Yesterday afternoon, the Academy announced its documentary shortlist. As we mentioned at the time, the headline was that EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP had defied most of the odds to hurdle what we thought would be the most difficult barrier stopping it from winning the Oscar - making the shortlist at all - while the most shocking snub was the failure to advance Laura Poitras' THE OATH, a film that we had pegged as a frontrunner and which had already been nominated for the top award at Cinema Eye, the IDA and the Gothams.
But more about those in a minute.
So, first off, it's not a terrible list. I've seen a few folks contend that it's off-the-charts bad, and trust me, I've seen off-the-charts bad, and this isn't that.
It's curious, that's certain, but mostly because it's actually the kind of list that I think the Academy has been hoping for for years - a slick, brassy list of 15 that's chockablock full of big films and big directors: there's 5 million-dollar grossers in the bunch (the first time that has ever happened) and that doesn't include the headline-grabbing films about Pat Tillman and Eliot Spitzer and natural gas fracking, nor a just-opening, crowd-pleasing film about Brazilian garbage workers.
That makes at least 9 high-profile titles out of 15, which explains why a number of Oscar prognosticators felt pretty good about this year's list (and their pre-announcement predictions, which had centered on films that had a big theatrical launch and therefore that they'd actually heard of - not usually a good barometer).
A lot of these are big productions, too (which makes sense when you consider that Best Picture at the Oscars goes to the producers, not the directors), and for the first time in several years, many if not most of the big players seem to have a horse in the race - Sony Pictures Classics, Weinstein Co., HBO, NatGeo, Magnolia, Paramount, Cinetic, Oscilloscope (those that don't, like Roadside, either weren't really in the doc game this year or, like Zeitgeist and IFC, missed out with their own high profile titles).
And there are big name directors - two Oscar winners (Gibney and Guggenheim) and another nominee (Charles Ferguson), not to mention perhaps the world's most famous anonymous street artist.
This is the kind of shiny list that a lot of people can be (and likely are) pretty happy with, both inside and outside the Academy.
There are always going to be "snubs". It's getting so that I dislike even using the word, because a "snub" almost implies that there's something unusual going on. But if there are 3-5 or more "snubs" every year, it hardly seems novel. Feels like we need a different word.
Not making it, along with JOAN RIVERS (which is really one of the best edited docs of the year), was Frederick Wiseman's LA DANSE, a box office success in its own right. Wiseman, one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time, has never been nominated for an Oscar. Many have noted the absence of CATFISH, which we are convinced was not eligible due to the extensive re-edit shown on ABC's Primetime just weeks after it premiered in theaters. The distributor was telling folks today that the film was eligible, but unless CATFISH had underground qualifying screenings, the ABC show would have DQ'd it. Feel free to tell me otherwise.
Other high profile omissions included Lixin Fan's LAST TRAIN HOME, Janus Metz' ARMADILLO (both of which scored multiple Cinema Eye nominations, including Feature and Direction), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's 12TH AND DELAWARE and Werner Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. Yael Hersonski's Holocaust doc A FILM UNFINISHED might have been the frontrunner 12 or 13 years ago, but it was an also-ran Thursday.
Clearly the biggest shocker was the failure by the Academy to advance Laura Poitras' THE OATH, a film that we were convinced was a near-lock to be nominated and one that might even win. Re-reading our reasoning (posted Wednesday), we're still convinced. Ah, and there goes our Oscar prognosticators license.
It's really the subtlety of THE OATH (and of a film like 12TH AND DELAWARE which manages to wade into the abortion debate without hammering you over the head) that's seems missing from this list. THE OATH is such a personal, intimate, often quiet work of art - I suppose it maybe seemed out of place in the company of some of these big, sometimes bombastic films. But it's certainly an example of documentary filmmaking at its most skilled and profound. Even those who made the list were telling me today that they couldn't believe that THE OATH was omitted.
It's a real headscratcher.
Otherwise, our predictions - or at least the formula we base them on - weren't too far off the mark. Our other two frontrunners (INSIDE JOB and WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN') are there as well as 4/6 of our high profile films "surprising if omitted" (ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, RESTREPO, THE TILLMAN STORY and WASTE LAND). CLIENT 9 was a film that we reckoned could go either way. We thought there'd be 1-2 films that were off our radar, but there were 3 (PRECIOUS LIFE, QUEST FOR HONOR and THIS WAY OF LIFE).
So taking into account that we missed the call on THE OATH (or, better said, the Academy missed the boat on it), the folks supporting EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP may not want to know that we now have a sneaking suspicion that it might be the new frontrunner in this race (we'd always said that the shortlist was the hardest). But first, it needs to be a nominee, right?
So, here's our way-out-in-left-field, far-too-early predictions for this year's nominees:
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
THE TILLMAN STORY
Just on the outside: CLIENT 9, ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, RESTREPO and WAITING FOR "SUPERMAN"
Potential surprise: PRECIOUS LIFE
And here's the take by some folks who pay attention to docs year-round (not just on days like today):
Peter Knegt at indieWIRE:
"In what is largely being considered a landmark year for the medium, the Academy characteristically got many things right, and many things wrong."
Steve Pond at The Wrap:
"EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, a playful documentary about the art world from the elusive graffiti artist Banksy, was considered a strong possibility to be snubbed by the shortlist voters, but the selections cast a fairly wide net and will not likely lead to any great outcry."
Anne Thompson at indieWIRE:
"The expected front runners in this category are all there: Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s CLIENT 9 (TOH interview here), Oscar nominee Charles Ferguson’s INSIDE JOB (TOH interview here), Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s RESTREPO (TOH interview here) and Davis Guggenheim’s WAITING FOR SUPERMAN."