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Don't Let the Academy Tell You Which Documentaries to See

By Miscellaneous | Miscellaneous | November 19, 2009 |

By Miscellaneous | Miscellaneous | November 19, 2009 |

I prefer documentaries to fiction films, and I try to see at least one doc per week. Fortunately, I live in NYC, where there are plenty of non-fiction films released theatrically each year. And where one cinema, IFC Center, has seasonal programs through which they screen at least one doc, new or old, every Tuesday. But even if you don’t live in a major city like New York, the current availability of documentaries on streaming websites, television and Netflix mean any non-fiction film fan around the country has access to a surplus of great documentaries all the time and can eventually see most of the great ones.

So why does anyone still care what the Academy thinks? The way the Oscars work, you’d be led to believe there are only a handful of great documentaries made each year. In fact, the category is only a tiny representation of a type of film that has about as many genres as fiction does. Yet even hardcore doc enthusiasts pay attention to the Academy’s choices, and complain about certain films being snubbed upon announcement of the 15 shortlisted contenders for the Best Documentary Feature category (call them semifinalists, or sub-nominees, or just a useless grouping that really means nothing to anyone in the general population).

The doc category really shouldn’t be of much interest. It’s not like the Best Actress category, where we’re all at the edge of our seats wondering where the hell the Academy will find five decent performances from women this year (and no, this isn’t sexist on my part; it’s sexist on Hollywood’s part). Sure, being nominated for and especially winning the doc Oscar might cause a film to be seen more than otherwise. But those of us who recommend and champion non-fiction films on the web have no reason to be concerned with that, and we certainly shouldn’t be upset if our favorite films are “snubbed.”

Rather, let’s just keep on talking about the docs that we like and that we think should be seen. I’m sure most of the 15 films shortlisted are worth watching (except Food, Inc., which I know is a gaudy spoon-feed doc with info gotten from the writings of its two dominant talking heads), as are a whole ton of films not represented (including my personal faves seen this year — many of them not qualified for the Oscar: Tyson, Videocracy, Still Bill, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Loot, and especially We Live in Public). And if you’re one of the people who still like Michael Moore, do you really worry about whether or not the Academy still does?

Check out the reactions to the shortlist below and then chime in with the last doc you saw that you liked, new or old.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale at Movieline:
    Nothing against the films or filmmakers, many of which are very good, but come on. Ninety percent of prospective Oscar viewers decided to take a bathroom break just reading that list, let alone watching its final five compete March 7.

    For the Academy to narrow down the year’s documentary crop to 15 semifinalists and leave Michael Moore’s super-topical, super-angry Capitalism: A Love Story off the list is more than just a snub. It’s a referendum on stunts, self-aggrandizement, fact-fudging, decontextualization, and superstar activism.

  • Vadim Rizov at The Independent Eye:
    Bemoaning the failures of the Oscars in the Best Documentary department has become an annual ritual, like spazzing about filing your income taxes or dusting off stale jokes about March Madness obsessions. So the news that this year’s doc shortlist of 15 potential nominees is full of omissions and small obscurities is not a surprise.

    Many folks would’ve liked to have seen “Anvil! The Story Of Anvil,” “Collapse,” “Crude,” “Tyson,” “We Live In Public,” “The September Issue,” or “It Might Get Loud” on the list. So it goes. Some of those omissions are reasonable — there’s not much in “Tyson” you can’t find on YouTube, and “Collapse” wasn’t eligible — others, not so much.

  • Eric D. Snider at Cinematical:
    Notably absent from the shortlist are Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and the highly praised Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which last month earned the distinction of being the first “for your consideration” screener sent to Academy members this year. Last year’s best-reviewed documentary, Man on Wire, went on to win the Oscar; Anvil! holds that title this year (98% at Rotten Tomatoes), but it’s not even going to be nominated.

    Other noteworthy titles not among the top 15: Tyson (about the boxer, not the chicken company) and The September Issue (about Anna Wintour and Vogue magazine).

  • AJ Schnack at All These Wonderful Things:
    There are a lot of missing films on this list, the most surprising of which - for me - is RJ Cutler’s THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE. Cutler is a respected and active member of the Academy and his film is one of the biggest of the year. I’m also surprised that my darkhorse candidate, Aron Gaudet’s THE WAY WE GET BY - a film that I thought could actually score a nomination - failed to make the cut, particularly in a year when a number of smaller films did.
  • Dave Karger at EW’s Oscar Watch:
    The Academy has just announced the 15 films on the shortlist for Best Documentary, and glaringly absent from the list is Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. It’s a surprising omission (Moore did submit the film) since he won this category with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine. […] A few other worthy contenders that didn’t make the cut: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Tyson, and Afghan Star. And of course, This Is It, which wasn’t submitted in time but is eligible for Best Picture.
  • Kevin Jagernauth at The Playlist:
    As usual, the Academy voters are not in sync with audience or critical response as two of the year’s most celebrated docs, James Toback’s moving and insightful “Tyson” and Sacha Gervasi’s incredible rock ‘n roll dream “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” are nowhere to be seen and that’s really a crying shame. But, we will give Academy members kudos for not reflexively giving Michael Moore’s underwhelming “Capitalism: A Love Story” a nod.
  • Tim Gomez at Cinema Blend:
    The latest of these abominations is the 2010 Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. Below you’ll find the list, which includes favorites and breakout hits like The Cove and Food Inc., yet you’ll notice that three very notable releases are inexplicably left out: Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, and Tyson. Each of these docs was well received both critically and financially and while it’s debatable whether each of them deserve an actual nomination, they are most definitely entitled to a spot on the shortlist.
  • Noel Murray at The A.V. Club:
    There are a few notable omissions: Afghan Star, Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, Capitalism: A Love Story, Collapse, Crude, Earth Days, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, The September Issue, Tyson, and We Live In Public, to name a few. (That’s assuming those films were eligible for this year’s Oscars; not necessarily a given.) Still, some worthy docs here.
  • Neil Miller at Film School Rejects:
    It is sad to see however, that Anvil! did not make it into the final 15. For many pundits — I would include myself in this group wholeheartedly — Anvil! was the odds-on favorite to win the award, as it was easily the best documentary released this year. But sadly, it will not get the recognition it so desperately deserves.
  • John Lichman at Current Movies Blog:
    Now the honeymoon is over and the yearly doldrums of Oscar shortlists is slowly gelling together. It was a wild ride at first when it seemed like Anvil: The Story of Anvil! may be a Best Documentary contender. But the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences dashed that dream today. […] It’s a little disappointing, but it would’ve been a true storybook ending to see Lips leaping around stage at the Oscars while a bewildered crowd sat gobsmacked. Of course, that isn’t very rock n’ roll, but we can dream.
  • Peter Knegt at The Lost Boy:
    No “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”!!?  I knew it wasn’t a given, but I’ll admit I’m pretty bummed out.  I keep picturing Robb and Lipps’ disappointed faces when they find out the news.
    Some major snubs: “We Live In Public,” “The September Issue,” “Tyson,” “It Might Get Loud,” and in a huge blow to Michael Moore, “Capitalism: A Love Story”.. Also shut out: “Outrage,” “Racing Dreams,”  “Of Time and the City,” “Unmistaken Child,” and “Crude.”
  • Brandon Lee Tenney at
    For good measure (since it’s not receiving the recognition from the Academy that it truly deserves), rent, buy, or Netflix Anvil! The Story of Anvil right away. Crank up the volume and enjoy while you’re waiting for the final list of documentary nominees to be announced very soon.
  • Steve Pond at TheWrap:
    A big name is not a free pass.

    Michael Moore is the 800-pound gorilla in the field. He presented “Capitalism: A Love Story” as his magnum opus, and he worked it hard. Some reviews were raves; others weren’t. In the end, it’s likely that voters, unswayed by celebrity, just didn’t think it was good enough. (I didn’t, either.)

    Davis Guggenheim was probably the second biggest name in the competition, a winner three years ago for “An Inconvenient Truth.” (Al Gore got the glory; Davis went home with the statuette.) Guggenheim made a wonderful documentary this year, “It Might Get Loud,” which didn’t get shortlisted.

  • David Poland at The Hot Blog:
    It seems there is going to be a lot of whining, screaming, and general complaining about this list. I would guess that less than 10% of the whiners have seen all the movies and that less than 20% have seen 10 of the 15.

    That said, much as I personally care for some of the left out titles, the only one that strikes me as truly offensive in its absence is Tyson, a movie that does such a mighty job of getting through that history and a truly unique interview with the man, showing skills far more complex than the split-screen shenanigans. It is worthy in the way Errol Morris’ The Fog of War was.

    But there is not a single title on that list that urges me to wonder how “that piece of crap” made the list. Some are better than others, but even on the weaker ones, it is pretty clear why a committee would find them so compelling.

  • Kris Tapley at In Contention:
    For every blogger or commenter complaining about the dubiousness of the list, I can’t fight the urge to ask whether or not they’ve seen all 15 titles that have been included. […] For my part, I think the list looks like a solid one. I’ll admit upfront that I’ve only seen seven of the 15 contenders, but those that I have seen all strike me as richer, more creative works than, say, “Capitalism” — which is mid-strength Moore at best. I personally find it encouraging that a previous Oscar mainstay like Moore can miss when he isn’t firing on all cylinders: at least we can’t accuse the Academy of favoritism.