By Nate Freiberg

Though it carries a relatively-low profile with the general public, Best Documentary Feature is one of the Academy’s more controversial Oscar categories, with many alleging that the best documentaries often get overlooked when it comes to nomination time. So with that caveat out of the way, (and acknowledging tips o’ the cap to Capitalism: A Love Story, Good Hair, The September Issue, Every Little Step, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, Tyson, La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris and The Beaches of Agnes), let’s take a look at this year’s nominees:

Foreign journalists are banned from reporting within Myanmar, still called Burma by much of its oppressed populace. The military junta in power also so tightly manages the domestic media that it’s a rare occasion when objective content is produced. Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country offers a tiny glimpse into this repressive nation, with footage of defiant, public demonstrations (predominantly featuring the country’s Buddhist monks) that are promptly squelched, often violently, by the military. The video journalists (VJs) responsible for this footage smuggled it out of the country to foreign news agencies at great risk to themselves. Indeed, we actually see and hear soldiers pursuing reporters with cameras during times of chaos. Knowing the stakes involved with bringing these images to the screen makes for powerful viewing.

Here is the trailer:

Having long ignored global pleas to protect whales, Japanese fishermen have now moved onto dolphins, which they’ve found easier to hunt. The Cove exposes the slaughter of perhaps the world’s second-most intelligent animals in a hidden cove near a Japanese coastal village. There, fishermen lure, trap and then harpoon dolphins, which they mislabel as whale meat, to be served in cafeterias across the island nation. In obtaining the clandestine footage of these attacks, dolphin activist and former “Flipper” trainer Richard O’Barry and his team snuck underwater cameras disguised as rocks with up to a year of prison at stake. The documentary often plays as a feature thriller, which is to say it’s got a lot going for it.

Here is the trailer:

Likely to be the most well-known nominee (it finished third to Earth and Capitalism: A Love Story at the box office among docs), Food, Inc. is an examination of the troubling, drastic changes to the ways in which food has been grown, raised and produced over the last several decades. With cheap costs as the ultimate motivator, the food industry is shown to support deplorable and unsafe conditions at poultry farms, cattle ranches and slaughterhouses. The questionable use of genetically-modified corn in just about anything sold at the supermarket further muddles the equation, with the film imploring consumers to purchase organic and locally-grown products. Likely to be an eye-opening viewing experience for anyone.

Here is the trailer:

Called “the most dangerous man in America” by Henry Kissinger, Daniel Ellsberg was the Department of Defense official responsible for leaking the highly-classified Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971. Nearly four decades later, he’s also the narrator of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which takes a decidedly favorable look at his extremely controversial actions. In exposing America’s history of military involvement in Vietnam, Ellsberg also severely damaged President Nixon’s public image and set off a fierce debate over First Amendment rights. With lively interviews of the principals involved, the documentary delves into both the how’s and why’s of Ellsberg’s decision and the ensuing firestorm. A must-see for any political or historical junkie.

Here is the trailer:

Fans of independent film may have seen Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, about a Mexican and Honduran teenager on the run to the U.S. on the top of a freight train. The real-life teenage and adolescent stories of this form of illegal immigration are on display in Which Way Home. Dangerous assault by smugglers and corrupt police and the natural perils of low-hanging branches and tunnels while riding “The Beast” are among the routine dangers of this journey for the children seeking a vague notion of a better life in the States. While some kids have run away from their families, others are running to their parents, who in some cases emigrated years before. Likely to be harrowing material, particularly for those who have children.

Here is the trailer:

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Without a heavily-marketed favorite leading this year’s pack as Bowling for Columbine and March of the Penguins did in recent years, it is easy to envision several of these films taking the golden statuette. With its relatively more-limited scope and shock value, we can probably safely eliminate Which Way Home from contention first. The Most Dangerous Man contains elements of two recent Oscar winners – both The Fog of War and Man on Wire – but doesn’t execute as well as either of those films did. In a race like this, the raw, harried footage of Burma VJ may prove not only to be the film’s greatest strength, but its greatest weakness as well.

That leaves us with the two exposés: The Cove and Food, Inc. While Food, Inc. has quickly become required viewing for any health-conscious American, the thinking here is that the tale of abused dolphins will carry the day over abused chickens and cows. The gripping thriller elements of The Cove ultimately leave the most lasting impression, which should net first-time director Louie Psihoyos his first Oscar.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!