OSCAR GUIDE: Best Documentary Feature

Posted by · 9:05 am · February 23rd, 2010

Daniel Ellsberg in The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon PapersThe year’s documentary feature category hasn’t offered up a lot of suspense so far this season. One contender has been a dominant force on the circuit and the nominations, for the most part, lined up accordingly. A lot of the intrigue, of course, is taken out by the mid-season announcement of a 15-film shortlist, which sometimes has its own shockers (as it did this year).

Voters in this field have to attend screenings of all the nominees, so that can sometimes yield left-field choices that don’t adhere to herd mentality. Then again, there are times when one film is too difficult to ignore. We had a year like that last year and it looks like things are heading that way this year as well.

The nominees are:

“Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country” (Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller)
“The Cove” (Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens)
“Food, Inc.” (Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein)
“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith)
“Which Way Home” (Rebecca Cammisa)

As always, it’s a diverse mixture of social, political and health concerns, most of the films featuring subjects that serve as touchstones for the audience. There are narratives as informative as entertaining and throughout, a theme of immediacy is at the fore.

“Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country” is in some ways the “Trouble the Water” of 2009. It’s a unique glance at a tough circumstance that isn’t given to the free flow of information. But it’s also unfair to be reductive. In any case, it is a valiant piece of journalism and it’s very existence is something of a miracle. An exploration of on-the-ground truths in the country of Burma from video journalists risking their lives to reveal them, the film is an eye-opening, thorough collage of reportage that, if it doesn’t get its proper due as a film, certainly deserves commendation as a triumph of DIY media. The film’s only hurdle would be a loose structure that is a bit less accessible than the other nominees. Formalism is often appreciated by those who vote on this committee.

With that in mind, “The Cove” is on course to snatch one more prize before its stellar awards season run concludes. By anyone’s measure a captivating story well-told, the film reached beyond documentation and even activism, a galvanizing portrait of a complex but dire situation. More than an account of animal cruelty, the film becomes a health concern study and, therefore, a human rights story. It also has the concentrated support of a great many within Hollywood’s ranks, making it the front-running favorite with the bluest town around. Things feel frankly more locked in this year for Louie Psihoyos and company than it did for last year’s foregone conclusion, so you can double town when it comes to the pools. And the Oscars are the most-watched program on Japanese television.

In most parts the pretender to the above’s perceived crown is Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.,” and what a worthy competitor it is. Perhaps the singular document of the film’s chosen subject, Kenner’s film makes one of the most compelling analytical cases of the lot. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of “The Cove,” but it certainly leaves no room for debate. What could hurt it is an overall talking head nature that sometimes goes unappreciated by this committee, which tends to prefer stories more so than dissertations. Still, the campaign has been out in force so perhaps cracks are being sniffed out in the frontrunner’s armor. But would this film be the one to benefit or is there another emotional contender waiting to grab voters by the heart strings and give a good tug?

If there is, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” is not that film. Truly a talking head piece that is nevertheless a compelling portrait of an in-the-flesh hero, the film is less concerned with narrative than “Food, Inc.,” which frankly leads me to believe it will be pulling up the rear as ballots are counted. It’s worth pointing out, however, that most of the other films reflect immediate global concerns, while this film is specific to our region, our modern mythology, our justice system and our potential as the flag-wavers of free society. There isn’t anything that particularly indicates the zeitgeist, however, and a “life and times” portrait only goes so far when your subject yields such a focused account, so it will have a tough time shining through.

If there is a true spoiler lurking in the bunch, it might very well be “Which Way Home,” produced by John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd and a wonderful companion piece to Focus Features’ “Sin Nombre,” I might add. The film is a life-on-the-road account of child migrants making their way up from South America through Mexico and, hopefully, to America, where maybe they can make enough money to send back to their struggling families. A number of youths are followed and serve as anchors for an at times quite emotional journey, some of them endearing with their street-smart toughness, others heart-breaking for their exposed innocence. More than any film besides the frontrunner, it makes you feel, and those emotions count when you’re forced to watch every nominee in order to participate in a vote.

Will win: “The Cove”
Could win: “Food, Inc.”
Should win: “The Cove”

Should have been here: “Mugabe and the White African”

The Cove

What do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature? Have your say in the sidebar poll!

→ 14 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

14 responses so far

  • 1 2-23-2010 at 9:13 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m not exactly devoted to any of these (had “Mugabe and the White African” or “The Beaches of Agnes” been nominated, I could get more into this race), but “Burma VJ” strikes me as the riskiest, most compelling work here.

  • 2 2-23-2010 at 9:33 am

    Bernard said...

    I’m really disappointed that Tyson wasn’t a nominee – what a fascinating look at such a flawed individual.

  • 3 2-23-2010 at 10:05 am

    Lance said...

    I would agree with Bernard about Tyson – I didn’t care about this guy at all but somehow I really got into this movie. I also love “Capatalism: A Love Story”

    I think the biggest problem with judging documentaries, is that sometimes I’m reacting more to the subject matter as opposed to the film-making. I usually ask myself, “how many film-makers could have taken that subject and done a better job” With “Food, Inc.” I think a much better movie could have been made about that same subject matter. But, do we give credit to a film-maker for having the courage to explore a subject that others haven’t? Do we give credit for a film-maker’s investigations skills or whether they put their lives at risk to uncover a subject (“The Cove”)?

    Also, I like documentaries to be objective and show all sides, but at the same time, I love Michael Moore’s films which have a singular point of view – I think the style sometimes dictates how objective they should be, but our reaction to that can be so subjective.

    For me, this has always been a tough category to judge.

  • 4 2-23-2010 at 11:21 am

    MovieMan said...

    Will win: “The Cove”
    Could win: “Which Way Home”
    Should win: cannot comment
    Should have been here: cannot comment, but want to.

    I only saw three documentaries last year: the flat-footed “Capitalism: A Love Story,” the enjoyable but underreaching “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” and the searingly powerful, magnetically chilling “Must Read After My Death,” which came in at #2 on my best of the year list and should have been included here, regardless of its extremely, maddeningly limited release way back in February. Trouble is, no opportunities come my way for screenings of documentaries, except the fair few. Example: Between 2006, 2007, and 2008, I only saw the following: the dull one-two-punch of “The 11th Hour” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” as well as the charming if slightly overrated “American Teen.” 2009 brought the most opportunities for seeing documentaries for me since I started reviewing films, but none of them were ever serious contenders for the Oscar, with the exception of “Capitalism: A Love Story,” in which case I wouldn’t have liked the only contender I saw.

  • 5 2-23-2010 at 11:53 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    MovieMan, plenty of great documentaries are available on Demand if you have cable.

  • 6 2-23-2010 at 1:43 pm

    James D. said...

    Tyson was robbed.

    Other than that, I would like to see Burma VJ win.

  • 7 2-23-2010 at 1:44 pm

    The Irishman said...

    What happened to “Outrage”, anyway? I still haven’t seen it but I really want to, and I seem to remember a lot of people predicting a better showing for it earlier in 2009.

  • 8 2-23-2010 at 2:56 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    What’s really saddening to me is that The King of Kong missed out in 2007. That’s a great documentary, and really makes you understand how something that seems trivial to us could have a deep personal meaning for some. And it’s just a flat-out fantastic story in general.

  • 9 2-23-2010 at 4:32 pm

    Derek said...

    This is the first time, literally ever, that I have seen all 5 nominees for Best Documentary, and I must say, it’s a very strong lineup. However, when I caught a screening of Which Way Home a few weeks ago before the nominations were announced, I became convinced that if people saw it, it would be nominated. I’m now hoping for an upset, because what an extraordinary film it is. It not only tells an important, relevant story that needs attention, it does so in a gripping, emotionally-wrenching way. I know there’s not much hope of The Cove losing, but for me, Which Way Home was just marvelous.

  • 10 2-23-2010 at 7:47 pm

    Tom said...

    I’ve only seen two of the nominees, both of which are very deserving, The Cove and Food Inc. The Cove is number 12 on my best of 2009 list, but I think the best documentary of the year was Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

  • 11 2-24-2010 at 3:40 am

    Matthias Zucker said...

    The most eye-opening of the three films I’ve seen was Burma VJ. By comparison, The Cove’s subject felt, sorry, a little frivolous. Animal rights, to me, are always of secondary concern to human rights.

    From the standpoint of filmmaking, however, there’s no denying that The Cove is a splendid specimen. And I like it, which I couldn’t say of Man on Wire last year, so I’d be fine with it winning.

    Especially in those more obscure categories (Doc, Foreign, Shorts) for which the season (and the AMPAS committee voting) goes on pretty much without the magic “buzz factor”, I tend to see the winners as simply one of the nominees that is singled out (sort of a “Watch this one first” recommendation) by voters’ tastes alone, as it should be in all categories actually, but the other nominees are often something worthwhile to discover as well.

  • 12 2-24-2010 at 6:56 am

    stylewriter said...

    Of the ones I’ve seen, Food, Inc. was the the one which truly got to me because it pissed me off. As a environmentalist it pains me to say this, but The Cove while very well shot is also very manipulative and, frankly, propagandish and I think is being overrated because of the danger the filmmakers and their main subject put themselves in to make the movie.

  • 13 2-24-2010 at 9:03 am

    pony said...

    @Matthias Zucker: Damn right. In “Burma VJ” you see actual human beings being slain, and the people who made it (or those who sent the footage) are risking their lives rather than facing probable jail time. “The Cove” is a wonderfully crafted movie, maybe the best of the lot (not counting “Which way home”, which I haven’t seen yet), but “Burma VJ” is by far the most important. Or maybe I’m just a little annoyed by how self congratulatory “The Cove” is.

    It think it wasn’t a great year for documentaries. “Valentino” and “Anvil!” were a lot of fun, “Good hair” was also fun but kind of shabby, “Outrage” was OK but not great, and if “Big river man” had been made by Werner Herzog it could have been as good or even better than “Grizzly man”.

  • 14 2-24-2010 at 10:15 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Animal rights, to me, are always of secondary concern to human rights.”

    So did you just totally miss the entire point of the film, that poisonous dolphin meat is being sold as whale meat to the population and force-fed (since they have to eat everything) to Japanese children.

    The film IS a human rights film.