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Academy's Best Doc Oscar Shortlist Includes All of the Big Guns But One (Analysis)

"20 Feet from Stardom," "The Act of Killing," "Blackfish," "Cutie and the Boxer," "The Square," "Stories We Tell" and "Tim's Vermeer" are all among the final 15, but the Academy once again snubbed casting directors by excluding "Casting By."

Berlinale The Act of Killing - H 2013
"The Act of Killing"

The members of the Academy's documentary branch have whittled down a list of 151 documentaries to a shortlist of 15, from which the five best documentary feature Oscar nominees will be chosen, and the list includes almost all of the most buzzed-about docs of the year.

Among those included: 20 Feet From Stardom, which highlights the work of backup singers; The Act of Killing, a profile of participants in the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide who proudly re-enact their crimes (the film already received best doc noms from the Cinema Eye Honors and IDA Awards); Blackfish, an exposé about the way Sea World treats its orca whales (which received a best doc IDA Award nom); Cutie and the Boxer, about two married and bickering Japanese artists (which received a field-leading six Cinema Eye Honors noms and for which Zachary Heinzerling was awarded Sundance's prize for best direction of a U.S. doc and the IDA's emerging documentary filmmaker award); The Square, an on-the-ground record of the political revolutions that have recently unfolded in Cairo's Tahrir Square (which won audience awards at Sundance and Toronto); Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's unconventional look at her personal history (which received best doc noms from the Cinema Eye Honors and IDA Awards); and Tim's Vermeer, Penn and Teller's profile of an inventor who conducts an investigation that reaches conclusions that have rocked the art world.

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The filmmakers behind two of the shortlisted films are enjoying a particularly exciting day: The Act of Killing was awarded best doc at Monday night's Gotham Awards, and Stories We Tell was chosen as best doc by the New York Film Critics Circle on Tuesday morning.

The most prominent doc absent from the list: Casting By, about the heretofore overlooked history and underappreciated impact of casting directors throughout Hollywood history, which pressured the Academy into creating a casting directors branch earlier this year. Others missing from the final 15 include American Promise, for which parents filmed their son and his friend over 13 years, and Inequality for All, a look at America's widening income disparity through the teachings of former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, both of which received a special jury award at Sundance; Oscar winner Errol Morris' The Unknown Known, a portrait of Secretary of Defense Donald RumsfeldThe Last of the Unjust, Claude Lanzmann's follow-up to his epic Holocaust doc Shoah (1985); and Let the Fire Burn, a found-footage doc about a 1985 clash between Philadelphia police and the radical urban group, which received best doc noms from the Gotham Awards and IDA Awards, the latter of which gave it a field-leading four mentions.

Consciously or not, Academy members spread their 15 selections fairly evenly among different major distributors -- including Netflix, which got in on the Oscar contest this year for the first time with The Square. The breakdown: Drafthouse Films (The Act of Killing), HBO Films (First Cousin Once Removed, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington), IFC Films (Dirty Wars), Magnolia (Blackfish), Netflix Originals (The Square, in partnership with Noujaim Films and Participant), Phase 4 Films (The Crash Reel), RADiUS-TWC (20 Feet from Stardom and Cutie and the Boxer), Roadside Attractions (Stories We Tell), Sony Pictures Classics (The Armstrong Lie and Tim's Vermeer) and Variance Films (God Loves Uganda). Life According to Sam is apparently still seeking a U.S. distributor.

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The shortlist also covers a diversity of subjects, including animals (Blackfish), art (Cutie and the Boxer and Tim's Vermeer), family (First Cousin Once Removed and Stories We Tell), gay rights (God Loves Uganda), music (20 Feet from Stardom and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer), health care (Life According to Sam), journalism (Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington), politics (The Square), sports (The Armstrong Lie and The Crash Reel) and war (The Act of Killing and Dirty Wars).

The 15 films were unveiled at a variety of different fests: Many debuted at Sundance (20 Feet from Stardom, Blackfish, The Crash Reel, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, God Loves Uganda, Life According to Sam, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, The Square and Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington), others at Venice (The Armstrong Lie), Telluride (The Act of Killing, in 2012, and Tim's Vermeer), Toronto (Stories We Tell, in 2012) and New York (First Cousin Once Removed, in 2012).

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg