The 15-film “short list” for this year’s Best Documentary competition in the Academy Awards has provoked more than the usual shock and outrage, and with good reason. Every year, there’s a certain level of white-noise griping about Oscar “snubs.” This year’s list, though, isn’t just lackluster — there’s something fundamentally off about it. It’s almost perverse. Compiled by a star chamber of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters (it’s not specified how many of the 151 documentary branch members actually watch the films and produce the final roster), the list omits far too many of the documentaries — like, nearly all of them — that were sought out by audiences and acclaimed by critics. It ignores too many of the movies that were seen, praised, and loved.
I’m talking about films like Anvil: The Story of Anvil (pictured above), The September Issue, Tyson, and It Might Get Loud. These were movies that, unlike 90 percent of the ones on the list, struck at least something of a chord in the culture. But that isn’t all they have in common. The passionate, adventurously crafted, and highly praised movies that were left off the list are, in every case, not about well-meaning social and political themes — and that, I believe, is what really doomed them. They fell victim to a kind of self-defeating aesthetic of granola documentary correctness.
Let me be clear about something up front. The fact that a documentary becomes a relatively high-profile indie hit does not, in itself, render it worthy (e.g., the old-folks-sing-rock-tunes novelty doc Young@Heart, which was corny, appealing, and not very well made). The fact that a documentary fails to gain traction in the marketplace doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be considered for an Academy Award, or even win one. That would be exactly the sort of knee-jerk, popularity-is-God reductionism that I’ve always argued against as a critic. I’ve seen most of the 15 films on this year’s short list, and I should say that a handful of them are quite good. My personal favorite documentary of the year made the cut: Food, Inc., the galvanizing, ingeniously directed look at what the stuff we eat in America is really made of. I also revered Agnes Varda’s song of herself The Beaches of Agnes, the backstage Chorus Line portrait Every Little Step, and The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
Yet as I look over this list, I see far too many movies that don’t belong there — and, frankly, too many that made it because they were about subjects that rendered them “worthy.” Take, for instance, Under Our Skin, a documentary about Lyme disease that embraces, with bits and pieces of skimpy evidence and a whole lot more paranoid leftist fervor, the notion that “chronic Lyme disease” is a condition that the medical establishment is locked in a conspiracy to deny the existence of. The filmmakers actually bungle what should have been their real subject (that the belief in chronic Lyme disease has become something of a cult, one that can ruin the lives of the people who think they have it). But the bottom line, to me, is that Under Our Skin is not a very well-made movie. It played in theaters for about two minutes, and frankly, that’s more or less what it deserved.
Other films on the list are better, but not necessarily exceptional. And once again, it’s the subject matter that’s king: Burma VJ (citizen reporters fighting, via videotape, the repression in Burma), Garbage Dreams (homeless kids living in the squalor of Cairo), The Cove (dolphin slaughter in Japan), and Mugabe and the White African (a white farmer in Zimbabwe takes a stand against President Robert Mugabe’s land reform). I’m sorry, but this sounds like the program for the Mother Teresa Film Festival. It’s a list of movies that the selection committee deemed good because they’re good for you.
Look, I see and I praise — at times on a weekly basis – documentaries that seek to make a difference in the world. I believe in that kind of mission filmmaking. Yet part of the extraordinary renaissance of documentary filmmaking in our time has been, more than ever, to liberate the art of nonfiction from the furrowed-brow imperatives of social justice. Yes, Hoop Dreams (1994) is a great film, but it was really Crumb (1995), arguably the most haunting documentary of its era, that pushed the form toward an almost novelistic dimension.
It’s that quality that’s noteworthy, and often remarkable, about the films that got left out this year. A movie like Anvil: The Story of Anvil, about the middle-aged persistence and comeback of the greatest heavy metal band you’ve never heard of, will never be embraced because of its “importance.” Yet as Anthony Lane pointed out in The New Yorker, the power of the movie is that it isn’t ultimately about rock & roll — it’s about time, and about what time does to all of us. Tyson just about puts you inside Mike Tyson’s head (a profound, scary, and mesmerizing place to be), and The September Issue peeks behind Anna Wintour’s sunglasses to discover the glossy-magazine fashion world as a place of ardent conflict and commerce dancing with art. It’s a game of puritan delusion to pretend that movies like these, which speak to our passions far more than they do our “principles,” are less automatically award-worthy.
Okay, the short list does include one sensational fashion documentary — Valentino: The Last Emperor. So it’s not all medicine. And do you notice that I haven’t even mentioned Michael Moore? His movie this year, Capitalism: A Love Story, received a mixed response, both commercially and critically, so I have no problem with it being left off the list. More than any one specific film, what’s missing from this overly rarefied group of movies is a vision that documentaries can and should be enthralling dramatic experiences. Dare I use the F-word? They should be fun. This list just isn’t.
So which documentaries have you seen this year that you think should be nominated for the Oscar?