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Elusive As Ever: Academy's Documentary Shortlist

As if announcing NYFCC's winners and the nominations for the Annies on the same day weren't indicative that awards season is officially upon us, the Academy went ahead and released the 15-film shortlist of documentaries in contention for gold. For all the talk about the new voting system, this list seems to be no different that what we've seen in previous years. It has left off several of the year's most acclaimed titles. That being said, there is a vintage crop of five nominees waiting to happen since the inclusions here are, for the most part, all worthy of their spot. What can I say? It has been an absolutely incredible year for documentaries. But let's get to the most shocking snubs.

The Central Park Five, which won best doc at the NYFCC a few hours earlier, is the biggest exclusion. I reviewed the film at TIFF, where I fell for its exposé of institutionalized racism in the American justice system and I'm genuinely surprised that the voters didn't take to it. Queen of Versailles is another major surprise, though lacking the apparent "importance" factor of The Central Park Five, this one is not quite as inexplicable. When I first watched the film, I described it as "an exquisite treatise on everything that's wrong with our society today, shot through the lens of reality television" and I stand by it as one of the year's best films from any genre and medium. Then there's West of Memphis, one of Nathaniel's predictions, which despite massive thematic and structural differences with the Paradise Lost series, is quite possibly the victim of the previous film's success just last year. Further off the field where Marley and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, both of which I loved but expected not to see on today's list.

On the flip side, I'm ecstatic to see the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers. It is by far the most important film to be released this year and one that I expect to see among the final nominees.

More worthy inclusions and the full list of nominees after the jump:

With the current developments in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, The Gatekeepers couldn't possibly be timelier, but the politics of it aside, it's ingeniously conceived and provides an unprecedented level of access and exposure to its subject. (You may remember my glowing review from TIFF.) Another inclusion that had me cheering was This is not a Film, about Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi whose still under house arrest. It made my personal top ten last year after I watched it at the festival and it is the most visionary film on the list. Shot primarily on an iPhone and smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick in a cake - Panahi is banned from any artistic work for 20 years - it is vital viewing for anyone who's interested in the creative process of filmmaking. I don't have high hopes, but it can surely use the added exposure that comes with the potential nomination.

One final personal favourite is Mea Maxima Culpa, Alex Gibney's harrowing look at the systematic ignorance of pedophilia in the Vatican ranks, particularly in the case of the more vulnerable disabled children. Of all the titles I've watched on this list, I will be most surprised to see this one miss the final cut. The audience at my screening left the theatre in tears and I suspect many voters will feel the same. It's worth noting that Michael Moore recently endorsed the film publicly and I've spoken to one other Academy voter who cast his ballot for this film.

The full list of 15 films is listed below:

"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," Never Sorry LLC
"Bully," The Bully Project LLC
"Chasing Ice," Exposure
"Detropia," Loki Films
"Ethel," Moxie Firecracker Films
"5 Broken Cameras," Guy DVD Films
"The Gatekeepers," Les Films du Poisson, Dror Moreh Productions, Cinephil
"The House I Live In," Charlotte Street Films, LLC
"How to Survive a Plague," How to Survive a Plague LLC
"The Imposter," Imposter Pictures Ltd.
"The Invisible War," Chain Camera Pictures
"Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," Jigsaw Productions in association with Wider Film Projects and Below the Radar Films
"Searching for Sugar Man," Red Box Films
"This Is Not a Film," Wide Management
"The Waiting Room," Open’hood, Inc.

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Reader Comments (9)

A lot of people will complain about the films that didn't make the cut, but as you say these fifteen are all critically acclaimed and well regarded docos. The only one I was unaware of before was "Ethel".

I too would love to see "This Is Not a Film" nominated if just for the chutzpah of it all.

I'm thinking the nominees may well be "Gatekeepers", "Plague", "Sugarman", "Mea Maxima" and "The Imposter". And, let's face it, that lune up would surely make for perhaps the best lineup the category has ever seen.

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn- Agreed. That lineup is too good to be true, but as I said, they have to go out of their way to screw it up.
I'd like to see the nomination for This is not a Film to happen, just because I want conservative heads to explode in Iran. It's not just that the government's imprisoned the directors, but they didn't send a best foreign language entry to boycott the ceremony. A nod for this film will be their biggest nightmare.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Question for those more familiar with Iran than me: so, let's say that "This is Not a Film" gets nominated. I imagine that not even Iran is going to miss that. If Panahi is banned from creative works, what's going to be the result of this film? Will he be punished for that? Or does "banned" is this sense mean more like "won't be released in Iran" rather than "don't do it, under any circumstances"?

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

Banned, in his case and as mentioned in the film itself, means that he is not allowed to make films, write scripts, give interviews or leave the country for 20 years. And he's under house arrest for a shorter period, too. (6 years I believe, I'm not sure)
He already breached the terms of his sentence by making this film and the consquence was the incarceration of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, his co-director.
The obvious downside to an Oscar nomination would be the possibility of increased pressure on Panahi, as I really don't see the Iranian government giving into international requests for his release, even if there's a whole new surge following the potential nomination.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

if Ai Weiwei gets in, RIP for the ceremony to its mainland Chinese followers.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlasttimeisaw

Thanks, Amir, that's very enlightening (although it's frustrating to hear that about his co-director). I look forward to seeing the movie soon.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

My favorite recent Oscars trend is to lament the lack of inclusion of certain exceptional docs and than conceding that the remaining picks are still quite worthy. That is my theory on the Oscars in miniature.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTimo

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE ignored? we found this year's HOOP DREAMS....hope HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE score this!

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

So glad to see "The Invisible War" on there.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

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