By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 9:43 AM
Earlier this month, the group that bestows the Academy Awards winnowed the sprawling field of Oscar-eligible feature documentaries, moving 15 films ahead to be considered for the final list of five nominees. As always when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the documentary shortlist, there were some shoo-ins, some surprises and some snubs.
It came as no surprise that first-rate nonfiction films such as Davis Guggenheim's teachers union takedown, "Waiting for 'Superman,' " Charles Ferguson's economic meltdown primer, "Inside Job," and Amir Bar-Lev's riveting exegesis of friendly fire in Afghanistan, "The Tillman Story," made the cut. Ditto Alex Gibney's study in political self-immolation "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" - which beat out Gibney's own "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" and "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" for a shot at a statuette.
The best and most surprising picks were two little movies that made their own big impacts this past year: "GasLand," in which filmmaker Josh Fox tackles the environmental and health risks of natural gas drilling, was a hit at D.C.'s Environmental Film Festival when it screened here last March. Fox has since taken his movie on the road, showing the film in communities where the energy industry is trying to acquire natural gas leases, and in some cases dissuading people from signing their rights away. He's also screened "GasLand" in Washington, at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and Congress. "The thing that was most important to me was to get on the road with the film and get it out in front of people," Fox says, adding that he began screening the film as a work in progress. "Basically, I've been touring with the movie for a year and a half. It's been exhausting, but also the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life."
Fox estimates that up to 60,000 people have seen "GasLand" in small community screenings. His do-it-yourself road show offers proof that nonfiction films have the potential to change the political conversation and (literal) topography, even without the munificence of such well-funded provocateurs as Participant Media (which produced "Waiting for 'Superman' ").
Another small-scale dark horse that made the cut was "Exit Through the Gift Shop," by the enigmatic graffiti artist Banksy, which takes viewers through the darkened alleys of street artists and cultural monkey-wrenchers, finally delivering a provocative meditation on the entire notion of artistic authorship.
But as always, AMPAS delivered some curious snubs. At a time when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is making headlines, Lucy Walker's "Countdown to Zero" seems even more well-crafted and relevant than when it first hit theaters in July. (Walker's "Waste Land," about the photographer Vik Muniz, made the cut instead. It opens in Washington on Dec. 3.)
One of my favorite docs of the year, the intimate, inspiring "Budrus," was inexplicably left off the list; the story of a Palestinian village's nonviolent campaign to stop the Israeli separation barrier from destroying their olive groves was presumably bested by "Precious Life," about a Gaza family's attempt to save their infant son's life at an Israeli hospital. A fine film, but if there was an Arab-Israeli "slot" in the nominations, my nod would have gone to "Budrus."
If we're talking slots, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" may well have crowded out "Catfish," a sly little portrait of Facebook-era romance that raised similar issues of identity and authenticity. (Still, the Academy saw fit to reward two films with remarkably similar themes and narratives: "Waiting for 'Superman' " and "The Lottery," both of which championed education reform through charter schools.)
The documentary branch of the Academy has long been bedeviled by an unwieldy structure and accusations that it ignores commercially successful films. "Roger & Me," Michael Moore's documentary about Flint, Mich., that broke box office records when it was released in 1989, was notoriously overlooked, as well as the true-crime thriller "The Thin Blue Line" and cult-cartoonist portrait "Crumb." Because branch members need to see every qualifying film in order to vote - and more than 100 films qualified this year - a separate committee screens the contenders to whittle the list down to a manageable 15. (The five nominees will be announced on Jan. 25, 2011; the Oscars ceremony takes place Feb. 27, 2011.)
Inevitably, the process results in some head-scratchers. One of the most talked-about last week was "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's disarming portrait of the 75-year-old actress and comedian. As Rivers's manager observes in the film, ever since alienating Johnny Carson in the 1980s, Rivers has had trouble being "industry-accepted"; presumably, at least to Rivers, the omission of her celebratory documentary feels like a slap delivered by the long hand of Carson himself.
Gibney admits that he was disappointed that his Abramoff documentary didn't make the cut. Still, he got some good news when former House majority leader and close Abramoff associate Tom DeLay was convicted of money laundering on Nov. 24.
"I know that the Texas prosecutors watched the film with great interest," Gibney says of "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." He also notes that DeLay's activities relating to Abramoff's clients on the Mariana Islands, which figure prominently in the film, could come into play during sentencing. Even during Oscar season, rewards don't always come in the form of little gold men.