Four Oscar-Shortlisted Docs Dominate Field at Cinema Eye Honors (Analysis)

Cutie and the Boxer

U.S.A. (Director: Zachary Heinzerling)

This candid New York love story explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Anxious to shed her role as her overbearing husband's assistant, Noriko finds an identity of her own.

NEW YORK -- Where will you get drunk very quickly if you have to take a shot every time you hear the name Sheila Nevins? The Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, of course!

STORY: 'The Act of Killing' Wins Outstanding Feature at Cinema Eye Honors

Top documentary filmmakers of the past and present from all around the world converged on the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria on Wednesday night for the seventh annual edition of the event, a pre-Oscar nominations pep rally and awards ceremony for the doc community. Four of the 15 Oscar-shortlisted docs came away as the night's big winners: Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer took home the most prizes (three: best new director, original music score, and graphic design and animation); Lucy Walker's The Crash Reel was chosen as best nonfiction film for television (on which it aired after its Oscar-qualifying theatrical release); Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell earned its director a prize for the third night in a row (Polley's film was the best doc choice of the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review, and she won the best director Cinema Eye Honor); and Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing took home the biggest accolade of all (best feature, plus best achievement in production).

The results do not necessarily reflect the same tastes as the documentary branch of the Academy that determines the best documentary feature Oscar nominees -- the Cinema Eye Honors' nominees are determined by journalists and film festival organizers, not filmmakers, but the winners are chosen by several hundred filmmakers, amongst whom are many members of the Academy's doc branch. In any case, the outcome of the Cinema Eye Honors will not sway the doc branch's selection of nominees, since Oscar nomination voting ended on Wednesday night at 5 p.m. PT. But if these same films can make it past the announcement of the Oscar nominees on Jan. 16 -- over other top contenders such as Jehane Noujaim's The Square, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish, Morgan Neville's 20 Feet From Stardom and Teller's Tim's Vermeer -- then a raised profile certainly won't hurt them in the final round of Oscar voting.

The ceremony also featured the presentation of special awards to Barbara Kopple and Josh Fox -- Kopple for her Oscar-winning film Harlan County, USA (1976) and Fox for his anti-fracking pleas GasLand (2010) and GasLand 2 (2013). And Lisa Fisher, perhaps the most compelling backup singer profiled in 20 Feet From Stardom -- hence her Cinema Eye selection as one of the year's 10 "Unforgettables" featured in docs, alongside the likes of Tilikum, the killer whale from Blackfish -- sang the number "Fever" live; she and her fellow singers' profiles have certainly been raised by Neville's film, and they have repaid the favor by performing all over the place this Oscar season.

Presenters at the rambling event included Michael Moore, Albert Maysles, Steve James, Chris Hegedus, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady and documentary-turned-narrative features editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who said, "I couldn't have cut the improvisations in The Wolf of Wall Street if I hadn't had that experience." Meanwhile, notable doc filmmakers in the audience included Marshall Curry. HBO docs division chief Nevins was probably the most frequently thanked person of the night -- to one degree or another, she helps to guide every film that comes through her operation -- but she was not able to attend.

The people who seemed to be having the most fun at the cocktail party before the ceremony got underway were Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara, the married Japanese artists whose complicated relationship is the subject of Cutie and the Boxer. When I asked them how they thought the film would do when awards started getting dished out, Noriko said with a straight face, "Well, we have to beat the killer whale!" Later in the evening, while accepting his breakthrough director prize, Heinzerling said of the Shinoharas, "They really taught me how to make art, and I'm eternally grateful to them for that."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg