevant documentary about the news industry you will not see this year. The other is Errol Morris’ brilliant Tabloid, which is so far my favorite documentary of the year. The Academy has had a spotty record at best with Morris’ work. Yes, they gave him an Oscar for The Fog of War, but most of the time, he never even gets on the shortlist.

The other titles people are outraged about? Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, which is getting great reviews right now, but apparently not good enough to make this list. Less surprising is that they also left out his other documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which was a sizable box office hit for a doc. Again, the Academy has a bad record at rewarding the work of Herzog. He was nominated for Encounters at the End of the World, but for the most part, his work has been ignored, and never even makes the shortlist.

One of the biggest outcries this category has ever seen was when the Academy failed to honor Steve James’ brilliant Hoop Dreams in 1994. This year, they have ignored James again for his hugely acclaimed doc The Interrupters. This branch just doesn’t seem to like the man.

Senna has supporters as well upset that the film didn’t make the cut. This could have been, apparently, because there is not enough “original” footage in the film – an odd rule that has hurt some great docs over the years (Herzog’s Grizzly Man for instance). Another film missing was the highly acclaimed The Arbor, although whether it qualifies as a doc is a real question.

I suppose we can thankful for at least one thing – more docs than normal had actual theatrical releases this year. It seems often that the docs that get shortlisted do little more than their qualifying run, then run for the cover of TV. This year Battle for Brooklyn, Bill Cunningham: New York, Buck, Hell and Back Again, If a Tree Falls, Jane’s Journey and Project Nim have already had theatrical runs, and I know Pina is going to have one soon, I think so will Paradise Lost 3 and Undefeated will have one in early 2011. That’s 10 out of 15 titles, which is higher than normal, and some of the others may be upcoming as well.

And I really don’t want to piss on the films that did get shortlisted. I’m looking forward to catching up with many of the titles on this list, all of which at least sound interesting (well, except for maybe Jane’s Journey). I will see as many of them as possible in the coming months. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still looking forward more to Into the Abyss and The Interrupters more. Whenever I look back at the nominees for any given year in the documentary category, I am always surprised at the omissions. The same will probably be true of 2011.

The list of shortlisted titles is:

  1. Battle for Brooklyn
  2. Bill Cunningham New York
  3. Buck
  4. Hell and Back Again
  5. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
  6. Jane’s Journey
  7. Long Way Home: The Loving Story
  8. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
  9. Pina
  10. Project Nim
  11. Semper Fi: Always Faithful
  12. Sing Your Song
  13. Undefeated
  14. Under Fire: Journalists in Combat
  15. We Were Here


  1. I became a follower of you site last year when looking for some discussion on the documentary shortlist. Your write-up is very similiar to how I felt [with the exception of Tabloid]. I'm a little surprised you haven't seen more, but at the same time I hadn't seen a single short listed film either, when it was released. I've seen Life in a Day, Page One, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pearl Jam Twenty, Conan Can't Stop and Tabloid, I really felt that Page One was the only one that had both important and interesting material and I would call it a gross omission.

    That said, what do you think will be the front runners? I watched "If a Tree Falls" last night, it was good but not winner material. My friend watched Bill Cunningham New York last night and didn't think it was a winner either but liked it also.

    If I'm taking a guess based on the what I've read about the films I'd say:
    -Bill Cunningham New York
    -Paradise Lost 3
    -We Were Here
    -Hell and Back Again, Under Fire, or Semper Fi (there has to be a military and/or war doc)

    My alternate would be: Pina

    Let me know what you think.

  2. I am disappointed I haven't seen more, but with a new baby, I haven't had as much time. But I will cach up with Bill Cunningham, Buck, Project Nim and Pina soon. Hopefully, I will also see Into the Abyss soon, as I love Herzog, and will see The Interrupters the first chance I get, despite the fact that neither made the cut.

    For the win, I think Paradise Lost 3 could well be a frontrunner. I think it may be the weakest of the three films (although, I saw the cut that played at TIFF, which was completed before they got released, and as such the final version apparently added footage from after they were released, so that may change by opinon). But It's the frontrunner, in my mind, because no other film can actually claim they saved someone's life like this one can. This series has been acclaimed for 15 years now, and they never even got nominated before, so it would be a good way to reward the series - especially since it now has a "happy ending" (which is debatable, since the murderer of three innocent boys is still free).

    Bill Cunningham and Buck are good bets - they were both popular for docs when released, and I have heard great things about Hell and Back Again, which will probably be the war doc this year (you're right there's always one). I also wouldn't be surprised if Undefeated (uplifting sports movie) or Project Nim snuck into the list as well.

    Pina is an interesting case, as I have heard nothing but raves about it. But, it is a dance doc, and I wonder if they'll think it's "important" enough for the Oscar. Also, the Academy does not have a great history of nominating films from directors mainly known for non-docs in this category, and Wim Wenders certainly applies.