Why Can’t the Academy’s Doc Branch Learn to Have Fun?

Uplifting titles like “Pina,” “Swell Season” and “Being Elmo” are around this year – but longshots for Oscars. Hey, it’s okay to have fun at the movies

With the unveiling of the 15-film shortlist in the Oscar category for documentary features about a month off, I'd like to offer a modest reminder to the Academy's Documentary Branch:

It's okay to have fun at the movies.

Sure, this is a group of filmmakers known for serious, and sometimes culture-changing films: "Hoop Dreams," "An Inconvenient Truth," "The Cove," "The Fog of War."

And it's not as if they're alone in preferring somber fare: Comedies of all kinds have been famously overlooked in the annals of Oscar.

But I worry that in its laser-beam focus on deadly serious issue-oriented films, the AMPAS doc branch shortchanges the true scope of non-fiction filmmaking, a vital field these days partly because it encompasses all kinds of films, not just grim treatises on the societal ills that need correcting.

The Academy noticed this last year when it nominated Banksy's sly and playful "Exit Through the Gift Shop" alongside the more sober-minded likes of "Inside Job" and "Restrepo."

And it has noticed it occasionally in previous years, when the Oscar for doc feature went to the entertaining likes of "Man on Wire" and "March of the Penguins."

But it also tends to overlook diverting movies in its haste to celebrate sobering ones. "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" and "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" are among the commercial and critical hits that have been overlooked in recent years.

I was reminded about this near-exclusive focus on the serious after last Thursday's unveiling of the eight-film shortlist for documentary shorts, and after seeing a couple of absolutely wonderful and hugely enjoyable docs about the creative process.

"Pina" and "The Swell Season," the films in question, were two of my favorite moviegoing experiences of the last couple of months. (And believe me, I've had a lot of moviegoing experiences in that time: 71 films since Aug. 1, by last count.)

But I walked out of "Pina" thinking that it'd be a longshot for a slot on the Oscar Documentary Feature shortlist, which should be revealed in mid-November, and an even longer shot for a for nomination.

And like other recent docs that fell outside the Academy's comfort zone (including the terrific "Marwencol" last year), "The Swell Season" isn't even going through the Oscar qualifying process.

That's a shame — but it's hard to argue that the film should have gone to the time and expense to qualify when the eight-film shortlist for Documentary Short Subject category serves as a perfect illustration of the prevailing mindset in the doc branch.

One of the films is about the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, another the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan. One deals with a deadly incident in which journalists and civilians were killed in Iraq; one details a controversial pipeline that would stretch from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico; another chronicles the revolution in Egypt.

I've only seen one of the eight so I can't argue that the films are undeserving — but I can say that some of the loveliest, most lyrical and most enjoyable short docs of recent years (the IDA Award winner "Salt," for instance) have been bypassed by Oscar voters in favor of slates full of dark 35-to-40 minute explorations of trouble spots, injustices and wrongs that need righting.

I'm holding out hope that on this year's shortlist, the intriguingly titled "God Is the Bigger Elvis," about which I can find no information, is as playful as its title. But knowing the history in this category, I'm not entirely confident that it will be. 

And that worries me, particularly after seeing "The Swell Season" and "Pina."

The former has a rich Oscar pedigree: it follows the singer/songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova over the course of a tour that followed their collaboration on the film "Once," and its Oscar-winning song "Falling Slowly."

That experience catapulted the duo — an Irish singer-songwriter who'd been playing his music professionally since he was 13, and a Czech newcomer 18 years his junior — into an arena of international celebrity that they'd scarcely dreamed of.

It also put strains on the romantic relationship that had developed during their collaboration. The startlingly intimate documentary from directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis explores the growing tension, and the couple's eventual personal but not professional breakup.  

Shot in luminous black-and-white, "The Swell Season" is a tender, raw and revealing look at a couple who were enormously popular (and deserving) Oscar winners not long ago. And while it's too bad the film won't have a chance to make its case in front of the doc branch, the movie opens in New York on Friday, October 21 and will follow with engagements around the country.

"Pina" is another marvelous examination of the performing arts, but it is bigger and bolder. Veteran German director Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas," "Wings of Desire") has made a brilliant and beautiful dance documentary about the visionary work of his longtime friend, the late choreographer Pina Bausch, and her Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Bausch's daring, startling and gorgeous work stakes out a bracing territory between modern dance and performance art, and Wenders couldn't figure out how to capture it on film until he saw U2's 3D concert film a few years ago.

In "Pina," Wenders uses the often-derided technique brilliantly to vividly create the spaces in which the Bausch's work takes place; it's the most effective 3D film I've ever seen, and one that to a large degree captures the experience of a remarkable Bausch performance.

(Documentary Branch voters, sad to say, will be judging the film on 2D screener DVDs in the first rounds of voting — though voters in the Oscar Foreign-Language category, in which it's also an entry, will get the full 3D experience.)

If those are two entertaining documentaries that I'd love to see figure in the Oscar race, there are others that deserve mention, as well. Phil Rosenthal's "Exporting Raymond" is a very funny look at creating a Russian version of the television series "Everybody Loves Raymond," with an underlying message that network executives are the same everywhere you go — but it's about show business, not a topic that Academy doc voters usually embrace.

Being ElmoAnd even the acclaimed "Senna," a doc about the charismatic Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna, could fall through the cracks because sports movies can be a tough sell to the branch. 

One of the highlights of the recent DocuWeeks showcase, meanwhile, was "Being Elmo," a doc that pretty much defines the phrase "feel-good movie of the year."

There's not much angst in the story of Kevin Clash, a kid who knew he wanted to be a puppeteer while he was still in grade school, and who grew up to be the voice and operator of the beloved Sesame Street character Elmo.

But the film is an utter delight because … well, because you have to love Elmo, and Clash is  Elmo. Directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane have crafted an affectionate and endearing tribute.   

Finally, "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" is a loving tribute to a filmmaker whose work the Academy wouldn't touch — at least not until they gave him an Honorary Oscar at the first Governors Awards two years ago.

Corman's WorldIn the film, an amazing array of luminaries pay tribute to veteran B-movie maven (and legendary developer of talent) Roger Corman. There's Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, David Carradine, Peter Bogdanovich and a priceless Jack Nicholson, sitting on a couch in a white t-shirt and cackling as he tells Corman stories.

By the time Alex Stapleton's film passes the one-hour mark, the endless stream of low-budget clips goes from delightful to a bit tiring, but the palpable affection that other filmmakers have for Corman is infectious.

And his pearls of filmmaking wisdom are irresistible. For instance: "The monster should kill somebody fairly early, and then at regular intervals through the picture."

At one point, Corman vet David Carradine talks about the filmmaker's oeuvre: "That whole world is so completely different than the Entertainment Weekly world, or the Academy Award world."

But, you know, maybe it doesn't have to be.

Are you listening, doc branch?