The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Documentary Feature

by Rachel · February 5, 2012 · LAMB Devours the Oscars · 6 Comments
Editor’s note: Welcome to the twelfth of a 32-part series dissecting the 84th Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read any other posts regarding this event, please click the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!

By David of Never Too Early Movie Predictions

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 (My 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 on Street Fight. It could potentially unite voters 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.

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6 Responses to The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Documentary Feature

  1. Ryan McNeil says:

    *Love* this post – wonderful breakdown of all the nominees. It’s a weird year for me, as all but one of the nominees got past me through the course of the year (as opposed to last year where I’d seen four of the five by nomination morning).

  2. Rachel says:

    Agree with Ryan: it is indeed an excellent artcle on all the nominees. And thanks for the linkage to my reviews on the first two Paradise Lost films. Though I was far from impressed by the second, I’m still eager to see the third one.

  3. Thank you Ryan! In fairness, they really did stay away from the more famous docs that came out this year, and several will have releases after the fact.

    Thanks Rachel, and you’re welcome for the links! I actually saw that one of the Paradise Lost films was showing on TV recently, but I skipped it because I wasn’t in the mood for anything that serious that day.

  4. EFC says:

    Haven’t seen a single one of these films, so this breakdown really helped me get an idea of what these flicks have to offer. Pina, in particular, I want to see now (in 3D, no less). That “refined sensibility” line does remind me that I’ve seen a couple people complain on Twitter about how boring it is, which probably says more about their feelings about modern dance than anything else. Me, I like modern dance. So there.

  5. Ryan McNeil says:

    @ NTE… I’ve been doing some homework this week and caught up with two more of the docs (HELL AND BACK AGAIN and PARADISE LOST 3).

    While you’re bang-on in mentioning that a lot of the sexiest docs from this year were left on the sidelines, the ones that *did* make the cut are rather badass themselves. Here’s hoping their nominations can get them that extra bit of exposure.

  6. @EFC, Glad you liked it. I sometimes have a refined sensibility myself (or at least pretend to), and think Pina is one I might like. So I think the winner really depends on who shows up to vote in this category.

    @Ryan, You’re quite right! One of the interesting things about this category is that they really can help to give exposure to films and issues that people aren’t always as familiar with. So I always try to resist the rush from the crowd in complaining about the absence of some of the more popular choices. I know that this year there was a popular outcry over Senna, in particular, but I wondered how many of the people cheering for it had actually seen any of the other contenders, much less all of them.

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