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Can 'Religulous' win an Oscar for Emmy's biggest loser Bill Maher?

October 7, 2008 |  5:20 pm

"Religulous," the incendiary documentary by Bill Maher and Larry Charles that dares to question organized religion, earned $3.4 million in its opening weekend, thus edging out the anti-Darwin doc "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" for top nonfiction debut of the year.

Although the film will no doubt continue to make lots of green, the question now is whether "Religulous" can earn Oscar gold. As Bill Maher told us up in Toronto, that would sure make up for those record 21 losses at the Emmy Awards.

The documentary divided critical opinion and managed to score only 55 at Metacritic. It earned raves from the likes of Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) and Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), but there were also pans from noted reviewers Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) and Neely Tucker (Washington Post).


To earn an Oscar nod, "Religulous" must now pass muster with the documentary branch of the academy.

One wonders how accepting these serious-minded film folk will be of an effort by two TV vets. While Maher has earned his stripes with his often inflammatory rhetoric on "Politically Incorrect" and "Real Time With Bill Maher," Charles (a two-time Emmy winner for "Seinfeld") is best known as the man behind the mockumentary "Borat."

Select branch members will screen all eligible films: those that played at least one week in L.A. and Gotham before the end of August, are at least 41 minutes long and are not shown on TV or the Internet for at least 60 days after finishing qualifying runs on both coasts. (Two top-grossing documentaries -- "Young @ Heart" and "Up the Yangtze" -- are disqualified because of airings on British and Canadian TV, respectively.)

An average scoring system will be used to produce a short list of 12 to 15 films. Only then will the academy's standard system of preferential voting be used to determine the final five nominees. [Rule 12(C)2 dictates that this second round of voting require the viewing of all short-listed documentaries in a theater unless the member watched all of the eligible documentaries in the first round.] This two-step process was instituted last year to address concerns about the caliber of films that were making the cut. This year's crop of possibilities offers a wide range of choices.

The top earner to date -- with nearly $10 million in sales -- is "U2 3D." Just as the name suggests, this is a 3D concert film featuring the Irish rock band U2. Although the film wowed the critics, scoring 83 at Metacritic, this type of documentary rarely makes it into the race.

However, with Oscar winner Martin Scorsese ("The Departed") helming "Shine a Light," this IMAX edition of a concert by the Rolling Stones could break that barrier. That film pleased enough ardent fans among the critics to score 76 at Metacritic and has earned just over $5 million.

While respectable, that box office take puts it well behind "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," which has made nearly $8 million. However, Ben Stein's advocacy of intelligent design over Darwinism met with critical derision, scoring a mere 20 at Metacritic.

Much better received was "Man on Wire," which revisits Philippe Petit's daring walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Nearly universal rave reviews yielded a score of 89 at Metacritic, and the film has made almost $2.5 million. "Gonzo" looks at the life of another man who lived life on the high wire -- the late Hunter S. Thompson -- and had enough supporters among the critics to come in at 73 at Metacritic but has made only $1.2 million.

So far the best-reviewed docu of the year is "Trouble the Water," the Katrina-themed winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance, which has a perfect 100% score from top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. The L.A. Times calls it "more than a keenly dramatic look at how this country treats the poor and dispossessed." However, since late August, it's only earned $330,000 while showing at 14 theaters.

"Encounters at the End of the World," which recounts German filmmaker Werner Herzog's journey to Antarctica, may have warmed up enough critics to rate an 80 at Metacritic but met with cool indifference from the public, grossing just under $1 million. Three years ago, Herzog helmed the critically acclaimed "Grizzly Man," which did not rate with the documentary branch. "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" examines the legal troubles of the Oscar winning director ("The Pianist") and earned a respectable 78 at Metacritic. However, this HBO-financed film barely played in theaters, earning all of $58,000.

In recent years, the Oscar race has favored political and social documentaries over life stories. The last bio doc to win was "The Fog of War" five years ago. That film certainly had political undertones as it looked at the the life of former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he revisited his part in the Vietnam War. The pic won an Oscar for Errol Morris who returns to the race this year with "Standard Operating Procedure." This examination of the tactics used by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib divided critics enough to score only 70 at Meta Critic and the heavy going fare has made only $228,000. However, last year's winner – the equally dark "Taxi to the Dark Side" – also had a very limited release and earned only $275,000.

And finally, "American Teen" a look at the lives of four high school seniors, received only a passing grade from most critics scoring 66 at Meta Critic and with audiences earning just under $1 million.