Oscar Circuit: Best Documentary Feature


Director Charles Ferguson and Producer Audrey Marrs celebrate a win for 2010's Best Documentary, "Inside Job"...

The 2011 Nominees For Best Documentary Feature Film are…

• HELL AND BACK AGAIN • Danfung Dennis, Mike Lerner
• IF A TREE FALLS… • Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman
• PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY • Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
• PINA • Wim Wenders, Gian-Piero Ringel
• UNDEFEATED • TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay, Rich Middlemas

One of the most polarizing categories historically in Oscar’s canon, the Best Documentary Feature prize has been the source of great controversy throughout its existence.  Year to year and season to season, the list of films snubbed and/or directors and filmmakers flat out ignored by the Academy’s esteemed documentary branch is an impressive one.  Some would say impressive for all the wrong reasons.

Fledgling television network Current TV aired an ambitious program entitled “The 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die” in August 2011 and the show was a well-made talking heads countdown show hosted by Oscar nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me).  Spurlock counted down 10 films per episode and the list was a solid one, but hardly definitive and capped at films made within the past 25 years.  Topping that list was the film that many have cited as one of, if not the greatest documentaries ever made, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, a 1994 documentary which famously was not even nominated for its genre’s most prestigious trophy.

The controversy and outcry over the Academy failing to nominate Hoop Dreams for Best Documentary (the film did receive a nod for Editing that year) saw a complete overhaul of the Documentary Branch’s standards and practices.  Little by little, the category moved away from its Jethro Tull moment (look up the list of Best Metal Recording Grammy winners for the reference) and gained a bit more credibility with its award winners.  And still, year to year, the list of films left out of the final nomination list have some eye-raising snubs and surprises.  However, when looking at the stretch of winners from the early 2000’s to last year’s recipient, Inside Job, the films at least look and feel the part of a Best Documentary Oscar winner, even if people remain outraged at the failure to nominate films such as Grizzly Man, Touching The Void, The King of Kong, Standard Operating Procedure, Dear Zachary, Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, and countless others.

I mention all of this history to make the point that if in 1994 the Academy failed to nominate what many feel to be the greatest documentary of all time, Hoop Dreams, then in 2011, the controversy has returned once again as 2011’s most acclaimed and championed documentary, The Interrupters, failed to even make the publicized longlist of 15 semifinalists for this award.  The commonality between Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters is that Steve James directs both and somehow and for some unknown reason, James is simply not allowed a seat the Academy’s Documentary Filmmakers Table.  Is he too good?

The Interrupters snub caused another wave of controversy in how the Documentary branch goes about its business and while this year’s nominees are, in all honesty, an intriguing and sturdy group of films, people have rightfully questioned how Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss, Asif Kapadia’s Senna, Bill Cunningham New York, We Were Here, Errol Morris’ Tabloid, and Oscar winner James Marsh’s Project Nim all missed the mark here.  In the case of Nim, a film I placed in my personal 10 best of 2011 list, the publicist mentioned to me that everyone from the top of the line on down were flat out stunned on nomination morning that their film failed to make the cut.

But imagine how Steve James feels.  All he does is make consistently memorable and incredible work and the Academy could care less.  James, in all likelihood, likewise has next to no concern over whether the Academy rewards his work or not, but it is certainly not hard to argue that he might be one of the the most talented filmmakers working today to have never been nominated for his work (yes, he did receive a nod as an editor on Hoop Dreams, but still…).  So, while James sits home and a handful of terrific films fail to have their names called this Sunday, let’s suppress those frustrations and dive into the five films which somehow made it to the movie industry’s biggest stage.


Remember the name Danfung Dennis because Oscar win or not, he has emerged as an impressive filmmaker and storyteller.  At first blush, Hell And Back Again, appears to be another captured footage/embedded journalist war film which takes a strong reserve to experience and endure.  And truth be told, Hell is a difficult watch, because it hits closer to home in unique and unsettling ways.  Dennis brings war home and depicts a different form of war – the war of adjustment…following injury…following domestication…and following an addiction to pain medication.  Dennis, embedded as a filmographer and journalist in Afghanistan, befriended Nathan Harris, who is called into a leadership role following the death of his commanding officer.  A few days before he is to return home, a machine gun sniper’s bullet destroys Harris’ hip and leg and Harris’ injuries are so severe that he learns he might never walk again.  And waiting at home is his wife and high school sweetheart, Ashley, who must learn to live with a Nathan much different than she knew prior to his deployment and for whom she fell in love with.

Dennis and Harris became close friends and the Harrises agreed to allow Dennis to film everything as a means of documenting the unrelenting difficulties our soldiers face returning home from war.  Hell And Back Again is anything but ordinary and Dennis delivers his film like a traditional fiction film, using sounds, comments, and words to pull us back to war and back to the war at home.  Masterfully edited and told, Hell And Back Again is an impressive film debut.

Nomination history:
• These are the first Oscar nominations for Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner.


Activism, when not documented by Steve James (sorry, I’ll leave it alone…), is often considered by this branch and there may be no more polarizing figure in this year’s Documentary Feature Film slate than Daniel McGowan, the man at the heart of Marshal Curry’s If A Tree Falls…  McGowan is the central figure in Curry’s film which documents the Earth Liberation Front (“ELF”), branded as an eco-terrorist organization that the Bush Administration cited as the largest domestic terror threat in the United States.  The Department of Justice underwent a detailed and intensive investigation in finding McGowan and Curry details not only how a calm and kind-hearted McGowan could have become an active and influential member of ELF, but also what defines terrorism and whether McGowan and other ELF members meet the definition.  Curry, a previous Oscar nominee for his brilliant documentary Street Fight, may struggle at times to link the pieces together of his message, but If A Tree Falls is a timely film which tries to pinpoint the shifting and often transparent line between activism’s intent and the taking of activism too far.  Clearly committing acts of arson and violence against others in an unprovoked manner is deplorable and distancing, but Curry successfully presents these acts and those of ELF in shades of grey, making his film both thought-provoking and contemplative.

Nomination history:
• This is the second nomination for Marshall Curry, previously nominated for his documentary Street Fight in 2006.  This is the first nomination for Sam Cullman.


While not entirely surprising to see the incredible Paradise Lost series finally nab a nomination for the final entry in its unintended trilogy of documenting the facts, the details, and the ultimate convictions and overturning of those convictions for the West Memphis Three, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory‘s nomination raised a series of questions amongst Oscar watchers somewhat privy to and/or savvy to the rules of the Documentary Branch.  Essentially, how was this eligible?  With no box office receipts to speak of and an unreported and under-the-radar qualifying run, a film which many believed to be, like its predecessors, a made-for-HBO documentary and thus ineligible for the Oscar, scored a nod here.  And if it truly does meet the micromanaged and overwrought criterion, it is hard to argue against it landing a nomination here, because Paradise Lost, as a franchise, is simply an incredible example of the power of filmmaking and the series served as a catalyst in overturning the wrongful convictions of three child killers, themselves teenagers, who were rounded up by an angry mob of a community who earmarked them as killers simply because they were different and non-conformist.

Co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have saved lives with their efforts here and while the families of the children who died in May 1993 did petition the Academy, requesting that Paradise Lost 3 not be considered for Oscar consideration, the release of Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and James Baldwin could not have been put into motion had Berlinger and Sinofsky’s work not been so detailed, so meticulous, and so well crafted.  Paradise Lost 3 was intended to be a 10-year update on the lives of the West Memphis Three as they remained in prison, but became a film of redemption, success, and liberation, all in the face of profound tragedy and loss.

Nomination history:
• These are the first nominations for Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.


Pushing the definition somewhat on what defines a documentary, Wim Wenders’ Pina is a film that, for a time, people felt could be the first film to ever land a dual nomination in the categories of Documentary Feature and Foreign Language Film.  Missing the mark in the Foreign Language category, Pina landed a nod here and while the film has opened to near universal praise and respect, this nomination cocked more than a few heads on nomination morning.

Pina is a dazzling mix of performance, archival footage, and out of context depictions and descriptions of the famed choreographer and ballerina, Pina Bausch, which was started and then scrapped by Wenders when Bausch passed away unexpectedly early on in the production.  Wenders shelved the project and restarted his film only when many of Bausch’s former students and current dancers working within a style she championed asked Wenders to honor Bausch as he originally intended.  What Pina became is a 3-D visual experience where dancers of the Tanztheater Wueppertal perform Bausch’s most famed dances in various indoor and outdoor locations, exhibiting bold and impressive physicality.  The dances are supposed to provide us insight into the enigmatic Pina Bausch and some attendees of my press screening for the film a few months back were openly weeping as the dance sequences came and went.  Pina is an experience for sure, but with its emphasis on dance performance and punctuated comments about Bausch herself, Pina missed the mark with me and fellow staff writer Joseph Braverman in some key and distinctive ways.  My reservations towards the film aside, I did indeed admire the effort and found Wenders to have an interesting connection with his source material.  Ultimately, I would not have personally nominated the film but in all honesty, the Documentary Branch has not seen anything this unique and eccentric in a long, long time, and it is easy to understand how they were mesmerized by the audacity of it all.

Nomination history:
• This is Wim Wenders’ second Oscar nomination; previously landing a nomination in this category for Buena Vista Social Club.  This is the first Oscar nomination for Gian-Piero Ringel.


The unknown commodity in this lineup, Undefeated is a festival favorite that was acquired by The Weinstein Company and given a late qualifying run to compete for this award.  Those who have seen it have fallen in love with it and Undefeated has already drawn eye-raising comparisons as this generation’s Hoop Dreams.  So what is this thing?  How did it get nominated?  Does it even have a credible shot if no one has ever heard of it and/or seen it outside of the film critic beltway?

Undefeated seems custom made to be as much of the underdog on Oscar night as its subject high school football team, the Manassas Tigers, a Memphis, Tennessee high school program that had forever been the perennial losers in the community and had not won a competitive playoff game in its 110 year history.  In 2004, Manassas’ football program underwent a series of changes which ultimately led to a few new recruits and a new volunteer football coach in Bill Courtney, whose unbridled demeanor and academic-driven approach to success started to reap major benefits in an impoverished and largely African-American community.  Undefeated is a galvanizing film, which speaks far beyond the gridiron and scoreboards, but never shies away from the importance that football plays in the hearts and minds of so many of our communities.  Detractors, and there are a few, have branded this as The Blind Side as documentary and when the film requires more than one dip into the Kleenex box, a couple of critics have recoiled from the emotional moments so present in the film.

Regardless, some big names have championed this film and I may be as naive as anyone, but it would not surprise me at all to see Undefeated, in one of the most wide open categories on the card this year, walk away as an Oscar winner in this category.

Nomination history:
These are the first nominations for TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay, and Richard Middlemas.


Oh boy.  I am a huge fan of documentary film and this is without question, one of my most anticipated categories every year.  With that said, I got nothing on this race.  I can make an argument for any of these films winning the prize, although I think Pina and perhaps If A Tree Falls are the weaker entries in the series.  Essentially, my take is that if Restrepo could not win this prize last year, Hell And Back Again will face similar resistance and so we are ultimately left with two films which are inspiring, emotional, and speak to a tried-and-true narrative of overcoming huge adversity and fighting through insurmountable odds.  So, with that said…

My pick today: Undefeated.

My Alternate:  Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.  Just do not ask me this question tomorrow, because I will likely flip-flop the two.

Snubs or Worthy of Consideration: I will wait for you to grab a pen and paper.  Okay, we all set?  Queue these 15 additional films now…

  • An African Election
  • The Arbor
  • Bill Cunningham New York
  • Buck
  • Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (although not technically eligible this year as it was submitted last year)
  • The Interrupters
  • Into The Abyss
  • Nostalgia For The Light
  • Page One: Inside The New York Times
  • Project Nim
  • The Redemption Of General Butt Naked
  • Semper Fi: Always Faithful
  • Senna
  • Tabloid
  • We Were Here
Previous articleWinners of the MPSE Awards!
Next article‘The Voice’ Recap: Blind Auditions #4
My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.