'Twas the week before Thanksgiving and all through the house, all the documentary filmmakers were waiting to hear whether they'd made the Academy's list of 15 features that would vie for the Best Documentary Oscar. Word on the street is that the announcement could come as early as today and as late as Monday. And no one is sure whether the Academy will give the shortlisted filmmaker a heads-up phone call, as was the practice for years, or whether the list will be sprung without warning, as happened in 2009.
We did a early-prediction piece back in September that tried to assess the state of the Oscar campaigns coming at the eligibility deadline. And back then, we named INSIDE JOB and RESTREPO as the two frontrunners.
We're no longer so sure about that...
We still think that INSIDE JOB is toward the front of the pack - the Charles Ferguson film has built on its early critical huzzahs out of Cannes and has settled in nicely at the box office: 1.5M and counting. RESTREPO, meanwhile, seems to have stumbled a bit. Its summer release is getting not the tiniest bit overshadowed by the soon-to-be-released, super-cinematic Danish film ARMADILLO (which, not for nothing, scored 6 Cinema Eye nominations a couple weeks ago). ARMADILLO is also in the hunt for this year's Oscar.
I'd still be very surprised if RESTREPO isn't on the shortlist when it's unveiled, but the omission isn't out-of-the-question.
Also bumped up to front-runner status: Davis Guggenheim's zeitgeisty WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN'. Take away the fact that Guggenheim already has his Oscar (and his family has something like half a dozen), 'SUPERMAN' is certain to be the biggest "serious issue" doc of 2010 - at least at the box office - and that usually has meant something. Plus, Guggenheim is known throughout the larger film community as a good guy who moves adeptly between nonfiction and narrative.
Still, when you go out into the documemtary community - and that's the path all these films must take to get a nomination - it's hard to find folks who LOVE either film. You find a lot of respect for the solid way that the films were made, but nobody's really doing cartwheels.
It's a third film - the only one to score nominations from Cinema Eye, the IDA and the Gothams thus far - that people really seem to love: Laura Poitras' THE OATH.
We think it's a near-lock for a nomination. And it may (crazy as it sounds) have a shot to win it all. Here's why:
THE OATH didn't exactly set the theatrical box office on fire (never a huge detriment to get a nomination) but the way in which the film puts a personal face on "the war on terror" and torture, not to mention the relationship between America and Islam, feels as revelatory (if not more) as any of the post-9/11 docs that have surfaced. In addition, the fact that THE OATH is part of a trilogy of films made, primarily working alone, by a strong and courageous woman filmmaker (only three women have won the feature Oscar in this past decade - and each was part of a filmmaking team), and you have to reason that THE OATH has qualities that the documentary branch will recognize.
Beyond that, Poitras (like Guggenheim and Ferguson) is a previous Oscar nominee (for MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY). Branch voters know that she's a career documentary filmmaker in the midst of a major, era-defining series of films and that she has risked her life to make them.
[Before I continue, I must give full disclosure that Poitras is a friend and that we have collaborated on the documentary CONVENTION. Feel free to consider that when pondering my argument.]
So if INSIDE JOB, THE OATH and WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN' are the three frontrunners at this point - and let's be honest, it would be highly out of character in the post-COLUMBINE era for the Academy to nominate three filmmakers who have been nominated (or won) before - what else might make the list of 15 or 5?
We think Lucy Walker's WASTE LAND stands a good shot at snagging a nomination. While it may borrow heavily from reality television ("Extreme Makeover: Dump Edition"?), it's the kind of feel good documentary with charming, down-on-your-luck characters that the Academy seems to like from time-to-time (who wouldn't love to see those garbage dump workers get to go to the Kodak?). There's no denying that the ending has been a hit with audiences. Plus, the Academy has smiled on Walker's work in the past - she was shortlisted for BLINDSIGHT - which is often a first step to a nomination (the obvious comparison seems to be Scott Kennedy's THE GARDEN). Plus, that IDA nomination for Feature Documentary came just in time.
We also expect to see Yael Hersonski's A FILM UNFINISHED and Frederick Wiseman's LA DANSE on the shortlist of 15. Either could be a contender for a nomination (Wiseman has never been Oscar nominated, although he was just nominated for Outstanding Direction at Cinema Eye). A fuller summary of our finger-in-the-wind guesses is below.
And what of EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, perhaps the most buzzed-about, discussed, obsessed-over feature doc of the year? Can it crack the Academy's serious ceiling? We'll stick with what we told Steve Pond over at The Wrap: the biggest hurdle for EXIT is making it onto the shortlist. From there, anything is possible, even a win. The problem for EXIT - beyond the fact that many still argue that it's not a "true documentary" (we disagree - both on the facts in the film and on our broader definition of the term) - is that we think the documentary branch knows what a big freaking deal it is to be nominated and to win an Oscar, and they're not particularly anxious to give a coveted spot or an even more coveted golden statue to someone who will likely never make another documentary (not to mention someone who is completely anonymous).
This is why, when the race started heating up last year, it became essential for THE COVE's Louie Psihoyos to start talking publicly (very publicly) about his next documentary. He signaled that he wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau (an Oscar winner in his own right). The branch knew that this wasn't a one-off for a famous photographer (Sebastian Junger take note), but that he was getting in the doc game for good. How can an anonymous street artist make the same claim?
Don't get us wrong - we love EXIT as much as any film this year - but these are the kind of hurdles it has to jump in order to make it to the next round. We'd love to see it get there, but the path is far from clear.
With that, here's an updated guess about what might find its way to the Academy's Doc Feature shortlist:
Frontrunners: INSIDE JOB, THE OATH and WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN'
High Profile Films Surprising If Omitted: ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, A FILM UNFINISHED, LAST TRAIN HOME, RESTREPO, THE TILLMAN STORY, WASTE LAND
Lower Profile Films with a Strong Shot at the Shortlist: 12TH AND DELAWARE, ARMADILLO, BUDRUS, FREEDOM RIDERS, GASLAND, MY PERESTROIKA, OCTOBER COUNTRY, A SMALL ACT, STEAM OF LIFE, WAR DON DON
Foreign Language Sleepers: 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, CLIENT 9, COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, FREAKONOMICS
Non-Issue Films Competing for 1-2 Spots: ART OF THE STEAL, 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
Not in the Race: MARWENCOL
And: 1-2 Films That Haven't Crossed Our Radar