Earlier this month I made some predictions of and suggestions for the Academy's Documentary Branch Screening Committee, who annually watch more than 100 qualifying nonfiction films and narrow the choices down to 15. Today, this shortlist was announced, and only six of my picks made the cut. They include Buck, Hell and Back Again, Project Nim, We Were Here and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which of course will surely be nominated if only because the Paradise Lost films recently freed three innocent men from prison (it's a good reason -- and I haven't yet seen the doc to agree it's also a deserving film).
My sixth selection was from the group of titles I was pretty certain would not be shortlisted, let alone nominated, due to their unconventionality: Wim Wenders' 3D dance film, Pina. Considering the committee watched this wonderful movie on a 2D DVD make its inclusion even more astounding. Hopefully the next stage of voters will see it properly, though it's rather unlikely. Of course, it also has a shot at the Foreign Language Oscar, too, since it's Germany's official submission.
Also a surprising contender I didn't expec to see: Jane's Journey, an underrated film with a wonderful message, gorgeous cinematography and a great kinship with this year's more successful animal docs, like fellow shortlisters Buck and Project Nim.
Other docs shortlisted include audience favorites like Undefeated and Bill Cunningham New York as well as award-winning issue docs like Semper Fi: Always Faithful, Battle for Brooklyn and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which was helmed by previous Oscar nominee Marshall Curry (Street Fight). He joins Wenders, a fellow former Oscar nominee in this category (for Buena Vista Social Club) and Project Nim's James Marsh, who won the award for Man on Wire.
Meanwhile the little-known Under Fire: Journalists in Combat seems a reminder of 2011 nominee Tim Hetherington, the Restrepo co-director who was killed this year while covering events in Libya. Photojournalist Dennis Danfung, recognized for his own embedded-in-Afghanistan doc Hell and Back Again is similarly a reminder.
Of course there are always the major snubs, and this year the notables are Senna, which probably didn't resonate for Americans on the committee with no passion for Formula One racing, Werner Herzog's death row doc Into the Abyss and typically excluded legends like Patricio Guzman (Nostalgia for the Light) and Frederick Wiseman (Boxing Gym). Then there's The Interrupters, which just outright shocked me, as it did many others who've seen it. Consider the following is the opening of my review of the film from January, I'm immensely sad and embarrassed, though mostly for the Academy:
One of the great blunders in Academy Awards history was when Steve James' 'Hoop Dreams,' considered one of the best non-fiction films of all time, was not even nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. I am hopeful that the Academy won't make the same mistake with his latest, and best since. 'The Interrupters' definitely deserves such recognition and would not in the least be viewed as one of those redemptive honors. Like his 17-year-old classic, this is an incredible and moving film.
The makers of the film also seemed stunned this afternoon, on Twitter, but now they appear genuinely hopeful The Interrupters will circumvent the documentary "ghetto" and earn an editing nomination, just as Hoop Dreams did 17 years ago. As for the rest of us, we get to just continue enjoying the inspiring work and (please) recommend it to friends. The same goes for any other doc favorites of ours that aren't finalists. Some I've seen mentioned are The Arbor, General Orders No. 9, and of course Being Elmo. Sorry kids, but this really isn't turning out to be a Muppet Oscars after all.
Here is the full list of 15 shortlisted documentaries that could earn an Oscar nomination on January 24, 2012.
Battle for Brooklyn
Bill Cunningham New York
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
The Loving Story
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Semper Fi: Always Faithful
Sing Your Song
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat
We Were Here