Even though documentaries are more journalistic and non-fiction oriented than most films, it’s difficult to judge them objectively. Because documentaries tend to have a political or social message that is not so subtle, you often end up liking ones you agree with more than those you don’t no matter how hard you try to fairly critique them on their interviewing and storytelling skills.

That being said, I cannot understand how these are the five documentaries that made the list of nominees. A while back I wrote an article looking at the 15 shortlisted documentaries and how you pick these five out of that list is a mystery. The two I thought were favorites to win didn’t even get nominated and the one that I blew off because it seemed incredibly trite is currently the one with the frontrunner buzz. So let’s go through the nominees for Best Feature Documentary and try to sort out how we got here.

Pina – God knows how this is the front runner. When the shortlist came out, I gave this movie about a choreographer no chance among a stacked field. Sadly, with the ascent of films like The Artist and Tree of Life (gag me), people are keen to flex their artistic muscles and show off how sophisticated they are. And just like that, this foreign film documentary that’s basically just interviews spliced into footage of performing dancers is the leader in the clubhouse.

Maybe I’m being hard on Pina, but here’s my problem: how does this gain so much steam and Bill Cunningham New York doesn’t even make the cut? Both focus on art and culture, but where Pina comes off as snobby Bill Cunningham comes off as wonderfully personable and sweet. In my opinion that was the best documentary of the year and I’ll lay money down that anyone who sees Pina and Bill Cunningham New York will come away preferring the latter.

Undefeated – I feel like this has the least chance to win, but that’s possibly because I haven’t seen it. I don’t even know where to look in order to find it. Still, it seems like something I’d like. It tells the story of a high school football team in Memphis who, behind the leadership of their volunteer coach, fight through the season while dealing with the abject poverty that surrounds them. The school is low on funds, the players themselves come from families barely scrapping by, and the football team serves as both an escape from and an outlet for the frustration of being poor in America. Maybe it’s a familiar story, but it’s a poignant one and the marriage of politics and society with sports is something that always sucks me in. Still, I don’t see the Oscar voters siding with a gritty tale of sports and poverty. Then again, they loved The Blind Side.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Speaking of Memphis, this is part three of HBO’s documentary about The West Memphis Three. It’s a fine doc and something I’d suggest watching as it does a great job detailing a crime wherein three young boys died and three slightly older boys were convicted of their murder on controversial evidence. In all, it’s a tale where justice is painfully elusive for all involved. This murky morality combined with CSI level forensics is interesting but not likely to garner much enthusiasm from voters. Plus the arrested men got released from prison in August of 2011 so the matter is effectively over (except for the inevitable lawsuits).

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front – Okay, this was immensely interesting to me but ultimately I didn’t think it was deserving of a nomination. Environmentalist from the ELF set about committing arsons targeting lumbar companies and other entities deemed by them to be detrimental to the Earth. The doc starts out by telling the story of an ELF member who stands accused of terrorism for his part in the arsons. The parts of the story where the doc delves into what motivated him to join the group and why violence or crime seemed permissible for their cause is truly fascinating. However, the doc jumps around a lot. Ultimately, the story spirals out into a dissertation on how these ELF members are lumped in with terrorists. Of course the guy looks and act nothing like a suicide bomber so the point of the film, I guess, is that we should be careful who we classify as terrorists. Or maybe it’s that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. See, I don’t know what exactly they’re driving at, which is what makes it an interesting albeit muddled film. Point is, this doc is not anywhere near the best of 2011.

Hell and Back Again – Of the nominees, this is the strongest in my opinion and if you want to go with a sleeper pick to upset Pina this is the one. It sets out to document the transition from soldier back to civilian. As it opens, the frenetic pace of footage from the front lines cranks up your heart rate. Nathan Harris, a marine involved in the hectic torments of war depicted on screen, is shot in the hip and the film follows him as he returns home only to find that the person who left for Afghanistan isn’t the same one who came back. He and his wife struggle to reacquaint themselves and he attempts to adapt to a life without the singular purpose that a soldier at war is consumed by. Watching the film your adrenaline subsides as Nathan comes back to US soil but the tension you felt never wanes because his unease is intensely palpable. The film is hard to watch at times, especially when Nathan’s post traumatic stress takes him to darker places, but it is most certainly something that we should all have to watch. It’s a study in something only those who have been there could possibly understand, and as the film depicts even those men are often incapable of making sense of it. Without question this documentary is worth your while and if I had a vote I’d put it toward this film.

Road to the Oscars Series

January 27: Best Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 31: Best Animated Short – Savanna New

February 1: Best Documentary Short – Christa Youngpeter

February 2: Best Documentary – Dantzler Smith

February 3: Best Foreign Language Film – Steve Neumann

February 4: Best Visual Effects – Michael Benedict

February 5: Best Sound Editing – Michael Benedict

February 6: Best Sound Mixing – Joseph Doherty

February 7: Best Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 8: Best Costume Design – Jax Russo

February 9: Best Art Direction – Scott Youngbauer

February 10: Best Film Editing – Michael Benedict

February 11: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

February 12: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg

February 14: Best Animated Feature Film – Steve Neumann

February 15: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Best Supporting Actor – Joseph Doherty

February 18: Best Supporting Actress – Angela Stern

February 20: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 22: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 23: Best Picture – Kit Bowen