The release of the documentary short list of 15 finalists is seen as a litmus test for new doc branch rules that opened up the Oscars process to the entire peer group and, in theory, would make it easier for more popular, perhaps populist, docs to make the cut. The previous voting setup was broken into several groups of documentarians voting only on the select list of films they had been sent. Now it’s up to everyone in the branch to see all the entries and vote as a group. Stringent new rules put in place for the first time this year required entries to be exhibited prominently in LA and NY for at least one week with a minimum of two shows a day. And it had to be reviewed by at least one newspaper: the Los Angeles Times or The New York Times. It was thought these basic rule changes would discourage the proliferation of faux docs (TV docs trying to pass themselves off as features) that started taking over the category and, in many cases, scoring nominations. It was thought that enacting these new rules would considerably lessen the number of entries. But in fact this year saw those TV docs finding ways to skirt the new rules. So the number of overall entries even increased. This put a tremendous burden on the already overworked branch members who now found they had as many as 80 docs at one time dropped in their mailboxes.
The result? Mixed. Although a number of better-known and critically acclaimed docs made the top 15, there were still also those HBO docs like Ethel that also made the cut even though its TV airdate has come and gone. And it is here at the expense of such acclaimed theatrical docs as West Of Memphis (despite having Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh backing it), The Central Park Five (from awards magnate Ken Burns) , Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel and the hit Queen Of Versailles among others, all high-profile entries expected to easily get into at least the final 15 but which were snubbed.
Nevertheless, prominent members of the doc branch seem to think the experiment, though certainly not perfect, is starting to work and even thrive. Academy Governor Michael Moore spearheaded many of the changes because he thought a major overhaul was necessary to bring credibility back to the Documentary process of the Academy. At Saturday night’s Governors Awards, he told me that, after viewing a large number of films, the new rules and methods of Academy judgement of docs “seems to be turning out to be a really good thing. I’m now very optimistic about it.” That was just a few days before release of the 15 finalists which will be whittled down to the actual five nominees when all Oscar noms are announced on January 10th.
Monday night, I ran into Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and former Academy Governor Arnold Schwartzman (Genocide) who seemed very pleased with the finalists — especially Searching For Sugar Man and The Invisible War, two docs he championed. However, he was disappointed the Vreeland doc didn’t get in. But overall, he said, “I actually think the list is very good.” At least no one this time is calling the whole process of vetting and voting documentaries corrupt or even inept, as has been charged in the past.
Here is a brief snapshot of the contenders:
AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY
A documentary look at Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei as he works on new projects and exhibitions despite interference from the government. It has its supporters included Richard Gere who called it one of the two best movies he has seen all year. It’s a definite contender for one of those coveted five slots.
The Weinstein Company released this compelling doc in the Spring and got tons of free publicity due to the general outrage at the film’s subject: teens being bullied. It didn’t stint on personal tragedy and made its point effectively leapfrogging it into front runner status here for much of the year. It timely themes could take it to the winner’s circle.
A haunting meditation of the melting of the world’s icecaps which follows a National Geographic photographer as he chronices the changing condition of the Arctic glaciers. At 74 minutes it’s quick and beautiful but may not be complex enough.
Using Detroit as its base and as a metephor , this intriguing doc explored the loss of U.S. manufacturing. As timely as it gets this one could strike a chord with voters but its relatively low profile might hold it back.
An enormously touching and effective look at the life and times of Ethel Kennedy, the late Robert F. Kennedy’s wife who , after her husband’s assasination in 1968, had to raise 11 kids on her own. The TV imprimatur (it’s already aired) could diminish its chances as the Academy tries to move exclusively towards theatrical docs.
5 BROKEN CAMERAS
Fascinating look at a quiet Palestinian farmer’s very visual protests against in using several cameras to record his peaceful protests against the aggressive actions of the Israeli army, even against tremendous odds and broken cameras trying to stop him over the course of five years the movie highlights.
Sony Pictures Classics has this dramatic and eye-opening doc about six former heads of Shin Bet , Israel’s Secret Service agency and the men charged with the fight on terror. A major contender ever since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this year despite being mostly a series of talking head segments. But what talk!
THE HOUSE I LIVE IN
All about the war on drugs, told from several different angles. Executive Producer Brad Pitt got behind this one early and it raises the question of just how effective is this war on drugs the U.S. says it is waging. A stong to contender to make the final five despite limited theatrical play.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
This year’s winner of the New York Film Criiics Circle’s choice as Best First Film is a story of two distinct, but invaluable groups who managed to turn things around for AIDS victims, offering hope, humanity and street smarts in dealing with , and beginning to eradicate, the deadly disease.
A knock out of a movie, this absolutely riveting story has to be seen to be believed as it revolves around a young frenchman who knocks on the door of a Texas family and says he is their long lost son, missing for three years. One of 2012′s higher profile entries this one could gain definite traction, particularly if it gets some love from critics groups.
THE INVISIBLE WAR
A look into the unthinkable situation of rape of soldiers in the U.S. military, a situation that is rampant according to this compelling doc from Kirby Dick (THis Film Is Rated ‘X’). Very strong subject matter and this one has a lot of support with the Academy actors/activists branch.
MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD
The subject of pedophillia in the Catholic Church is given first-rate treatment by prolific Oscar- winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side). Gibney is always a contender when he is on his game , and he is definitely on it here.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
Another Sony Classics Pictures pickup out of Sundance, this musical doc chronicles the fall and rise of a musician who never quite made the big leagues but managed to make up for it thirty years later when he is suddenly “rediscovered” by a film crew who chronicles his every step back to prominence he never really had the first time around.
THIS IS NOT A FILM
Controversial movie from Iran saw its director Jafar Panahi thrown into jail for telling the truth in his movie as he shows a day in his now drab life and fights the fight , trying to find freedom again. The Iranians who won Best Foreign Film last year refused to enter one this year for political reasons. A nomination for this penetrating doc could make up for that loss.
THE WAITING ROOM
A look inside at what goes on in a typical American hospital. Paddy Chayefsky wasn’t far off in his fictional 1971 classic, The Hospital, but this one could be long shot as it doesn’t offer a whole lot of originality but is highly watchable anyway.