Early tomorrow morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will unveil the five feature films that will stand as this year's Documentary Feature representatives on Oscar night. We've been talking for months about what a great year this has been for documentary - and it was amazing last week to be able to celebrate that year at Cinema Eye - but for many folks, it's this list of five that will forever stand for the year in documentary 2010.
But who makes the list?
One thing that many Oscar watchers miss about this part of the Documentary Feature voting is that the process allows branch members to show their support, as well as their dislike, of each of the 15 films on the shortlist. Voters have ranked all 15 films on a scale of 6-10, with 6 being the lowest. If there's more than a couple voters (and it may not even take that many) who give that low score of "6" to a film, it's enough to remove it from contention.
And because the vote is cast in secret without a jury or committee process to allow for cajoling and persuasion, in theory at least, voters can feel safe scoring down a film without needing to justify it to the group.
But there's no telling whether the voters - nearly all of them documentary filmmakers themselves - will actually hand out those low grades.
That's what makes this year - with some films that provoke very strong reactions - particularly difficult to call.
Since Oscar's final five has never been - in its history - culled from the top five money makers, it's highly unlikely that you will see a list of five drawn exclusively from the top hits: WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN', INSIDE JOB, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, RESTREPO and THE TILLMAN STORY.
Here on the blog, we look at history and note that it's likely that three of these top films will make the list - and we'd frankly be lying to you if we said with any assurity which three films it will be.
That said, you'd have to truly be a head-in-the-sander not to view 'SUPERMAN' as the prohibitive frontrunner at this point. A trio of high profile awards - the National Board of Review (which, for all its lack-of-cred, has a stunning accuracy rate for predicting the Oscar winner), the Broadcast Film Critics (which made up for the lack of critics prizes during January) and Saturday night's win at the Producers Guild - means that this film resonates with viewers and voters in ways that even I can't quite put my finger on.
Is it because it's the highest grossing doc in the mix? Is it because it tackles an issue that everyone agrees needs fixing (and isn't afraid to take on sacred cows)? Is it because Davis Guggenheim is something of a "brand name" and a notoriously nice guy (the fun irony of Banksy's joke about him at Cinema Eye was that Davis is the polar opposite of the person in Banksy's quip), not to mention the son of a documentary legend?
That's not to say that 'SUPERMAN' isn't good, but is it the film that should stand as the emblem of the exceptionally great year that we just had?
And what of EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, which has, without much doubt, provoked more passionate responses and more debate than any other documentary this year? There's no question that EXIT has numerous partisans, particularly amongst newer branch members, but is there also enough passion against the film, particularly from those who still may be harboring doubts about its veracity (assurances from the director be damned), to stop it from making the final ballot?
Will voters compare and contrast RESTREPO and TILLMAN - two very different looks at the experience of soldiers in Afghanistan, one a classic verite of troops on the ground and the other a polished indictment of the Bush administration's salvos in the PR wars.
And what will be the verdict on INSIDE JOB, a film that took Cannes and critics by storm with such ferocity that an Oscar win seemed all but assured, until a relatively quiet awards season slowed that film's Oscar momentum? And will Oscar voters compare it's look at corporate malfeasance (favorably or not) to Alex Gibney's CLIENT 9?
And if those five films take up three of the spots, who will be left to argue over the final two?
I still think that Lucy Walker's audience favorite WASTE LAND has more than a decent shot to make the final five, although talk about the film has cooled somewhat since its IDA win in early December. I'm hearing a lot of positive response for Josh Fox's GASLAND, which is one of the only films in the race to give voters a chance to advocate and express some outrage. And while it's been quiet, I have a nagging suspicion about ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, the Full Frame winner that tackles the harrowing topic of the Khmer Rouge and has had screenings at the Museum of Tolerance. WILLIAM KUNTSLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE could tap into the same vein of activist nostalgia that boosted the Daniel Ellsberg film last year.
This doesn't leave much room for the other five films on the list - films that were perhaps more surprising inclusions on the list than those written up above. I'd been hearing a lot of buzz for PRECIOUS LIFE prior to the shortlist announce, but because the film was so off my own personal radar, I actually forgot to include it amongst the contenders. THE LOTTERY has been talked about as a potential spoiler for 'SUPERMAN', with both tackling education reform. Either would be less suprising nominees than GENIUS WITHIN, QUEST FOR HONOR and THIS WAY OF LIFE.
But this does feel like a year where we could be surprised, doesn't it?
Oh well, enough stalling. My day-before prediction is below. My "shocker" call is that INSIDE JOB gets left off the list. I'm not betting any money on it, though - it's a well made film with a strong critical pedigree. But so far this year the documentary branch has made some interesting calls, to be sure, and I think one of the "favorites" might be unpleasantly surprised in the AM.
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
WAITING FOR 'SUPERMAN'
My runners-up in order:
ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE
THE TILLMAN STORY