Waiting on the Documentary Shortlist…


2011 Best Documentary Feature winners TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Rich Middlemas (L-R) for “Undefeated”.

One of the Academy Award categories that draws the most interest from my corner of the world is the Best Documentary Feature prize.  Saddled with a fair amount of controversies throughout the last couple of decades or so, the Best Documentary Feature Film Oscar has succeeded in raising eyebrows and/or validating public sentiment in recent years.  Reports have surfaced that 126 films have met the Academy’s eligibility rules this year; rules that have created their own unique brand of controversy.

Similar to the anticipation surrounding changes to the Best Original Song category this year, which now mandates five nominees, people both in and around the Oscar season have expressed next to no real idea whether these changes are going to make the nominees more commercial, less commercial, or ultimately have no impact whatsoever on the final nominees.

Unlike the Best Original Song changes, the changes with the Documentary category does not emanate from a lack of nominees or a lack of quality among the nominees.  Many feel that we are immersed in a Golden Age of documentary film and the increased amount of documentaries productions being made nowadays was one of the contributing factors in the new rules requiring a review be published in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times.  This move seems to exclude small independently made documentaries who previously would qualify for Oscar consideration by virtue of festival runs and exhibitions.  Just last year alone, nominees Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and eventual winner Undefeated did not receive traditional theatrical runs that were a catalyst for the changes.  The expectation was that to be reviewed in either publication, a traditional theatrical run would be required, but that turned out to not be the case.

Michael Moore is struggling with the new Documentary Feature rules he helped implement for the 85th Academy Awards.

Recently Oscar-winning filmmaker and de facto voice for the Documentary Branch, Michael Moore, bemoaned the major loophole that now has caused the committee to rethink their rules again.  For one, the committee apparently did not account for the Los Angeles Times to begin reviewing all documentaries playing in local film festivals, and the New York Times took the same approach in DocuWeek and other related film festivals.  Moore publicly proclaimed his frustration with the new rules he helped implement after it was reported that more than 70 films arrived to all committee members on essentially the same day.   Upon sizing up all the eligible nominees, Moore tweeted:

“Over 130 ‘documentaries’ have ‘qualified’ 4 this yr’s Oscars. But as u all know, 130 docs were not released in theaters this yr. So now what?”

No one knows Michael.  With the imminent release of the 2012 Documentary Shortlist, here is a breakdown of a considerable number of the eligible films that have a fair-to-middling shot of scoring a spot in the semifinals, if you will.  There will undoubtedly be surprises and you really never know what may catch voters’ eyes as they dig through the box of DVD screeners on their kitchen tables.


Many will point out that the Documentary Branch snubbed 2011’s most acclaimed documentary, Steve James’ The Interrupters,which failed to make the Oscar shortlist despite amassing numerous documentary prizes and eventually the coveted Spirit Award for Best Documentary the night before the Oscar ceremony.  James is no stranger to Oscar controversy as his groundbreaking and iconic Hoop Dreams missed out on a Documentary nod in 1994, instead landing a consolation nomination for Best Editing.  The outcry in its failure to be nominated was so severe and far-reaching that the Academy changed their rules.  Then, James was snubbed again 17 years later and the rules have been changed once again.  This year, James has one of those 126 films in contention with Head Games, a powerful expose on sports concussions and head trauma in collision sports.  However the film is struggling to find traction at a competitive box office right now. and the question lingers as to whether that will hurt James’ chances in terms of press and visibility or whether he can finally be recognized and/or nominated as a director/filmmaker.  Are people ever “due” in this category?

In the last week or so, three films have surged to the forefront of people’s minds and conversations about potential winners in this category.  The highest profile films right now are Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon’s’ Central Park Five and Amy Berg’s West Of Memphis, which each have been spotlighted and featured online, in television, and in print.  Across the board many have cited both films as not just the best documentaries of 2012, but among the best in recent years.  Both deal with horrific crimes, wrongfully convicted criminals, and a Justice system and police investigations run amok.  Both these films walk similar paths, with Berg’s film serving as the 4th film to look at the West Memphis Three – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, the subjects of the heralded Paradise Lost trilogy.  The West Memphis Three have been in the public eye for two decades as celebrities, press, and even some family members of the murder victims have all advocated publicly for their release from prison.  Can the branch find room for both of these films?  In a list of 15 sure – in a final five, likely not.  Working against West Of Memphis may be the fact that Paradise Lost 3 nearly won this category last year.  But, when you add in that Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh are Executive Producers of the project, and will be talking about the film as they work the circuit for their Oscar hopeful The Hobbit , perhaps West Of Memphis has a legitimate shot.

Oscar winner Alex Gibney, quietly prolific since winning an Oscar for Taxi To The Dark Side, has garnered a lot of attention in the last several days regarding his searing and devastating Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, analyzing the innumerable cases of pedophilia within the Catholic Church and the internal handling of these allegations by victims but also the Court decisions which have found the Church guilty, all the way up the chain from the local level to the Vatican.  Until we have some sense of what quantifies frontrunner status in this category, one has to think that these three films have to be locks for at least the final 15, with Head Games left to wonder about its chances.

But what else is out there?

A large number of high profile and commercially successful films are in play.  The Weinstein Company had the press coverage all to themselves with Bully this past Spring, but that film seems to have existed an eternity ago.  Audience favorite The Queen Of Versailles has had a strong level of success in its home video run, while the experimental quasi-sequel Samsara has becomes Oscilloscope Laboratories’ biggest grossing film of all time.  Jiro Ono and his family of sushi chefs scored strong attendance and worldwide celebrity when Jiro Dreams Of Sushi reached the mainstream, while two youth-oriented films, the recently released chess documentary Brooklyn Castle and ballet drama First Position received acclaim on news programs and NPR as well.

And we cannot forget Searching For Sugar Man, a fascinating and eternally rewarding look at the mysterious singer/songwriter Rodriguez, who found fame elusive in his folk music career, only to learn much later in life that outlandish theories of his suicide were reported as fact and he had become, inexplicably, a massive superstar in South Africa.  Certainly one of the most incredible true stories you will find in the slate of contenders, Rodriguez has begin popping up at festivals and concert venues, trying to keep up enthusiasm for the film in anticipation of a nod next January and the upcoming December home video release.

Also, Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War is unshakable in its depictions of sexual abuse running rampant through our military, while Kevin McDonald’s thorough Marley left fans and peripheral fans of Bob Marley’s music and legacy completely satisfied.  The Imposter rankled some purists feathers with its frequent scene reenactments and unorthodox approach in telling the story of a French teenager who conned a Texas family into believing that he was their missing son.  And art audiences praised the powerful Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry for detailing the unbridled independence and activism found in its titular subject as he finds his artistic vision and beliefs in direct opposition with the Chinese government.


With recent decriminalization and legalization of marijuana laws in Washington and Colorado, and similar legislation passed for medical marijuana in Massachusetts, Eugene Jarecki has been making the media rounds with The House I Live In, which excoriates the War on Drugs and American drug policies.  With four states approving same-sex marriage and/or laws legitimizing same-sex marriage as constitutionally viable, the extraordinary How To Survive A Plague strikes a chord in sharing how the gay community, with AIDS ravaging their population, become militant in drawing attention to the crisis that no one seemed to care about in the 1980s and early 1990s.  As millions died in alarmingly increasing numbers, members of the organization TAG took it upon themselves to study and learn about medical advances and helped turn the tables on the AIDS-related deaths around the world.

As people continue to debate global warming, no matter where you stand on whether climate change is real or fallacy, Chasing Ice documents with clear and concise precision, the elimination and destruction of glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, and other areas around the world.  Compiling time-lapse photographs and video over a multi-year span, photography James Balog’s findings are irrefutable and frightening.  Equally as alarming is the indictment of the United States health care system in Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare.  Box office numbers continue to impress for Detropia, the unflinching and heartbreaking decline of one of America’s most storied cities, Detroit, and its efforts to revitalize and reinvent itself during the horrific economic conditions the city and State of Michigan find themselves in.


Many have championed The Gatekeepers as a film to beat in the Documentary race and it joins an impressive list of films dealing with conflict in Israel, Palestine, and the middle east.   The Gatekeepers pulls the curtain back on the Shin Bet, a secret intelligence agency in Israel, and induces former members to share shocking behind-the-scenes stories of past actions from this secretive organization.  Most audaciously the film features these officers calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict which still saddles the region today.  Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film is literally the story of a man risking his life to tell the story of an oppressive Iran.  Faced with house arrest and a potential 20-year prison term for committing “propaganda against the regime”, Panahi’s film was smuggled out of the country on a USB drive, embedded within a birthday cake, and shot mostly with Panahi’s iPhone.

In other international based hopefuls, The Act Of Killing takes the provocative premise of inviting former Indonesian death squad members to recreate their mass killings through the prism of Hollywood-style reenactments and cinematic techniques.  The impressions left on one death squad leader in particular is reportedly extraordinarily powerful and emotional.  A Danish journalist goes all Borat and masquerades as an ambassador to investigate the diamond trade in The Ambassador Two 70-year old sisters fight to protect their dairy farm for a pesky and inquisitive Swedish government in the surprise IDA nominee Women With CowsThe Law In These Parts investigates the people who wrote the laws that allow the Israeli Defense Force to oversee the courts in The West Bank.   State 194 recounts the efforts of the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s efforts to have his country garner a seat at the United Nations.

Camp 14 – Total Control Zone shares the story of a North Korean man, born in a prison camp, who still struggles to adjust to non-Prison life as a young adult.  A Turkish village in converted into a garbage dump against the will of its residents in Garbage In The Garden Of Eden.  Cave investigators learn to their shock and surprise that the largest cave system in the Ukraine played home to Jewish families trying to survive and escape the Nazis in No Place On Earth, while three generations of Lebanese refugees recount their stories in A World Not Ours.


A fair amount of acclaimed documentaries look at celebrities or feature celebrities talking about the processes of creating art in various mediums.  Paul Williams Still Alive looks at the life and times of the 1970s pop star whose fame has been rather dormant in recent years.  Some believe that the theme to the film, written by Williams himself could be a Best Original Song contender.  The widow of Robert F. Kennedy is spotlighted in Ethel, which just premiered on HBO and was sighted by Michael Moore as a film playing with the rules a bit.  Some have balked at the film being directed by Ethel Kennedy’s youngest daughter, Rory, but it has received high praise for most who have seen it.  Fashion editor Diana Vreeland receives a long overdue look at her life and exploits in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To TravelA wealth of acting talent – both male and female – recite entries from the private journals and writings of Marilyn Monroe in Love, Marilyn. 

Other documentaries about confrontational performance artist Marina Abramovic (Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present), renegade filmmaker Roman Polanski (Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out), polarizing animator and illustrator Tomi Ungerer (Far Out Isn’t Enough), and legendary Chicago pimp Iceberg Slim (Iceberg Slim: Portrait Of A Pimp) all are reportedly in the pile of screeners the voters have to sort through.  And even here, Donald Trump cannot catch a break.  You’ve Been Trumped shares the story of the famed billionaire’s take no prisoners approach to building a luxurious golf course in Scotland and the local Council fighting tirelessly to stop Trump’s efforts.


What did I leave out?  As you can see, a wildly diverse number of contenders exist from numerous different geographical locations and life circumstances.  Certainly there will be a handful of titles in the Academy’s final 15 which will surprise us and make people scramble to IMDb or their search engine of choice.  And invariably, powerful and noteworthy films will be left off the final 15, causing people to scream, yell, and demand change again be brought to the Documentary rules committee.

And even as late as November 2, Michael Moore stated he would be proposing more changes and reconfiguring of the rules, following  this year’s struggles and the perceived exploiting of new loopholes.

With no idea what is coming from the Documentary Branch, I still remain excited for that shortlist of 15 and the rancorous debates and predictions to follow.  What do you see making the final 15 and eventually earning the Oscar?

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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.