Best Documentary Oscar: The Shortlist of Contenders

Thanks to a new voting procedure, this year's list might not be perfect, but it's provocative.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry
First-time filmmaker Alison Klayman's portrait of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who got a shout-out from Elton John at a recent concert in Beijing, debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it scored a special jury prize for its "spirit of defiance."

The Weinstein Co. acquired Lee Hirsch's documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it first played, and launched a social-action campaign to combat bullying in the nation's schools while also tangling with the ratings board, which branded it with an R rating for language until some edits were made.

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Chasing Ice
Capturing dramatic evidence of the melting Arctic ice cap has become a lifelong quest for environmental photographer James Balog, whose work is documented in Jeff Orlowski's film, which won a cinematography prize at Sundance.

The barren landscapes of Detroit form the backdrop for this study of a city in decline by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the filmmaking team behind 2006's Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp. It captures the Motor City's past glory and revolves around folks who refuse to leave.

For this film that has aired on HBO, director Rory Kennedy (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) turns the camera on her family and, in particular, her mother, Ethel Kennedy, who held together her family of 11 children after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2012

5 Broken Cameras
Winner of a Sundance directing award and shot by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, who joined with Israeli co-director Guy Davidi to assemble his material, the film witnesses the nonviolent resistance in a West Bank town threatened by Israeli settlements.

The Gatekeepers
Also focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations, Dror Moreh's film, which Sony Pictures Classics acquired after its Jerusalem flm fest debut, offers interviews with six former directors of Shin Bet, Israel's secretive internal security agency, who are all critical of current policies.

The House I Live In
Eugene Jarecki received the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance for his latest film, which examines how the war on drugs has affected America's streets, its courts and its prison system.

STORY: The House I Live In: Sundance Film Review

How to Survive a Plague
Chronicling how activist groups like ACT UP organized to fight the AIDS epidemic, David France's film already is one of the year's winners, picking up a Gotham Award for best doc and best first film honors from the New York Film Critics Circle.

The Imposter
One of those stranger-than-fiction tales, Bart Layton's movie tells the story of a 23-year-old French child impersonator who convinces a Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who has been missing for three years.

The Invisible War
From Kirby Dick, an Oscar nominee for 2004's Twist of Fate, comes this indictment of the U.S. military for allowing a culture of rape to develop within its ranks. Festivalgoers at Sundance rewarded it with an audience award.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Alex Gibney, who exposed torture by the U.S. in his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side in 2007, takes on pedophilia in the Catholic Church in his latest film -- which will air on HBO -- and pursues his investigation all the way to Rome.

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Searching for Sugar Man
Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul embarks on a quest to discover the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a '70s singer-songwriter whose music became a generational anthem in South Africa while he lived anonymously in Detroit. 60 Minutes already has aired excerpts of the film.

This Is Not a Film
Banned from making movies in Iran, Jafar Panahi, working with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, secretly shot this film in his apartment, where he reads a screenplay for one of the movies he's not allowed to make.

The Waiting Room
Peter Nicks, who has produced for Frontline, directs his first feature by documenting the American health-care system: He trained his cameras on the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., whose clientele largely is uninsured.