With last week's Oscar qualifying deadline for documentary features, several awards prognosticators have been weighing in with their thoughts on this year's "Doc Race Spectacular": who will be nominated and who will take home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Predicting these things at this point is admittedly a bit wonky. First we have to see who even gets shortlisted - a tricky prospect at best - and from there, it's still all about the shortlist screenings, the internal jockeying and just who shows up to watch all 15 of the films.
For instance, last year at this time, BURMA VJ, THE COVE and FOOD INC. all looked like relatively sure nominees. But no one had seen the DANIEL ELLSBERG film and no one could have predicted WHICH WAY HOME would make it all the way to the Kodak Theatre.
The ELLSBERG film, in particular, premiered late (at Toronto) and proceeded to gain speed throughout the process - as older, liberal Academy members, who not-so-coincidently make up the majority of the viewer/voters, rallied around the baby boomer, anti-establishment hero.
So predicting the Doc Feature contest in early September is less about who will get nominated than it is answering the question of who will get shortlisted. And as we've seen many times in the past several years, getting shortlisted is no certainty - even for films considered to be shoo-ins for a nod.
And this year might bring more complications as so many of today's best documentary filmmakers (and the ones with the most open ideas about what documentary can be - think back to late-80's discussions about "recreations") are actually in the running. And by "in the running", we mean that they are ineligible from participating in the voting that determines this year's shortlist. So someone like Alex Gibney, who was on the IDA jury that awarded ANVIL last year, can't vote. Neither can Laura Poitras, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing and a handful of other young guns.
Many Oscar prognosticators seem to be hanging their hats on some of the high profile titles rolling out of the fall festivals, but we hear that only some of the big Toronto titles are trying to qualify this year. A commenter below notes that Cannes sensation ARMADILLO and Werner Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS are both on the Laemmle Theatre schedule for later this month, but you can probably strike Wiseman's BOXING GYM, Ondi Timoner's buzzy and controversial COOL IT, Gala screening THE PROMISE: THE MAKING OF DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN and Errol Morris' TABLOID from this year's contenders. [Note that many recent Oscar nominees that premiered at Toronto - Herzog's ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD and last year's FOOD, INC. among them - waited for the next eligibility year before qualifying.] [ed. note - the above paragraph has been edited to reflect new information.]
Still, it's a huge year for docs and just as last year, there are late summer frontrunners - and at this point, barring shortlist shockers, we make it a two-film race between RESTREPO and the yet-to-be-released INSIDE JOB.
RESTREPO has been a box office success - it's closing in on $1.2 million - and has received critical raves ever since it took the top award at Sundance earlier this year. While the documentary branch sometimes shies away from newcomers, they did hand the Oscar to Louie Psihoyos last year, who like RESTREPO helmers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, was known primarily for his work in other fields before making his first documentary. If there's a downside, it's that some (including some documentary filmmakers) have felt the film lessens its impact by refusing to engage the political issues inherent in looking at war and focusing instead on the soldier's experience.
At indieWIRE, awards guru Peter Knegt all-but-called the documentary race for Charles Ferguson's INSIDE JOB, naming it as the only "Safe Bet" amongst this year's films and saying that the film will likely win the Documentary Feature Oscar. Prior to RESTREPO, Ferguson's Oscar nominated NO END IN SIGHT was one of the very few films dealing with America's post-9/11 wars that succeeded in drawing an audience - and, in fact, many assumed he would take home the Oscar for his freshman effort (he was edged out by his own Executive Producer, Alex Gibney, who won for TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE). INSIDE JOB looks to be one of the best reviewed nonfiction films this year - it was lauded with high praise after it's premiere in Cannes, but we're beginning to hear whispers that the branch's reaction to the film may depend on how much they like Ferguson's on-screen interrogator persona.
If those two films seem like virtual locks for the nomination - and If we have to lay down our bets for who else will be going to the Kodak in late February(and Lord knows we have to), we'd further add any two of the following: ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, A FILM UNFINISHED, GASLAND, THE OATH and THE TILLMAN STORY. In our opinion, the exclusion of any of these five films from the shortlist would be a shock - or at least as shocking as things get for the Documentary Branch.
ENEMIES took the top prize at Full Frame - 4 out of 5 of the last Full Frame winners were nominated by the Academy (the fifth was DQ'd over a foreign television broadcast). THE OATH has received more film festival awards than any other film this year (not always a perfect barometer) and offers RESTREPO's flipside - a kind of quiet, subtle, introspective look to the war on terror.
GASLAND and THE TILLMAN STORY both viscerally engage the audience's outrage centers - and many thought Amir Bar-Lev should have been nominated (or at least, for goodness sakes, shortlisted) for his previous doc, MY KID COULD PAINT THAT. And A FILM UNIFINISHED is probably the best holocaust documentary in years - in the '90s, you'd have to view the latter film as the frontrunner.
The fifth film? We think it will be a surprise - either a film that comes out of seemingly nowhere (like WHICH WAY HOME and ELLSBERG did last year) or one of the few times that the Academy embraces a film without a heavy social agenda (think SPELLBOUND and, well, think about SPELLBOUND). Still, we like the chances of the films on our list below that are headlined "Likely Shortlisted, Lower Profile Films" and of these, we've got to think the Academy might be particularly taken with the Isreali-Palestinian fence film, BUDRUS.
[Update - We've been reminded that Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher's OCTOBER COUNTRY - which took two Cinema Eye Honors and a Spirit Award nomination last year, is actually in the running for this year's Oscars. Will the Academy smile on this haunting and beautiful film or will it fall outside of the comfort zone of the screeners?]
At his awards blog, Scott Feinberg names 30 films as hopefuls, with 8 as "Frontrunners": INSIDE JOB, JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK, WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN', THE TILLMAN STORY, CLIENT 9, RESTREPO, COUNTDOWN TO ZERO and CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY.
We'd love to see the Academy go for JOAN RIVERS - it's one of the best edited documentaries of the year and a near-perfect portrait doc - but it'll have to go up against the Academy's "serious ceiling". Lucy Walker's COUNTDOWN TO ZERO hasn't exactly torn up the box office - she's got a better chance with her Audience favorite WASTE LAND.
Meanwhile, Gibney's CASINO JACK and CLIENT 9 and Davis Guggenheim's 'SUPERMAN' have to contend with the fact that both filmmakers already have Oscars - and in the 2000s, the Doc Branch has only nominated a previous winner once - Michael Moore for his top grossing SICKO. All that said, Gibney's CLIENT 9 (which seems a more likely contender) has already been garnering strong, positive reactions based on the work-in-progress cut that was screened at Tribeca. And if Guggenheim's doc strikes a huge chord (and box office responds accordingly) in dealing with education issues, it could easily move to frontrunner status.
With that as prelude, here's our take on who might be on the Academy's 15-film shortlist come mid-November:
Frontrunners: RESTREPO and INSIDE JOB
Shocking If Omitted: ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, A FILM UNFINISHED, GASLAND, THE OATH, THE TILLMAN STORY
Likely (But No Guarantee) Shortlisted, Lower Profile Films: 12TH AND DELAWARE, BUDRUS, FREEDOM RIDERS, LAST TRAIN HOME, MY PERESTROIKA, OCTOBER COUNTRY, A SMALL ACT, WAR DON DON, WASTE LAND
Foreign Language Sleepers: ARMADILLO, STEAM OF LIFE, THE WOMAN WITH THE 5 ELEPHANTS, PRESUMED GUILTY, SPACE TOURISTS
High Profile, For Better or For Worse: CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, CLIENT 9, COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, FREAKONOMICS. WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN'
Non-Issue Films Competing for 1-2 Spots: BABIES, LA DANSE: THE PARIS OPERA BALLET, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, HIS & HERS, JOAN RIVERS: PIECE OF WORK, KINGS OF PASTRY, SMASH HIS CAMERA, THUNDER SOUL, WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, WINNEBAGO MAN
High Profile, Non-Issue Films Not in the Running?: CATFISH
Toronto Films (Probably) Not Yet in The Race: BOXING GYM, COOL IT, THE PROMISE: THE MAKING OF DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, TABLOID
Not in the Race: MARWENCOL
And: 1-2 Films That Haven't Crossed Our Radar