Bill Cunningham New York

The Oscars have released their shortlist for best documentary. From this list of 15 the Academy will select 5 to actually receive nominees. Why release a shortlist of 15 documentaries, which really isn’t a short list considering even someone like me who likes documentaries hasn’t seen nearly half of the list? Because the Oscars feed off people debating who will win, who should win, and who got snubbed. In that way it’s a lot like the BCS in college football, it exists to cause controversy under the assumption that even if you hate it you’ll talk about it and that equals interest in it that can be quantified and sold for advertising dollars.

So let’s get this sham under way! I present you with the college football BCS breakdown of the 2012 Best Documentary Oscar shortlist:

(Note: Honestly, who has seen all of these? If I didn’t see it I’ll write DNS [for Did Not See] in parentheses to denote that I haven’t actually seen the film and am just relating what I’ve been told, read, or just wildly speculated.)

Non BCS Bowl Contenders

Jane’s Journey – (DNS) It’s about Jane Goodall and I’m sure it’s a fine film, but honestly it’s probably not even the best documentary in this field that involves monkeys (okay, I know she studied gorillas, but you get the point).

Pina – (DNS) It’s about a cinematographer. So it’s an artsy movie about a guy who helps make artsy movies. Very meta.

The Loving Story – (DNS) I didn’t see it and no one I know has seen it, but I’m sure it’s riveting.

Semper Fi: Always Faithful – (DNS) This one seems interesting, but it also seems like more of a really well done and in depth news expose about tainted water at Camp Lejeune making the Marines and their families sick than a traditional documentary.

Outside Shot at a BCS Bowl

Sing Your Song

Battle for Brooklyn – This is about residents fighting to keep their homes in the area that a property developer wants to bulldoze in order to build the Nets’ new NBA arena. Not all that great if you ask me and small potatoes if you compare it to the issues driving the other docs. If you want a really good NBA doc, you can watch Sonicsgate for free on the internet (I highly recommend it).

Sing Your Song – An HBO doc that centers on Harry Belafonte and his involvement in the civil rights movement. It’s not bad or anything, but it’s pretty straight forward and sort of one-sidedly positive in terms of Belafonte. The fact that it has Harry Belafonte in it gives it some weight and makes it a possible candidate for a nomination but truthfully I wouldn’t even call it one of the best 5 HBO documentaries I’ve seen.

Undefeated – (DNS) Not to be confused with Sarah Palin’s most assuredly horrible biography “The Undefeated”, this is one I’ve been meaning to see. Unfortunately, I doubt the Academy members are as enthusiastic about it as I am. It follows a Memphis high school football team with a volunteer coach who tries to lead the team to victory in the face of the poverty that affects the underfunded school and the underprivileged players.

Non-BCS Schools with Spoiler Ability

Project Nim

Under Fire: Journalists in Combat – (DNS) I want to see this one, but haven’t yet. It follows war reporters and the dangers they endure while on assignment as well as the toll it takes on them having to witness death and destruction. Again, I look forward to watching it, but given that Hell and Back Again does the same thing and does it with drama by the barrel full I doubt the Academy will nominate two movies telling similar stories.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – This HBO documentary is the third part of a documentary on The West Memphis Three. Not to make light of the situation, but it kind of feels like HBO is trying to pull another When the Levees Broke, but this falls way short of that. It’s not bad by any stretch, but it’s that old tried and true doc about possibly wrongfully accused criminals. Sad to say, but that’s sort of a blasé subject for a documentary.

Project Nim – A family takes in a chimp as part of a scientific project to see if it can learn sign language and communicate with them. The free spirited family comes to love the thing and treat it like another member of the family, but it gets bigger and is, of course, still a chimp so obviously that situation is untenable. A lot of people really liked this one, so much so that it’ll probably make the final cut even though I found it entertaining but thought it lacked the necessary weight to be a real contender. Maybe I’m the only one immune to the human monkey interface or 1970s nostalgia.

BCS Bowl Front Runners

Hell and Back Again

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front – Without too much political bent it examines people moved to take action for environmentalism by committing a series of arsons. Focusing on one particular ELF member accused of terrorism for his part in the arsons, the movie attempts to put a human face on the situation but mostly the story is pretty intent on presenting people from all sides of the issue. The result is a pretty severe look at the issue and an undertone that lumping these people in with terrorists is a bit of stretch. Pretty interesting, but not earth shattering (pun intended).

Hell and Back Again – I always thought the most poignant scene in The Hurt Locker was when the guy goes back home and is mystified by the grocery store and how he went from life or death decisions to making decisions about which cereal to buy. This documentary wonderfully illuminates that transition. It starts out with hectic war footage and then follows one of the soldiers back home to North Carolina where he struggles to reintroduce himself to the mundane normalcy of life. It’s a fascinating study of the psyche of soldiers in war and once they return home, but it’s also terribly tragic as the young man struggles to recoup the life he once had with his wife and desperately clings to sanity. In my opinion it’s a lock for a nominee and a serious candidate to win.

We Were Here – (DNS) Even in the liberal Minneapolis I didn’t see this one make an appearance in my local indie theater. But I doubt the Academy will have missed this story of the homosexual scene in San Francisco just prior and just after the emergence of HIV/AIDS. It appears to be both political and gut wrenchingly personal so it has all the makings of not just a good watch but a strong candidate for Oscar nomination.

BCS Title Game Favorites

Buck

Buck – Another one I didn’t think was anything special but other people seem totally taken with. Basically Buck was abused by his father and grew up to work as something of a horse whisperer. He teaches people how to care for their horses and train them without resorting to punishing the animals. The corollaries are pretty obvious and the film very much delves into the mind of Buck and how his past comes out through horse training. People really loved it so not only is Buck a lock for a nomination but it has the potential to eventually win the category.

Bill Cunningham New York – This would be my choice to win the category. And I say this as someone who not only doesn’t care about fashion but actively dislikes people who do. Cunningham is a guerilla fashion photographer for the NY Times capturing the fashionably dressed at fancy soirees, designer parties, and on the streets. But through all of it, he’s just an unassuming, eccentric, and genial old man who absolutely loves his job. He loves his job so much that you end up enjoying him enjoying his job. In that regard I’d compare it to Man On Wire because you ultimately get caught up in the unbridled joy of someone doing something you yourself have no interest in doing. The Academy might deem it too lighthearted to win, but it’s easy to forget that documentaries don’t have to be depressing or serious to be poignant. This perfectly and fully captures a truly unique character who churns through pain and sorrow and regret and daily life with a joy so contagious it pours off the screen. That, for my money, is a real accomplishment.

Possible Snubs

Senna

Senna – This is the only real snub to me, but it’s a colossal snub. Frankly, had it been included I would have had it right up there with Buck and Bill Cunningham New York. Unless its release date broke one of the incomprehensible rules for consideration written in indecipherable legalese, I can’t think of one reason why this wasn’t included. A brilliant documentary all around and one that had a broader appeal than most docs.

Tabloid – I liked this an all but I can’t get worked up enough to call it a snub because I’ve come to expect more from Errol Morris than what this film ended up delivering, which was a very nice story but nothing more.

Into the Abyss – Speaking of Errol Morris, Werner Herzog essentially did the same thing Errol Morris did in The Thin Blue Line but called it Into the Abyss. Again, hard to get too worked up about this not getting shortlisted even though I’m sure it was at least better than Jane’s Journey.

The Interrupters – (DNS) I didn’t see this but I know that it’s directed by Steve James who did Hoop Dreams, which was also famously snubbed by the Academy. What did Steve James do to piss those people off?