Sunday, February 5, 2012

The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Documentary Feature

Note: This post was written as part of “The LAMB Devours The Oscars” series sponsored by The Large Association Of Movie Blogs (The LAMB). In a series of guest posts, 32 bloggers will look at each of the award races and each of the best picture nominees. It’s a great way to get a range of views about the races, in addition to my own. Check out all of the contributions HERE.

Even casual observers of the Oscars know that the Academy takes themselves rather seriously. Dramas do better then comedies, historical figures beat out superheroes, and every speech needs to make some mention of the “important contributions” that “the work” provides to society. Now imagine a category that takes that inherent seriousness, applies it to real-life subjects, and raises the bar by requiring every voter to see all 5 films in theaters, and you begin to understand the Documentary Feature race. This year’s awards will actually cover a 16 month time frame, representing films released from September 1, 2010 to December 31, 2011. In honor of this, I think the statue should be 33% larger too, but they didn’t ask me. Your nominees are:

1. Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel for Pina (Predicted Winner). An homage to German choreographer Pina Bausch, featuring dancers performing her masterpieces. The film is in 3D and was Germany’s submission to the foreign language race. You can watch the trailer, listen to the soundtrack, view their web page, and read a fuller review from Bonjour Tristesse.

For it: The film premiered at Berlinale, won best documentary at both the German and European Film Awards, and was nominated by BAFTA, Gaudi, the WGA and the British Independent Film Awards. Director Wim Wenders is a former nominee for Buena Vista Social Club and a veteran filmmaker who the Academy may wish to honor. The visuals are stunning, and the incorporation of 3D for something other than science fiction films represents a new horizon in documentary filmmaking.

Against it: Art films have won this prize before (In The Shadow Of The Stars, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Voice, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’), but modern dance requires a refined sensibility. It is unclear whether the mandatory Academy screening will occur in 3D or 2D, potentially limiting the visual impact. The Academy strongly favors films with at least some American production credits, while films that lack those credits have only won 4 times in the past 30 years.

2. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. The further stories of the West Memphis Three, who were convicted of killing 3 boys, with a focus on faulty evidence, the appeals process and their eventual release. You can watch the trailer, view their web page, and read fuller reviews from Daily Film Dose and Surrender To The Void, who also has reviews of parts One & Two. You can also check out our former shepherdess Rachel’s reviews of parts One and Two.

For it: The film premiered at Toronto, with new scenes of the prisoners’ release added when it played in New York. It was nominated by the DGA and won the documentary award from the National Board of Review, a group which has correctly anticipated the Oscar winner for 7 of the last 10 years, making this the best bet statistically. The first installment won a Primetime Emmy and the second was nominated for one. The three installments together represent nearly twenty years of documentary work, and are credited with getting the prisoners released. If you want serious issues and tangible proof that films matter, there is no better example.

Against it: The parents of the murdered boys have asked the Academy not to reward the film, but the real detriment lies elsewhere. One of the new rules for next year tries to separate full theatrical releases from films that are actually designed for TV. As an HBO production, this film falls squarely into the latter category, and would not be eligible next year. While this may seem like inside-Hollywood politics, it is precisely the type of controversy that could cost them the win.

3. Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner for Hell And Back Again. A look at the war in Afghanistan contrasting war footage in the field with the physical and emotional adjustments of returning to home and family. The film features an original song written by J. Ralph and sung by Willie Nelson. You can watch the trailer, view their web page, and read a fuller review from The Critical Movie Critics.

For it: The film premiered at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury and cinematography prizes, took the Silver St. George at Moscow, and was nominated for Indie Spirit, Gotham and the British Independent Film Awards. Films showing the impacts of war traditionally do well in this category, and among this year’s nominees this one arguably focuses most explicitly on ongoing contemporary issues. The film’s composer J. Ralph also did the music for two recent documentary winners (The Cove and Man On Wire), and could be a good luck charm.

Against it: The American zeitgeist seems to be focused more on economic issues than military ones at the moment, and the indie nature of its award record suggests that the production may be too small for the Academy’s tastes. There is also a thematically similar film competing in the documentary short category (Incident In New Baghdad). The two could potentially cancel each other out, or make voters subconsciously decide that rewarding one or the other is sufficient.

4. Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin and Rich Middlemas for Undefeated. Inspirational story of an underprivileged football team and the challenges faced by its players and coach. You can watch the trailer, view their web page, and read a fuller review from Gordon And The Whale.

For it: The film premiered at South By Southwest, and sparked an aggressive bidding war that was eventually won by Oscar master Harvey Weinstein. It was nominated for the Critic’s Choice Awards, and will be receiving limited and expanded releases in February and March, no doubt with accompanying advertisements. It is by far the biggest crowd pleaser of the five nominees.

Against it: It is by far the biggest crowd pleaser of the five nominees(!), which is a detriment for those voters who prefer “serious.” The film explores issues of character development and economic and racial underprivilege, but could easily be dismissed as just a football movie. Unlike past sports winner When We Were Kings, it does not feature Muhammad Ali, and has been criticized by some as perpetuating the white savior myth. Weinstein may have less power over the documentary branch as he does over the rest of the Academy, and the release schedule feels suspiciously like a box office strategy rather than one geared towards an awards win.

5. Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman for If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front. An examination of the FBI’s ever-expanding definition of domestic terrorism through the lens of an environmental activist. You can watch the trailer, view their web page, and read a fuller review from John Likes Movies.

For it: The film premiered at Sundance, where it won the documentary editing award, has been nominated by the WGA, and won prizes in Dallas, Nashville, Miami and Santa Cruz. Director Mashall Curry is a former nominee for his work in Street Fight. It could potentially unite votes who are environmentalists and those concerned with government definitions of terrorism.

Against it: An environmental film won this prize two years ago, and two environmental films were nominated last year, so Academy voters may want to give some attention to other topics. One also wonders whether the Hollywood crowd might prefer their environmental activism to take the form of charity banquets rather than arson.

A Word About The New Rules. Next year there will be three new rules that go into effect for this category, and I see each of them impacting the race in different, although limited, ways. The first rule continues the requirement of a one week theatrical release in both Los Angeles and New York, and adds a requirement of a review in either the L.A. Times or N.Y Times. While this rule does limit the number of smaller independent films that can afford to be in consideration, I suspect that most of the major contenders will still find a way in. Some companies, such as HBO, may decide to promote their films for Emmy’s rather than Oscars, but that will be a decision that is largely made by executives estimating their chances in the respective races.

The second rule expands the number of people who decide the nominations, by moving that decision from a group of sub-committees who choose a short list to the documentary branch as a whole, and allowing them to watch the film on screeners. Fans of Senna, The Interrupters, Into The Abyss or Cave Of Forgotten Dreams initially rejoiced at this news, but I advise caution. Remember that films like Project Nim and Buck did make it onto the short list, but were ultimately overlooked by branch members in choosing their 5 nominees. There is every reason to believe that these same branch members might continue to bypass your popular choices in favor of lesser known films with serious themes.

The third rule allows all Academy members to vote on documentaries after seeing screeners, rather than making a trip to the theater. So while crowd favorites still have to run the gauntlet to get a nomination, they have a much easier time winning once nominated. If this rule were in effect this year, for example, I would be predicting Undefeated to win easily, in much the same way that Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side. It’s up to you to decide whether that is for better or worse.

As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!
To see how I am doing in each race, check out my Track Record Page.
See Documentary feature predictions for other years HERE.
If you’re really into documentaries, check out the Documentary Shorts also.
See predictions for other categories at the 84th Oscars HERE.
Switch to another year: 84th,  85th,  86th,  87th,  88th,  89th  


  1. I don't watch as many docs as I should. The one I really want to see is SENNA, I'm surprised it's not nominated for an Oscar given the unanimous praise for it.

    1. Thanks Ruth! I haven't seen it, but I suspect that Senna wasn't "serious" enough for them in terms of subject matter.

  2. Thanks for such a thorough breakdown of all the contenders in this category. I really wish I had the resources to watch them all before the big show!

    1. Thanks Alex! I suspect that very few of us will get to all of them before the ceremony (I know I won't be able to), but I always hope to catch one or two of the more interesting ones at some point.

  3. I was wondering why Scorsese's documentary, George Harrison: Living In A Material World wasn't candidate... What do you think??

    1. Hi Spring! I haven't seen the film so I can't say for sure, but the documentary branch often focuses more on political films than musical ones.

      I also checked its IMDB page and its release information shows that it played at film festivals and then got a TV spot in the USA (as opposed to the theatrical run it shows in the UK), so there's a possibility that it wasn't eligible (although this could just mean that the IMDB page is incomplete.)

    2. Thank you so much!

    3. Anytime! I hope you'll come back as the year progresses and I'm able to update more of the categories.