The Oscar documentary shortlist is looming.
And the outlook is confusing.
This is not a year with a clear frontrunner like "The Cove" or "Man on Wire" or "An Inconvenient Truth." It's a year when some of the most acclaimed documentaries ("The Interrupters," "Project Nim") didn't fare well at the box office. It's a year when the only film nominated for the top prize by both the IDA Awards and the Cinema Eye Honors, "Nostalgia for the Light," has an extremely low profile outside the doc community.
The top-grossing non-fiction film of the year, meanwhile, doesn't have a prayer of getting Oscar recognition: the concert film "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," which with a $73 million gross has earned more than every other documentary release this year combined.
(In second place: the IMAX film "African Cats," with $15 million.)
It's a year when one of the prime doc events aimed at Academy voters in recent weeks was a luncheon for Martin Scorsese, at which directors Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil!"), Penelope Spheeris ("The Decline of Western Civilization"), Scott Kennedy ("The Garden") and Freida Lee Mock ("Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision") feted Scorsese, whose documentary "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" had a quiet theatrical run to qualify it for the Oscar before its splashy debut across two nights on HBO.
And given the fact that the last rock doc to win was "Woodstock" in 1970, Scorsese's TV-doc-with-Oscar-hopes can't even be counted as a likely contender for the shortlist.
"I would suggest that the lack of consensus is a good thing for documentaries," Eddie Schmidt, the president of the board of directors of the International Documentary Assn., told TheWrap this week. "It means there's a high number of really good films out there."
Added Michael Lumpkin, the IDA's executive director: "In the past, you've had years with obvious leaders, or with a small group of films that were going to sweep all the awards. You don't have that this year – which is a really positive thing, but it makes the job more difficult for all the groups that are choosing the best films of the year."
And it means that the Oscar doc picture is muddy indeed. First-round voting has concluded, and the Academy is expected to release a shortlist of 12-to-15 films by the end of the week.
"I think this is going to be a more interesting year for Oscar documentaries than some other recent years, where you had one or two overwhelming frontrunners," said Thom Powers, a documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and DocNYC.
This year, the contenders are varied. The IDA Awards nominated five films for its top honor, while the Cinema Eye Honors chose six; only "Nostalgia for the Light" (right) was nominated by both groups.
To fill out the field, the IDA went for "Better This World," "How to Die in Oregon," "The Redemption of General Butt Naked" and "The Tiniest Place."
The Cinema Eye Honors, meanwhile, chose a slightly more mainstream lineup of "The Arbor," "The Interrupters," "Position Among the Stars," "Project Nim" and "Senna."
Missing entirely from both lists were such high-profile docs as Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss," Errol Morris's "Tabloid," Susan Saladoff's "Hot Coffee," David Weissman's and Bill Weber's "We Were Here" and Joe Berlinger's and Bruce Sinofsky's "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," among many others.
(Note: the different bodies have different requirements for qualifying, and do not release the list of eligible films, so some of the omissions may be due to eligibility.)
"Since last year was considered such a landmark year for documentary, it's funny that it actually feels like this year might have even more films that feel like awards contenders," said A.J. Schnack, a documentary filmmaker who co-founded the Cinema Eye Honors. "In terms of Cinema Eye, this was the most evenly split year that we've ever had — seven films with four nominations and another three with three nominations. I think that shows broad support for a large number of films."
So what will show up on the Academy's list when it comes out late this week? The best bet, most doc-watchers agree, is Steve James' "The Interrupters," the story of former gang members working to stop violence in inner-city Chicago, from the director of "Hoop Dreams."
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Herzog's look at a triple murder, "Into the Abyss," is likely as well. As the only film to be nominated by both the IDA and Cinema Eye, "Nostalgia for the Light" – which juxtaposes Chilean observatories with mass graves of those murdered by the Pinochet regime – certainly can't be counted out.
Others that seem likely to appeal to the Academy voters, who typically embrace serious and issue-oriented films, are "Better This World," a look at two young activists charged with domestic terrorism at the Republican National Convention in 2008 and, said one category-watcher, one of the few "liberal outrage docs" in the running.
"Hell and Back Again," Danfung Dennis's chronicle of a soldier in Afghanistan both during the war and after he returned home, has passionate supporters but has also reportedly divided Academy voters.
Powers thinks that "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" is a strong contender "because it gave everyone in the doc community pride that a film could save [recently freed death-row inmate] Damien Echols from death." (It's another made-for-HBO movie that the cable giant, a leader in the documentary world, quietly snuck into a theater on the outskirts of Los Angeles County to qualify it.)
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Powers also suggests that "Give Up Tomorrow," about a injustice in the Philippines, could land a spot on the shortlist, as could "Undefeated," a tremendously moving and crowd-pleasing doc about a high-school football coach that the Weinstein Co. picked up out of Sundance, and "The Island President," about Maldives' president Mohamed Nasheed's crusade against the global warming that is threatening his country.
"Project Nim," the heartbreaking story of a chimpanzee raised in a human family from past winner James Marsh ("Man on Wire") created a huge buzz out of Sundance, but didn't perform well when it was released theatrically.
And then there are the lighter docs, which often face a rough road to recognition from a group of voters who often prefer serious, issue-oriented docs almost to the exclusion of everything else. "Buck" might be the likeliest to break through, but "Bill Cunningham's New York," "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" and the delightful "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Story" are possibilities.
"Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" might be a longshot, but the Academy did honor its subject, Roger Corman, with an Honorary Oscar in 2009, which could persuade a few voters that the film is worthy of consideration. (And a few voters is all it takes to make the shortlist, in which films are judged by small groups that can be as few as 15-20 members.)
"Pina" has the pedigree of being directed by a master, Wim Wenders, and for my money the dance documentary about Pina Bausch is the most beautiful and exhilarating doc of the year, making brilliant use of 3D. But the Academy's doc process, in which the first two rounds of voting are conducted on the basis of screener DVDs, means voters won't see it the way it was meant to be seen, and will probably kill its chances.
Likely to prove too experimental are "The Arbor," "Bombay Beach" and "Dragonslayer," though all have done well in festivals and with critics. (To be fair, many observers figured "Exit Through the Gift Shop" fell into this category last year, and it was not only shortlisted but nominated.)
And I'd love to see "Darwin," Nick Brandestini's wonderfully moody and idiosyncratic portrait of a desolate California desert town, make the cut, but I'm not holding my breath.
Other professionals in the doc field have their own favorites – though all admit that they find Academy voters hard to predict.
"I would hope to see 'Tabloid' and 'Senna' on the shortlist, which are extremely well put together and really enjoyable to sit through," said Schmidt. "But they might feel that they're not serious or lofty enough to be what the Academy usually likes."
Schnack, meanwhile, has high hopes for a year in which the filmmakers behind "The Interrupters" and "Paradise Lost 3" can receive long-overdue recognition.
"This could be the year that the Academy is able to recognize filmmakers that it has overlooked in the past," he told TheWrap. "How great would it be if Steve James, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are all finally welcomed as Oscar nominees?
"For my generation, it's hard to think of many filmmakers who've had more of an influence on the growth of theatrical documentary than those three men, and it would be terrific to see them on the red carpet at the Kodak in February."