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Social Injustice Showdown

This year's contenders reflect an American pysche obsessed with righting past wrongs, coping with contemporary stresses and a touch of schadenfreude (a 90,000-square-foot house foreclosed!)

Feature documentary contenders -- like election-year voters -- tend to be obsessed with an ever-rotating roll call of social injustices. Not surprisingly, this year's crop of hopefuls were born from a nation wrestling with oppression in various forms -- bullying, access to health care, legal miscarriages of justice and economic disparities.

Lee Hirsch's film Bully examines one social ill that plagues thousands of children and adolescents, particularly those struggling to come to terms with their homosexuality. The Weinstein Company release is largely built around narrative accounts of two young people allegedly driven to suicide by their schoolmates' abuse. With three states having just legalized gay marriage and Dan Savage's Emmy-winning "It Gets Better" project showing up on millions of computer screens, Bully is a rallying cry that won't dull before Oscar night.

The gap between the rich and the rest of us figures in Magnolia's The Queen of Versailles. In her docu-soap-ish exposé (think: The Real Formerly Rich Housewives of Orlando), filmmaker Lauren Greenfield guts the dreams of a nouveau riche family as it copes with that most modern of nightmares: It turns out the Siegels can't afford their decadent 90,000-square-foot mansion! Never has judgment in the face of others' misfortune been so much fun.

On the other end of the spectrum is Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, an old-fashioned work of didactic agitprop that presents a case for reform of the medical delivery system and the way it is financed. As with Michael Moore's skewering of health care in 2007's Sicko, there are bad guys and good guys in Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke's 98-minute film. The examples of real-world suffering they focus on are hard to ignore.

Ken Burns' Central Park Five is a master class in how a great doc filmmaker can avoid the dogmatic swamp of "justice delayed is justice denied." Burns co-directed, wrote and produced the film (with his lawyer daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon), which reconstructs the case of the five black youths sent to prison in New York City's notorious 1980s-era Central Park jogger case. Subsequent investigations, using DNA, revealed the true rapist: a convicted felon with a record of sex crimes.

Like a bizarrely apt companion piece -- and with the backing of producer Peter Jackson and supporters like Johnny Depp -- Amy Berg's West of Memphis revisits the famed case of three teenagers wrongfully convicted of murder in Arkansas in the 1990s. "It could have been any of us," Depp recently said of the victims, who are now free and making their rounds on the awards-publicity circuit, all in the hope that their suffering wasn't for nothing.

OTHER DOC CONTENDERS AND THEIR DIRECTORS

  • Bad 25 (Spike Lee)
  • Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski)
  • How to Survive a Plague (David France)
  • Love, Marilyn (Liz Garbus)
  • Marley (Kevin Macdonald)
  • Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney)
  • Neil Young Journeys (Jonathan Demme)
  • Samsara (Ron Fricke)
  • Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)
  • Side by Side (Christopher Kenneally)
  • The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki)
  • The Imposter (Bart Layton)