Oscar Doc Shortlist: A Brutal Year to Have to Select Just 15 Finalists

Keep on Keepin' On Still Tribeca - H 2014
Tribeca Film Festival

Keep on Keepin' On Still Tribeca - H 2014

The first major awards-related announcement on Tuesday — a day filled with them, much like Monday — was the Academy's disclosure of the 15 films that its documentary branch members selected, out of a list of 134 eligible titles, to compete for the five slots in the best documentary feature Oscar category.

In my humble opinion, 2014 has been a so-so year for narrative films, but as great a year as any on record for documentaries. If you need proof of this, check out any of the 15 that made the cut, which I have taken great pleasure in watching and watching again. (And, for what it's worth, I predicted 9 of the 15.) The problem, however, is that no matter which 15 titles the doc branch selected, plenty of other great ones would be left on the outside.

That is the case, most egregiously, with Gabe Polsky's Red Army (Sony Classics), a masterful look at the role of sports in society and Russian-American relations; Marshall Curry's Point and Shoot (The Orchard), which joins Racing Dreams (2009) on the list of Curry's un-shortlisted docs that are at least as good as the two for which he was nominated; James Keach's Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me (Area 23a), the most impressive film about Alzheimer's Disease that I've ever seen; Jose Antonio Vargas' Documented (CNN Films), a look at the complex life of the filmmaker, who was instrumental in motivating Pres. Obama to implement immigration reform; Amir Bar-Lev's Happy Valley (Music Box Films), which looks at the Penn State sex scandal in a unique way; Mike Myers' Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (RADiUS), a terrific portrait of one showbiz eccentric by another; Robbie Kenner's Merchants of Doubt (Sony Classics), an engrossing expose about talking heads; and Chiemi Karasawa's Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (IFC Films), a portrait of not only a star but the perils of aging. To be honest, I feel a little sick knowing how hard these filmmakers worked on their projects and how good their films were.

See more THR's Scott Feinberg Moderates the Savannah Film Festival's 2014 Documentary Roundtable (3 of the 8 Panelists Have Since Had Their Films Oscar-Shortlisted)

At the same time, how can one not be overjoyed for the filmmakers whose docs were shortlisted?

Al Hicks, a lovely 30-year-old Australian, worked odd jobs over the last five years to finance the making of Keep on Keepin' On, a deeply touching film — filled with beautiful music — about the special relationship between his music teacher Clark Terry, the elderly jazz legend, and Justin Kauflin, a blind piano prodigy. When I spoke with Al today, he had just called Adam Hart, the film's cinematographer (and a friend since 7th grade), who was working the nightshift at Sydney International Airport building luggage conveyor belts, to share the good news. Al encouraged Adam to tell his colleagues what had happened, but told me Adam said to him, "Mate, they wouldn't even believe me."

How about soft-spoken Laura Poitras, the activist/journalist whose filming of her meeting in Hong Kong with former NSA contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden resulted in CitizenFour? Her doc — which she put together outside of the country because she has been added to a watch-list that could have resulted in its confiscation or outing of sources — has made even those who vehemently disagree with Snowden's actions reconsider their feelings about the man himself. (Another shortlisted doc, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, would make for a great double-feature with it.) And it has been just about universally acclaimed, becoming the first doc ever to win both NYFCC and Gotham awards on top of receiving Spirit Award, IDA and Cinema Eye Honors noms.

Read more New York Film Fest: 'Citizenfour' Hacks Way to Top of Uber-Competitive Doc Oscar Race

Then there's the master, Steve James, who 20 years after being left off the shortlist for a doc that many now regard as the greatest example of the genre ever made, Hoop Dreams, and three years after being left off it again for The Interrupters, is finally a finalist, for the Roger Ebert appreciation Life Itself. James, who is about as unassuming as any great artist you'll ever meet, also got the news today that his film was chosen as the year's top doc by the National Board of Review, which is a big deal in and of itself.

Other great stories abound: John Maloof, the young Chicagoan who first discovered the photographs of Vivian Maier, and Charlie Siskel, the nephew of Ebert's former TV partner and a protege of Michael Moore, made the cut for their extraordinary Finding Vivian Maier; Rory Kennedy, a daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, joins them for her fascinating reclamation of history, Last Days in Vietnam; Frank Pavich's Jodorowsky's Dune makes the shortlist a year after being pulled from the contest at the last minute; Netflix returns to the shortlist for the second year in a row, following The Square last year, with Orlando von Einsiedel's haunting look inside an African National Park under siege, Virunga; and the list goes on.

What distinguishes the films and filmmakers that made the cut from those that did not? No one can say for sure, but it's quite likely that the ones that made the cut simply were watched by more people. Nobody — well, almost nobody — can watch all of the eligible docs before voting for the shortlist closes, so it really boils down to motivating doc branch members to pick yours out of the giant boxes of screeners that they are sent instead of someone else's. Appearances at and accolades from major film festivals certainly help; so does coverage from major media outlets; and so, too, does being championed by high-profile folks inside the branch (there is a message board on which members recommend titles to one another) and outside of it (Last Days in Vietnam certainly wasn't hurt by the party that Kennedy's neighbor Pierce Brosnan hosted for her, to which many doc branch members were invited, nor was Virunga by the vocal championing of it by exec producer Leonardo DiCaprio).

Anyway, as I told one filmmaker who was understandably disappointed that his doc did not make the cut today, it is important to remember this: the only list of docs that is even more impressive than the list of docs that have received Oscar nominations is the list of docs that have not, which includes Albert Maysles and David Maysles' Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975), Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985), Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1985), Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, Michael Moore's Roger & Me (1989), Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (1994), Steve James' Hoop Dreams (1994), Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005), Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), Marshall Curry's Racing Dreams (2009) and David Gelb's Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011).

That's not such bad company to be in.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg