Oscar Watch: Documentary contenders


Trouble the Water
Director: Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
Pros: Inspirational saga of a poor African-American couple who survive Hurricane Katrina in dramatic fashion might be tough for Oscar to resist, given the Academy's propensity for social-issue docs and Hollywood's effusion of racial goodwill at the dawn of the Obama era.
Cons: Has performed modestly in platform release. Some critics suggest that directors Lessin and Deal have exploited subject Kimberly Roberts, whose amateur Katrina footage is almost a third of the film.
Trouble the Water
Encounters at the End of the World
Director: Werner Herzog
Pros: This is director Herzog's first nomination, and he's long overdue. His gorgeous, wry Antarctic travelogue has an environmental message (which always helps), did decent box office in limited release, and was among the year's best-reviewed films.
Cons: This is Herzog's first nomination, and that may be all he's going to get. He remains a prickly outsider in Hollywood, and some documentary mavens dislike his eccentric, personal films.
  Encounters at the End of the World
Man on Wire
Director: James Marsh
Pros: Amazing true story of Philippe Petit's 1974 wire-walk between the Twin Towers is the most obviously entertaining nominee, was universally wellreviewed and performed strongly at the box office (almost $3 million on a maximum of 93 screens).
Cons: The most entertaining and successful films often don't win this category. The fate of those towers 27 years later is never mentioned, thus eschewing any overt social or political message.
Man on Wire
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Director: Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
Pros: Poetic, impressionistic saga of a Laotian immigrant family's three-decade odyssey (co-directed by its subject Phrasavath) is impressive in cinematic and human terms. Director Kuras is a well-respected industry DP who has worked with Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Michel Gondry.
Cons: Too arty, leisurely and fragmentary for many Academy voters, and contemporary relevance of the subject matter may be unclear. Has played only a handful of theaters.
  The Betrayal
The Garden
Director: Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Pros: This David vs. Goliath yarn about a 14-acre community farm in South Central L.A. threatened by development has social relevance, Hollywood clout (Daryl Hannah appears, Julie Bergman Sender exec-produces) and hometown appeal. Potential Oscar sleeper.
Cons: Remains without a distribution deal, and there must be a reason for that. Beyond Academy-qualifying runs and a few festival screenings, no paying customers have seen it.
The Garden