Handicapping the Contending 2010 Oscar Documentaries

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82nd Annual Academy Awards Best Documentary Feature winners for The Cove; Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens backstage with Paula DuPre Pesman and Ric O’Barry
Photo: Todd Wawrychuk / A.M.P.A.S.

With last week’s release of The Tillman Story and A Film Unfinished, Oscar Doc season is officially in full swing. A perfect time to make some early predictions for the five films that will battle out for this year’s Academy Award for best feature documentary.

The Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary has been one of the most difficult competitions to handicap over the years for several reasons. The rules were often confusing and the nomination process was quite unfair prior to 2002. That’s when the Academy finally made significant changes based on the large number of complaints from both filmmakers and the public at large. Up until that time decisions were made by a handful of people and the films were often chosen based on internal politics rather than actual quality.

While a number of classic documentaries like Woodstock, Hearts and Minds and Harlan County, USA managed to win the coveted award, many of the best and most famous docs and documentarians were left out of the equation. Films like Grey Gardens, A Thin Blue Line, Roger and Me, and Hoop Dreams were all left out the mix. While seminal filmmakers like the Maysles Brothers and Les Blank never even received an Oscar nom.

There have continued to be controversies since 2002. Werner Herzog‘s amazing doc Grizzly Man was deemed ineligible based on an obscure rule that disqualifies any film made up entirely of archival footage. When it was pointed out that Herzog’s film did indeed include footage shot specifically for the film to go along with archive footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the Academy admitted it’s mistake. It did not, however, admit Herzog’s film into the competition.

All of this is to say this article is based solely on my opinion. Without an insider’s knowledge of the selection process some of the films mentioned here may or may not be qualified. Although it is my understanding all of them are currently in the running.

The Frontrunners

The Tillman Story (5-2 to win it all) – This film is a lock to make the field. When it comes to the Academy Awards it has everything a film needs. Serious subject matter, an Academy Award nominated director in Amir Bar-Lev (co-produced Trouble The Water) and a Hollywood insider producer in Josh Brolin. It’s also getting good to great reviews. (Our own Brad Brevet gave it a solid B+.) Backed by the Weinstein Company it will get plenty of publicity. Director Bar-Lev has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows promoting the film. Expect the Weinstein Company, who know a thing or two about Oscar campaigns, to push the film hard as Awards season approaches.

Restrepo (3-1) – Another sure fire Academy Award nominee. The Sundance Jury Prize Winner has garnered strong reviews and a strong $1 million at the box-office to date. Most Oscar prognosticators have The Tillman Story and Restrepo as the odds on favorites for the Golden Statuette. Both films use the War in Afghanistan as their backdrop, but Bar-Lev and Restrepo co-director Sebastian Junger are diametrically opposed when it comes to their viewpoints on American involvement there. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Oscar after party discussion between these two men.

The Contenders

Waiting For Superman (8-1) – Haven’t seen this one and it sounds like a bore. A film about declining schools here in the US, but it’s Davis Guggenheim so there’s a lot of buzz about this one. He’s already won once with An Inconvenient Truth and this was bought by Paramount and released by their apparently less than defunct specialty imprinter Paramount Vantage. (Seriously didn’t Paramount Vantage fold up its tent two years ago. They release more crap now than when they were a real company.)

Inside Job (10-1) – Charles Ferguson‘s newest film takes on causes of the financial crisis of 2008 and it’s aftermath. Ferguson is both a former Sundance Jury Prize Winner and Academy Award nominee for his film No End In Sight. This film has Sony Pictures Classics behind it so it should get a nomination. But Inside Job isn’t nearly as compelling as No End In Sight and will suffer from comparisons to Michael Moore‘s Capitalism: A Love Story. Winning it all seems like a stretch.

On The Bubble

Exit Through The Gift Shop (20-1) – World renown artist Banksy‘s first foray into the medium of film is flat out the best documentary to come out this year. It might be the best film of the year. It’s been a hit with critics and audiences alike, bringing in over $3 million to date. So why can’t it win? For the same reason it didn’t win anything at Sundance. Banksy is an outsider and the film is too damn good. There are also some reviewers who question the film’s legitimacy as a true documentary. But isn’t that part of the fun?

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (25-1) – Ricki Stern and Anne Sunberg have been fixtures on the festival circuit ever since their breakthrough film The Trials of Darryl Hunt won the audience award at the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Festival in 2006. They’re also two of the nicest people on the festival circuit. They should have gotten an Oscar nomination for The Devil Came on Horseback in 2007 and they appear to be on the bubble again. This time, though, they’re coming in with a bonafide box-office hit. Plus wouldn’t it be great to see Joan Rivers work the Red Carpet from the other side for a change.

A Film Unfinished (30-1) – Distributed by industry outsider Oscilloscope Pictures, A Film Unfinished won’t have the publicity muscle of some of the other films but it won the Sundance World Cinema Editing Award. For all the articles proclaiming Sundance to be finished as a force in independent film, the grey lady still carries weight in the documentary world. You can’t count a good Holocaust doc out. I used to regularly win my Oscar pools simply by marking down any Holocaust flicks in the foreign, doc and short film categories.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (35-1) – Alex Gibney is another one of those Oscar guys. He was nominated for Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and then won it all with Taxi To The Darkside. This is Gibney’s third documentary to come out this year. With a screening at Tribeca and a premiere at Toronto, Client 9 is obviously the film he’s pushing for Oscar. I’ve only seen a clip of the film but it looks like a case of Spitzer continuing to re-brand himself. Spitzer is everywhere these days. He’s a regular on the Sunday morning shows, I just saw several minutes of him in Charles Ferguson’s doc and he starts his own show on CNN this Fall. Bet Governor Peterson wishes he’d been busted with a call girl.

The Longshots

Jean Michel-Basquiat: The Radiant Child (50-1) – I love this film but I don’t think it has any chance of making the final five. That’s okay. Tamra Davis’s film will be playing in museums long after we’re all gone.

Making The Boys and Stonewall Uprising (100-1) – Oscar loves to weigh in on the events of the day and Gay Rights certainly fits the bill. Unfortunately neither of these films has gained any mainstream traction and there have been better films about Stonewall released in the past.

Kings of Pastry (200-1) – The latest from the husband and wife team D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. These two are both documentary legends but this film about French pastry chefs is well… about French pastry chefs.

The Darkest of Dark Horses

I’m Still Here (?) – Magnolia, the film’s distributor, isn’t a big time player, but they have been nominated for best feature documentary in the past (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room) and producer Mark Cuban knows how to get publicity. It is also directed by an Academy Award nominated actor (Casey Affleck) and features an Academy Award nominee (Joaquin Phoenix). But since many people think the whole endeavor is a put on I don’t think it has any chance for a nomination.

Catfish (300-1) – This movie looks awful, but it has major festival buzz behind it. I have a feeling we’re going to find out that this film really isn’t a documentary. Rather a shoddily filmed faux indie. One more thing, don’t watch the trailer for the movie because, big shocker, the ending is right there.

The rest of the field. (500-1) – Every year there is a film or two that makes it through based on screenings at festivals around the country. The International Documentary Association even presents a DocuWeeks festival each year to specifically qualify films for the Academy Awards that would other wise be over looked by the Academy. This year those films will be over looked.