Oscars: 'Going Clear' Leads Host of Strong Doc Contenders From Year's First-Quarter

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

The first-quarter of 2015 came to an end this week, and Oscar-obsessives like me are already sorting through the wreckage (Jupiter Ascending, Mortdecai, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Chappie, etc.) in search of this year's The Grand Budapest Hotel, an early release with the juice to hang on through the entire year. My own early assessment: there isn't such a film — at least of the narrative sort. There are, however, several documentaries that might fit the bill.

The year's most buzzed-about documentary feature, if  doc series (HBO's six-part Robert Durst exposé The Jinx), is certainly Oscar winner Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The dishy look inside the practices of the titular religion premiered at Sundance and is now airing on HBO. While some may feel that the film demeans a faith shared by more than a few members of the Hollywood community and therefore may shy away from it, the doc branch of the Academy, which determines the category's Oscar nominees, may take another view of the film.

A sizable portion of the 221-member branch reveres Gibney, a two-time nominee (he won for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side), and his prolific output (he's also behind the new HBO doc Sinatra: All or Nothing At All). And besides, Going Clear wouldn't be the first doc to paint a not-entirely-flattering portrait of a religion and wind up with an Oscar nom. Indeed, the relatively short list of 21st century nominees includes Twist of Faith and Deliver Us from Evil, films that focus on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and Jesus Camp, a film about Evangelical Christians.

Read more 'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief': Sundance Review

A very different but also Academy-friendly doc is Ethan Hawke's Seymour: An Introduction, for which Sundance Selects is currently trying to revive momentum following a rapturous reception at last fall's film fests, followed by a release-date push into this year. (Hawke's attention — and the industry's attention to Hawke — was centered around Boyhood at the time.) This portrait of Seymour Bernstein, a wise and zen-like senior citizen who long ago abandoned a career as a concert pianist to become a piano teacher, seems to be right up Oscar voters' alley. (Wouldn't it be something if Hawke ended up getting his first Oscar for his work as a documentarian?)

Sundance, as always, unveiled a host of first-rate docs. In addition to Going Clear, standouts included Crystal Moselle's U.S. grand jury prize winner The Wolfpack (Magnolia), which profiles seven siblings who spent most of their childhood locked away in their small New York apartment, and Cartel Land (The Orchard), which revolves around vigilantes who take on Mexican drug cartels, for which Matthew Heineman won the U.S. documentary directing award and Heineman and Matt Porwoll shared the U.S. documentary cinematography award. Both films will receive theatrical releases later this year.

Another doc that got a big bounce out of Sundance, en route to a February release, was Oscar nominee Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's disturbing and timely film The Hunting Ground, a look at the growing epidemic of campus sexual assault. Its distributor RADiUS-TWC, which handled the last two winners of the best documentary feature Oscar (20 Feet from Stardom and Citizenfour), is very bullish about its long-term prospects, even if Rolling Stone's debacle of an article about an alleged rape on the campus of the University of Virginia — which turned out not to have happened as the magazine's account suggested — raised questions about whether the problem is being exaggerated.

Park City also debuted Oscar winner Louis Psihoyos' Racing Extinction, a gorgeously-shot, harrowing look at how humans are threatening many other species, which The Discovery Channel will qualify and then air later this year; Oscar nominee Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a fresh look at the life of the titular Nirvana frontman, which HBO will qualify and then air on May 4; Oscar nominee Liz Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone?, a Nina Simone profile that Netflix acquired for a theatrical and streaming release in June; Oscar winner Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's Best of Enemies, a dissection of the complicated relationship between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., which Magnolia has not yet dated; James D. Cooper's Lambert & Stamp, a story about the duo of would-be filmmakers who discovered and managed The Who, which Sony Classics releases today; and Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldthwaite's funny and moving profile of forgotten fellow comedian Barry Crimmins, which went on to win the documentary prize at the Boulder International Film Festival (full disclosure: I served on the jury that made that selection) and will be released by MPI Media Group later this year.

If you were at February's film fest in Berlin — or virtually any other since last fall's Venice, except Sundance — then you've probably caught The Look of Silence (Drafthouse Films), the second part of Joshua Oppenheimer's haunting Indonesian genocide "diptych." Part one, 2013's The Act of Killing, landed him a nom, and this one might too. It hits theaters on July 17.

Numerous Oscar voters have told me me how much they enjoyed three docs that hit select theaters during the year's first three months: Jody Lee Lipes' Ballet 422 (Magnolia), a backstage look at the work of the New York City Ballet, which has been playing fests since last spring's Tribeca Film Festival; Denny Tedesco's The Wrecking Crew (Magnolia), a music-packed profile of the top session musicians of all-time — one of whom was the director's father — which was delayed for years by music clearance hurdles; and Erik Anjou's Deli Man (Cohen Media Group), a film about the history of the American delicatessen and the people who are currently waging the uphill battle of keeping them alive, which skipped the fest circuit.

Another tremendous crowd-pleaser: Indian-American siblings Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel's hilarious comedy Meet the Patels, in which Geeta chronicles Ravi's dating woes and their nudgy immigrant parents' efforts to set him up the old-fashioned way. It has been on the fest circuit since last year, and Alchemy will release it later this year; if given a proper release, it could become a runaway phenomenon in the vein of another narrative love story, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Lastly, the future remains up in the air for a handful of worthy docs unveiled during the first-quarter of the year: Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Douglas Tirola's Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon both premiered at Sundance; the former was acquired by PBS, and it remains to be seen whether or not it will receive an awards-qualifying run, while the latter is still seeking domestic distribution, just like a couple of other great fest finds, Jeffrey Schwarz's Hollywood history Tab Hunter Confidential and James Marcus Haney's music road trip Austin to Boston, both of which happen to be favorites of mine.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg