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A closer look at the 15 feature documentaries in contention for the Oscars

November 18, 2008 | 11:01 am


While Bill Maher, Martin Scorsese and Ben Stein lick their wounds at being left out of the running, 15 feature documentaries remain in contention for the Oscar with nominations to be announced January 22. While an average scoring system produced this short list, the academy's standard system of preferential voting kicks in to determine the final five nominees. (Rule 12(C)2 dictates that this second round of voting requires the viewing of all short-listed documentaries in a theater unless the member watched all of the eligible documentaries in the first round.) The two-step process was instituted last year to address concerns about the caliber of documentaries making the cut.

Among the final 15 is the best-reviewed documentary of the year "Trouble the Water," the Katrina-themed winner of the 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 $460,000 showing at 14 theaters.

Also in the running are a pair of documentaries about two men facing incredible challenges. "Man on Wire" 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 $3 million. "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 it 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.

Three other bio docs also made the grade: "Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Sensesh" — the story of an unsung hero of the Holocaust; "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts" — a profile of the three-time Oscar-nominated composer; and "In a Dream" — a look at two mosaic artists in Philadelphia.

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 U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he revisited his part in the Vietnam War and 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 Metacritic 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.

Rounding out the short list are:

"At the Death House Door": an indictment of the wrongful 1989 execution of Carlos DeLuna in Texas;

"The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)": the stirring story of the journey of one family from Laos in the 1970s;

"Fuel": a look at America's love affair with oil;

"The Garden": a story of protest about the closing of an urban farm;

"I.O.U.S.A.": a timely audit of the credit crunch;

"Made in America": an examination of gang violence in Los Angeles;

"Pray the Devil Back to Hell": a celebration of the success of the women's movement in Liberia; and

"They Killed Sister Dorothy": an investigation into the 2005 murder of an activist nun in the Brazilian rainforest.

Photo: Maximum Film