Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Documentary Shortlist

Once again, the Academy has released the shortlisted 15 films that will be competing for the Best Documentary Film Oscar – and once again, people are pissed off about what didn’t make the list. Most of the ire this time is directed at excluding The Central Park Five, West of Memphis and The Queen of Versailles. Every year, they try and change the rules to ensure that the most critically acclaimed docs make it into the race – and every year it seems when the shortlist is announced the consensus seems to be to send them back to the drawing board.

But if you’ll allow me, let me defend the branch – at least partly. I have no idea if The Central Park Five or West of Memphis deserved to make this list – I haven’t had the chance to see either one, and their exclusion doesn’t diminish in the least my desire to see them. I did see, and rather loved, The Queen of Versailles. If I had to guess as to why those three films didn’t make the cut it would be this – one of the directors of The Central Park Five is Ken Burns, a legend in his own right, but a television legend, and perhaps the theatrical documentary branch decided to fend for their own. Silly yes, but more than possible. West of Memphis is about the West Memphis Three – and comes a year after this branch not only shortlisted, but nominated, Paradise Lost 3, about the same case. I hear West of Memphis is great, and adds a lot of new insight into the case, but it could still have a been there, done that feel to it. As for The Queen of Versailles, the one film I have seen, perhaps it struck the Academy as a little too close to reality TV – those shows on TLN about families of rich, spoiled, stupid people. The Queen of Versailles is much greater than that – but it does go over some of the same terrain.

But why I feel the need to defend the Academy is simple – they at least shortlisted 15 films I had heard of before the list was announced – and for the most part, all 15 of these films achieved a level of critical acclaim AND a higher percentage than in most previous years got a real theatrical release – not just a one week qualifying run. The branch wanted to become more mainstream – and they did that. And no matter what, whenever a shortlist like this is announced, someone will be pissed off. Does this process still need some work? Yes, I think so. Is it inching forwards and getting at least marginally better? I think so too.

Of the 15 shortlisted, I have seen five of them. Bully got a lot of attention earlier in the year, and while it didn’t translate into huge box office, it remains one of the most talked about docs of the year – and does shine light on an important issue. Not a great doc, but a solid one. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was my favorite of all the artist docs I saw this year – an intimate portrait of an artist and his work and the “new” China he lives in. The Imposter is one of those so crazy it must be true story about a 23 year old French man who impersonates a missing Texas teenager – and gets away with it for far longer than he should. The Invisible War is a stunning, sad documentary about the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the US Military. The one that I am currently pulling for however is This is Not a Film a film co-directed by Jafar Panahi, the great Iranian director, as he waits out his appeal before heading to jail. It is a one of a kind film – and I am amazed they shortlisted it. Now nominate it, and give Panahi an Oscar!

I will try to see the other 10 docs before the nominations come out – but I fear I have already missed by chance at some of them. Chasing Ice has gotten some good reviews for its stunning visuals of glaciers melting over the years – not my usual type of thing, but I’ll check it out if I can. Detropia is one a few films this year to look at Detroit’s collapse. Ethel is a documentary about the life of Ethel Kennedy. 5 Broken Cameras is the self portrait of a Palestinian farmer and his non-violent protests against Israel. The Gatekeepers interviews six former heads of the Israeli intelligence service to get their view on what has happen, and what needs to happen in their conflict with the Arab world.

The House I Live In looks at America’s hypocritical War on Drugs, that penalizes minorities more than whites. How to Survive a Plague is about two groups who help turn AIDS for a quick death sentence, to a manageable disease. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is about the clergy molestation scandal – a subject that has been told before, but this is still getting great reviews. Searching For Sugar Man is about two South Africans who set out to find their musical hero – Rodriguez. And finally, The Waiting Room is about the struggles of a public hospital in America as they care for their largely uninsured patients.

Believe when I say I will try and see the 10 films shortlisted that I have not yet seen. As far as I know, I have not yet had the chance to see Detropia, Ethel, The House I Live In, Mea Maxima Culpa, The Gatekeepers or The Waiting Room in Toronto as of yet, and I don’t know when/if I will. I think I missed 5 Broken Cameras and How to Survive a Plague when they were here. And I believe Chasing Ice and Searching for Sugar Man are still playing. The truth is though, that I only have so much time – especially when the movies only play in Toronto, so I still may miss these two, and have to catch up with them on DVD eventually.

I do endeavor to see as many docs as possible – 20 so far this year. Out of those, along with The Queen of Versailles, I would not have minded Side by Side – a fascinating look at the film to digital transition, Jiro Dreams of Sushi – a simple doc, but a touching one –and Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present – another look at the life of artist – be shortlisted, but since I have not seen 10 of the films that were shortlisted, perhaps there was a reason they weren’t. My favorite doc of the year is Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, which will not be released in America until 2013, so may be eligible for this prize next year. Another of my favorites, The Act of Killing, which I saw at TIFF, is also being released next year, so may be eligible then.

Okay, prediction time. So what will the final five be? If you asked me now, I would say: The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, Searching for Sugar Man and The Waiting Room – with This is Not a Film and Mea Maxima Culpa as possible spoilers.

Here are the films once again:
1.       Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
2.       Bully
3.       Chasing Ice
4.       Detropia
5.       Ethel
6.       5 Broken Cameras
7.       The Gatekeepers
8.       The House I Live In
9.       How to Survive a Plague
10.   The Imposter
11.   The Invisible War
12.   Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
13.   Searching for Sugar Man
14.   This Is Not a Film
15.   The Waiting Room

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