15 Documentaries Make Oscar’s Short List
Sorry that I’m a bit late on this, but I’ve been a little preoccupied over the last week with my sister’s wedding. The Academy has released its next round of finalists in a branch that I’ve grown to love and hate equally. They always seem to make a few poor selection decisions and omissions and this year is really no different.
The short list is as follows:
“Battle for Brooklyn” (RUMER Inc.)
“Bill Cunningham New York” (First Thought Films)
“Buck” (Cedar Creek Productions)
“Hell and Back Again” (Roast Beef Productions Limited)
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC)
“Jane’s Journey” (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
“The Loving Story” (Augusta Films)
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (@radical.media)
“Pina” (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
“Project Nim” (Red Box Films)
“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.)
“Sing Your Song” (S2BN Belafonte Productions, LLC)
“Undefeated” (Spitfire Pictures)
“Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
“We Were Here” (Weissman Projects, LLC)
Let’s start with a few things that I am quite happy with. It is nice to see the Academy considering “We Were Here” a little-known documentary about the emergence of the AIDS crisis and the banding together of the gay community that followed. Also, I’m very happy to see “If a Tree Falls” hanging onto contention. In a time of such social unrest and protest, the film is a strong examination of human futility, police brutality and the concept of justifiable crime. It truly brings into light the concept of one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter and illustrates how that man could very well be your neighbor.
Now, we’ll take a moment to note what was expected. “Project Nim,” the chimpanzee-education film by the makers of “Man on Wire” was bound to find a slot in here. The film does look exceptional, but it wouldn’t really matter considering the list of accolades that the helmers’ last effort brought in. Two other films that are also unsurprisingly here are “Buck,” the true-life horse whisperer that the Robert Redford film was based on, and “Hell and Back Again,” the personal journey of a soldier reflected both in and coming home from Afghanistan. While I’m kind of annoyed that some truly original work has been snubbed by yet ANOTHER war documentary, I still can’t believe the brilliant cinematography on display in the film. Remarkable.
There were some truly shocking omissions in this category, as usual. The most prominent is the absence of “Senna,” the story of Formula 1 racer Aryton Senna who won three championships and was later killed in a fiery crash. I don’t think there was a single pundit who wasn’t considering this a major contender, while the majority already had it pegged to win. Also snubbed were two documentaries about journalism, itself. “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” a story detailing the fight between old school reporting and social media, and “Tabloid,” the latest film by the man who changed the way documentaries were made, Errol Morris. “Tabloid,” however, is in the midst of a lawsuit with its subject, Joyce McKinney, which might account for its absence.
Finally, there’s the category of straight-up disappointments. The first, though not wholly unexpected, was the snub of Werner Herzog’s powerful new discussion of the death penalty, “Into the Abyss.” The film is extraordinary and one would think that the Academy might try to lift the shame it brought on itself after penalizing and snubbing perhaps one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Grizzly Man.” But, alas, it appears they still have it out for Herzog and his quest for cinematic truth.
Yet, without a doubt, the most painful snub of the list was of Steve James’ unrelentingly emotional film “The Interrupters.” James made a huge splash in the documentary world with his epic story of a high school basketball team, “Hoop Dreams” (which Roger Ebert still calls one of the 100 greatest films of all time). Here, he examines a group of unlikely heroes: a crime prevention group in Chicago that pulls out all the stops in their attempt to end gang violence. The group goes door to door and sometimes throws itself into the fray for the sole purpose of saving lives. In a time that is overrun with films about big issues such as the economy and the war, it was refreshing to see a film about an problem just as dire, that exists in our own backyard and is completely solvable when some would choose to simply turn their backs on it. Shame on the Academy for overlooking such a powerful and cathartic film that really inspires people to make a difference.
The way things stand now, I would put the documentary category looking something like this:
1. “Project Nim”
2. “Hell and Back Again”
3. “We Were Here”
Alt 1: “If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front”
Alt 2: “Bill Cunningham: New York”
We shall see. Stay tuned to The Edge of the Frame when I add this to my next list of updated predictions, hopefully some time in the next week.