OSCAR GUIDE: Best Documentary (Feature)

Posted by · 7:24 am · February 18th, 2011

It has been noted what a solid year of documentary filmmaking 2010 was. It was well-reflected in the Academy’s initial narrowing of the feature field to 15 contenders and is certainly evident in the ultimate quintet of nominees, each of them informative and bold in their own ways.

Still, it came as quite a shock to many that the perceived frontrunner of the year, Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” was left off the list. Theories run rampant, but at the end of the day, it seemed the branch just didn’t go for the film’s stretching of truths and hastily boiled-down rhetoric. Nevertheless, an opportunity may have been missed to shine a light on the issue of education reform, which is still a considerable one.

The nominees are:

“Exit through the Gift Shop” (Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz)
“Gasland” (Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic)
“Inside Job” (Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs)
“Restrepo” (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)
“Waste Land” (Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley)

It’s important to keep in mind that this is one of five categories voted on by committee, so voters have to see all the nominees in order to have a say. But let me just say this is probably the most satisfying of all the categories this year, so at least it’s a choice between quality and quality.

Right at the top, you know what I have to say about Banksy‘s poignant portrait of art as passion, consumerism and, ultimately, a pointless dodge. The UK-based street artist is in Los Angeles as you read these words, carrying on in alleyways and on billboards, making his presence and the presence of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” known. Banksy sightings have come to be one of the more interesting elements of phase two this year, and what a joy it would be to see him and his producer Jaimie D’Cruz take home the Oscar (even if the Academy has gone out of its way to make sure no shenanigans ensue if things indeed pan out that way). Part of me wants to think Academy members are cool enough to award the year’s best feature film, but it’s a toss-up between this and a certain current affairs piece that could be seen as more worthy of their public appreciation.

Speaking of current affairs, Josh Fox dug into the issue of hydraulic fracturing in “Gasland,” a film that really stirred the corporate pot as the gas industry has already fired back. Fox later responded via his Facebook page. Controversy is rarely a bad thing for a documentary in the Oscar race, but the back and forth didn’t catch hold beyond a one-week talking point, so that’s not likely to help out Fox and co-nominee Trish Adlesic‘s cause in a grand publicity sense. The film began as a personal journey for the Colorado-based filmmaker and ultimately turned over a number of stones on its way to indicting a process that appears to be needlessly poisoning water supplies while corporate giants, naturally, turn a blind eye. In a weaker year it might have a play on the statue.

If hoax accusations and general squareness hold back my personal favorite in the field, then I could see Charles Ferguson and his producer Audrey Marrs making a trip to the podium for the Wall Street crash treatise “Inside Job.” This is their second nomination after being recognized for “No End in Sight” in 2007, and this time around, Ferguson was more ruthless than ever, aiming right for the jugular of a number of underestimating finance experts, many of them key players in the country’s fiscal meltdown two years ago. What’s more, he doesn’t play the partisan game, sticking it right to the Obama administration for willfully inheriting some of those same players in its financial departments. It’s a close race, and this one could ultimately pull out the win, though it does have its talking head nature working against it.

The one nominee that, to quote our own Guy Lodge, “astonishes by its very existence,” is Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger‘s gripping, brave and, above all, balanced “Restrepo.” An on-the-ground account of soldiers holding down an Afghanistan outpost, the film avoids sticky and unnecessary editorial by focusing on the more moving elements: the human beings on the front lines and the relationships they forge. But the film isn’t oblivious. It arrives, rather gracefully, at a point of questioning the purpose of the conflict by documenting its subjects’ reaction to the events as they unfold around them. No one can question the filmmakers’ determination, having embedded with the unit for a year and a half. The end result would make a fine Oscar winner indeed.

Finally there is the soft spot of the bunch, by which I mean Lucy Walker‘s “Waste Land” probably takes the crowd-pleaser prize this year. The film, produced by co-nominee Angus Aynsley, depicts contemporary artist Vik Muniz’s collaboration with “catadores” (pickers of recyclable materials at the world’s largest landfill outside of Rio de Janeiro) to create amazing large-scale works of art to be photographed. It carries real emotional weight and drives home a message with endearing characters, and it might just be too difficult to pass up as a result. It also won the International Documentary Association’s prize, so obviously Walker’s fellow documentarians are on board. It could be the spoiler few are expecting.

Will win: “Exit Through the Gift Shop”*
Could win: “Waste Land”
Should win: “Exit Through the Gift Shop”

Should have been here: “Catfish”

Check out my current rankings for this race at its dedicated Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves to win the award for Best Documentary (Feature)? Have your say in today’s sidebar poll!

*This prediction updated on 2/25/2011.

[Photos: National Geographic Entertainment, Sony Pictures Classics]

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20 responses so far

  • 1 2-18-2011 at 8:02 am

    Andrej said...

    Haven’t seen them all yet, though I saw Gasland the other day. I think that despite having a critically important subject to display and discuss, I’m not fond of the documentalist’s monotone and smug presentation.

    Will win: Exit Through the Gift Shop.
    Could win: Restrepo or Inside Job.
    Should win: Exit Through the Gift Shop or Restrepo.

    Should have been here: Didn’t see many docs last year. Sorry!

  • 2 2-18-2011 at 8:28 am

    Joe7827 said...

    Darn it, Kris, I totally thought “Catfish” was going to show up in “Should have been here”. Anyway, I’ve only seen “Restrepo”.

  • 3 2-18-2011 at 8:45 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    I also thought you would have mentioned “Catfish” in “Should have been here”, since it was in your top 10 of the year.

    I assume you’re sticking to the shortlist, even if you didn’t yesterday for Visual Effects.

    For me, “Catfish” is far and away the best documentary of the year and my #3 of the year overall.

  • 4 2-18-2011 at 8:52 am

    Andrej said...

    OH CRAP. Totally forgot about Catfish. Yeah, it should have been here, without a doubt.

  • 5 2-18-2011 at 9:51 am

    KBJr. said...

    Um, I was a fan of ‘Waiting for Superman’…that film was robbed!

  • 6 2-18-2011 at 9:59 am

    Chris138 said...

    I’m rooting for Exit Through the Gift Shop.

  • 7 2-18-2011 at 10:15 am

    JJ1 said...

    I have only seen and enjoyed both ‘Exit …’ and ‘Restrepo’. I was moved by ‘Restrepo’.

    Will: Inside Job
    Could: Exit
    Should: Restrepo (haven’t seen all)

  • 8 2-18-2011 at 10:24 am

    Jack said...

    I totally agree with Andrej about Gasland; “smug and monotone” is the perfect way to describe the film, and especially Josh Fox, who irritated me to no end. I also thought that the movie was really sloppy in its editing, pacing, and even argumentation–I could never shake the sense that the people on the other side had arguments that were never addressed.

    But I thought that both Exit Through the Gift Shop and Inside Job were brilliant, and I’d be happy with either winning. I think Inside Job has a slightly better chance, though.

  • 9 2-18-2011 at 10:42 am

    Silencio said...

    I’m pleased that Waiting For Superman was left off. If they decided to honor art over political activism, I’m all about it. A better film about education reform will surely come.

  • 10 2-18-2011 at 10:57 am

    San FranCinema said...

    Should have been here: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

  • 11 2-18-2011 at 11:19 am

    Mike C said...

    Count me amongst the crowd pleased by Wasteland as it was my personal fave of the bunch. I loved the intimate humanizing portraits of the individuals featured.

  • 12 2-18-2011 at 11:58 am

    Tom Houseman said...

    I’ve seen four of the five nominees, which I’m pretty proud of. More importantly, all four of the ones I’ve seen are great movies, which is much better than the Academy usually does with any category.
    Will Win: Inside Job
    Could Win: Restrepo
    Should Win: Exit Through the Gift Shop
    Should’ve Been There: William Kunstler Disturbing the Universe

  • 13 2-18-2011 at 12:20 pm

    Catherine S said...

    I’ve seen all the nominees except Waste Land, plus Waiting for Superman and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. And I agree with SanFran Cinema: Joan Rivers should have been nominated.

    But Exit Through the Gift Shop was one of the best films of the year, in any genre. How tremendous it would be if it won.

  • 14 2-18-2011 at 1:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I actually was looking at the short list when I offered my “should have been here,” but absolutely, that should be Catfish. I’ll adjust that when I’m back at my computer. How could I forget?

  • 15 2-18-2011 at 1:44 pm

    Justin said...

    Catfish is probably the worst film I have ever seen… and I don’t mean to be a troll when I say that. It’s not even a matter of whether it’s well-made or poorly-made — I just have a passionate hatred toward any film made by ruthless film nerds trying to make it big by playing victim and exploiting and bullying a person who really is not that weird.

    Basically… it’s not as shocking as they make you think it is. Can you believe some people actually label that movie as “horror”? End of rant!

  • 16 2-18-2011 at 2:42 pm

    Loyal said...

    Exit Through The Gift Shop and Restrepo are both in my Top 10 Films of 2010 so I’d be really happy with either winning.

  • 17 2-18-2011 at 4:09 pm

    Chris P. said...

    Oh gosh, I cast my vote for “Gasland” this morning and I was surprised to see that of the 8 votes until then, 2 (including mine) had gone to that film. Seems like “Gasland” supporters are early birds.

    Anyway, it’s a great slate of nominees, probably my favourite across the board, so I’d be happy with any of these winning.

  • 18 2-18-2011 at 5:59 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’d be perfectly happy with either “Inside Job” or “Exit Through the Giftshop” because they’re both astonishing pieces of cinema. One for having the balls that it has to do what it does (that’d be “Exit”) while the other is a fascinating, and cinematically refined, timely piece doco.

    GasLand was a great message, hampered by it’s low budget and dull narration.

    I will be seeing “Restrepo” before the ceremony, it just came out on DVD here (direct-to-DVD). Once I’ve seen that I will have seen 4/5 doco nominees which will be my best tally for this category ever (before OR after nominations). I’m disappointed I decided to pass on seeing “WasteLand” at a local film festival last year before I knew it was an Oscar contender.

  • 19 2-19-2011 at 6:29 am

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    I’ve seen three of them (Restrepo/Inside Job/Exit Through the Gift Shop), and I would prefer Inside Job of those three.

    I do wish, however, that Client 9 had been nominated, as I thought it was even better than Inside Job.

  • 20 2-21-2011 at 5:07 am

    David said...

    This was such a great year for documentaries!

    A major congratulations to all of the nominees, for earning nominations in a ridiculously competitive category this year.