Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Oscars - Documentary Shortlist

There have already been numerous complaints about the new process for voting for the Best Documentary Oscar – mainly that with no selection committee, members are finding it impossible to see everything that is eligible this year – which was 147 titles. Some have argued that this will favor the bigger titles over the smaller ones. That is, of course, true. But it’s no more true here than in every other Oscar category. I do not hear people saying the Academy needs to have some sort of selection committee to ensure someone like Brie Larson’s brilliant performance in the tiny indie Short Term 12 has an equal shot at being nominated for Best Actress this year as Meryl Streep has for August: Osage County.

Personally, I like the new system. In general I’m in favor of a wide open system where voters can vote for whatever films they like and NOT vote AGAINST films they don’t like, which is what has happened in the past (this is why a film like Hoop Dreams didn’t make the cut). Does that mean that some worthy smaller films probably will not make the cut? Yes. That is too bad – but I insist that the Academy should be rewarding films that actually allow audiences to see the movies in question. Too many docs only want a 1 week qualifying run and then hope they can squeeze into the race – or at least the shortlist – to use it as a marketing tool. When this happens, it hurts the award – and the film nominated for it – more than helps. Some complain that having a separate category for docs “ghettoizes” the films – that’s also true, but we all know that if the Academy did not have a documentary category, than these films wouldn’t win anything. What further ghettoizes the category is too many films that no one outside of a few festival audiences has gotten a chance to see. How can anyone feel passionately about an Oscar race for Best Documentary when even people who love documentaries have not had a chance to see more than a couple of the nominees? In general, I think this is why the new rules came into play – to encourage documentary distributers to actually release their films to the public at large – this helps bring buzz, which will ensure more voters make time to watch your film, and more will vote for it. I like that. I want to be able to debate the category just like every other category – but too often two or three of the nominated films have not actually been released for many to see – so I end up all but ignoring the category. That’s a shame.

Anyway, here are the list 15 films that will be competing for this year’s 5 nominee slots, and eventually, one winner:
·         The Act of Killing
·         The Armstrong Lie
·         Blackfish
·         The Crash Reel
·         Cutie and the Boxer
·         Dirty Wars
·         First Cousin Once Removed
·         God Loves Uganda
·         Life According to Sam
·         Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
·         The Square
·         Stories We Tell
·         Tim’s Vermeer
·         20 Feet from Stardom
·         Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?

I cannot say I’m overly surprised by the inclusion of any single title – between the Gotham Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, the Cinema Eye Awards, the International Documentary Association Awards and the Producers Guild Documentary awards (all of which have already announced their nominations for the year) – 13 of these films had already shown up somewhere. The two that didn’t – The Armstrong Lie and God Loves Uganda – are hardly ones that have not received attention, as both have been released to varying degrees of praise this fall. And, refreshingly, most of these films have also allowed themselves to be seen by audiences – either theatrically or on HBO (or some other network)– the exceptions being (I think), First Cousin Once Removed, Life According to Sam, The Square and Tim’s Vermeer- all of whom did a qualifying run, and not much else – but I also know that The Square and Tim’s Vermeer will be opening wider either later this year or early next – I don’t know about the other two.

There were some notable snubs – Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, alongside Martha Shane & Lana Wilson’s After Tiller, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (although director Alex Gibney did get shortlisted for The Armstrong Lie), Tim Donahue’s Casting By, Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, Joe Brewster & Michelle Stevenson’s American Promise, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn, Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All, Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army, Dave Grohl’s Sound City, Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel’s Leviathan  and Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road. I think all of these films were eligible this year – and some undoubtedly would have made my own list (in particular The Unknown Known, even if it’s not Morris’ best work).

Of these 15 films, I have seen 7 – The Act of Killing, Blackfish, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Stories We Tell and 20 Feet from Stardom. I’m rooting for The Act of Killing – which unless something comes along and blows me away will be my favorite documentary of 2013 and Stories We Tell – which I named the Best Documentary of last year, because that is when it was released in Canada. I would also love to see Blackfish get a nomination. And I quite liked the other four films that I have seen as well.

Of the 8 other films that I have not seen – I SHOULD be able to see The Armstrong Lie this weekend (hopefully I have time), and The Crash Reel is opening at the Lightbox at some point in December. As far as I know, Which Way to the Front Line From Here? has been on iTunes for months, so I’ll also catch up with that one. That makes 10 – which is far better than I normally do.

I have no idea when I’ll get a chance to see Tim’s Vermeer, The Square, First Cousin Once Removed, God Loves Uganda or Life According to Sam yet. If and when I have the chance, I’ll see them – especially if it’s before the nominations come out.

No system for selecting Documentaries for awards is ever going to be perfect. More docs than ever are being released each year. I love documentaries, and even I struggle to see more than 30 in a given year (mind you, if I were an Academy member, and was sent screeners, I’d watch for more – but I digress). Even the best process will most likely leave worthy films out – after all, only 10% of the films eligible even get to this point, and only a third of them will actually get nominated. We live in a movie world where lots of great documentaries come out every year – and as long as the Academy spotlights worthy films, than I’m happy. Would my list look different than theirs? Absolutely. That doesn’t mean theirs is bad though.

Now, because it’s mandatory, what do I see being nominated? Here’s how I would rank them right now:
1)       The Act of Killing – this will, I think, dominate the critics’ awards this season and the uproar if it didn’t get nominated would be huge.
2)       Stories We Tell – what doesn’t go to The Act of Killing in the critics’ awards will likely go to Sarah Polley’s doc (as the New York Film Critics did today)
3)       The Square – This has been a buzzy festival film all year, and received a ton of praise. Hard to imagine it not making it in the top 5.
4)       Blackfish – perhaps the most talked about doc of the year outside of movie circles – it crossed over to make waves when it aired on CNN.
5)       Tim’s Vermeer – the late breaking audience pleaser – have heard nothing but positive things from the festival screenings.

6)       20 Feet From Stardom – the audience pleaser in the bunch – the top grossing doc of the year – but perhaps it will be squeezed out.
7)       Cutie and the Boxer – Artist docs don’t always cross over well – but this one has quite a bit of support.
8)       The Crash Reel – Could be a sentimental favorite – the preview practically had me crying
9)       Which Way is the Front Line From Here? – Sebastian Junger’s documentary about his co-director of the Oscar nominated Restrepo – who was tragically killed covering the War on Terror. Could be a sentimental favorite.
10)   God Loves Uganda – important subject matter is never a bad thing here - especially since this one has actually received praise as well.

Long Shots
11)   First Cousin Once Removed – Has gotten a lot of praise – I could easily be underestimating this one.
12)   Life According to Sam – Perhaps the PGA nomination should have me taking it more seriously – but until that happened, no one had even heard of this one.
13)Dirty Wars – Despite a rather high profile release for a doc, it didn’t exactly catch on. May have a feeling of beenthere, rewarded that to it.
14)   Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – I liked this documentary – but didn’t love it. Wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one in that boat.
15)   The Armstrong Lie – They’ve already rewarded Gibney in the past – and for more acclaimed films.

Please keep in mind this branch never does what everyone expects it to, so this could really go any which way. Anyway, that’s how I see it now.

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