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NOV
18
2 YEARS

Academy's Doc Shortlist Includes -- and Leaves Out -- Plenty of Great Films (Analysis)

The list of 15 films snubs Gibney, James, Herzog, Morris, Scorsese, and many lesser-known but similarly worthy filmmakers.

The Interrupters Film Still - H 2011
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild

Each year when the Academy's documentary branch screening committee announces its shortlist of 15 films from which the five best documentary (feature) Oscar contenders will be selected, as they did today, there are inevitably a few omissions that leave doc buffs stunned. This year is no exception.

I applaud the committee for a number of its selections this year: If a Tree Falls, a gripping doc about eco-terrorism by Marshall Curry, who was previously nominated for Street Fight (2005); Pina, a German doc about dance in which the great Wim Wenders makes some of the best use of 3-D that I have ever seen; Buck, Cindy Meehl's moving doc about master horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, which won this year's Sundance Film Festival doc audience award winner; and the nature vs. nurture doc Project Nim, James Marsh's first doc since his Man on Wire (2008) won the Oscar three years ago.

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But I also have a few major gripes...

How could the Academy's doc folks screw Steve James again? 17 years ago they snubbed his Hoop Dreams (1994), which is now widely regarded as one of the greatest docs of all-time, and now they have done the same thing to The Interrupters, his look at inner-city violence and some of the unexpected folks who are bravely venturing to its front lines to try to combat it.

Why would they leave off Senna, Asif Kapadia's immensely engaging portrait of the late race car driver Ayrton Senna, which is available in both 2-D and 3-D? Do they have something against racing? They also neglected to recognize the aforementioned Curry's doc Racing Dreams (2009) two years ago, even though it might be the best doc of the 21st century.

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What is their reason for failing to nominate -- year after year -- the films of the revered veterans Errol Morris and Werner Herzog? Sure, Morris won the category's Oscar for The Fog of War (2003), but that doesn't make up for the snubs of the snubs of Gates of Heaven (1980), The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Standard Operating Procedure (2008), to say nothing of this year's Tabloid. And Herzog was surely deserving of their attention for Grizzly Man (2005), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), and now Into the Abyss, a mesmerizing two-hour film that is all the more impressive because he put it together using only eight hours of footage.

Do they have a problem with HBO Documentaries? The doc powerhouse had at least two worthy candidates that missed this year -- Greg Barker's Koran by Heart, which shows the Muslim world in ways that I'd never seen it before, and was a huge crowd-pleaser at Tribeca; and Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, about lesser-known sides of the late Beatle.

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Was there really not enough room for Andrew Rossi's Page One: Inside the New York Times, which is about as timely a doc as one could hope to find, in the sense that it captures in unprecedented ways the turbulent changes that are taking place in the world of American media right now? Or Constance Mark's Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, which is among the most successful docs of the year critically (92% on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercially (it made over $25,000 on one screen its opening weekend)?

How about Jon Shenk's The Island President? The film, which shows the consequences of some of what was predicted in the Oscar-winning global warming doc An Inconvenient Truth (2006), played well at Telluride, won doc audience award at Toronto, was just picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films. And Alex Stapleton's Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel? They were interested enough in its subject, the indie filmmaking trailblazer Roger Corman, to give him an honorary Oscar two years ago, so why not a film that captures why he matters. And Allison Ellwood and doc Oscar winner Alex Gibney's Magic Trip? The film takes you right into the head(-trip) of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey as he rambled across America.

I could go on. I wish the doc shortlist could have, too.