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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

The comments to this entry are closed.


I don't understand Matt Sherman's comments (below). I saw IOUSA on CNN last weekend. It's an extremely well-told account of a difficult subject -- namely our nation's national debt. What I liked most about it was that it wasn't a Michael Moore slugfest... it was much smarter than that. It seems the film argues for long-term fiscal responsibility, and makes no mention of balancing the federal budget every year (only during good economic times which is clearly not what we live in today).
It's a great choice for an Oscar nomination.

I don’t understand the IOUSA pick. The film can hardly be considered a documentary (”objective art”) after realizing that the film focuses on people with a very explicit, and politically out-of-the-mainstream, agenda. They believe we should ignore current economic realities and balance our budget, no matter how painful it may be. What’s more, the film completely ignores the possibility of health care reform as a real solution to the long-term budget deficit problem. And instead, focuses completely on the doomsday (dooms-myth) projections that staunch libertarians often cite. The problem is that these projections rely completely on skyrocketing health care costs (see the link above). The movie is high on effects, narrow in its scope, and low on open-minded discussion of the problem.

If you ask a surgeon about a headache, you just might end up with a brain-ectomy.

If we take the definition of a documentary to be a piece of fact- and document-based, "objective art," then I'm not sure how "I.O.U.S.A." qualifies for this list, because it presents a crudely distorted view of the debate surrounding the deficit.

Especially in these economic times, it's easy to see how paltry worries about the deficit are. When your car is in a ditch, you don't worry about charging a tow truck to your credit card. And when the economy is in a recession, we need our national credit card (deficits) to provide for some stimulus.

Also, the "documentary" completely ignores the prospect of health care reform as the most realistic solution to the long-term deficit problem. Check out a much more substantive review by the folks at the Center for Economic and Policy Research here:

Bigger Stronger Faster* Directed by Christopher Bell got robbed. This film should have made the short list. The RT score is very high, and it was ranked 3rd best reviewed movie following Man On Wire as 1st. There is not one bad review. Perhaps, it should be in consideration that BSF* was very limited and opened against such movies as Sex In The City, Ironman, Walli, Indiana Jones, just to name a few. BSF* was critically acclaimed. You should take another look.

If "Dear Zachary" is not on the list for Best Documentary, it will be a travesty. The doc is devastating and also carries a 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Read the reviews at and give this film the Oscar.

"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."

Did you not notice the new #1 film of all time at Rotten Tomatoes? Man on Wire edged out Toy Story 2. It's pretty foolish to compare RT scores to MC scores...



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