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The Toronto International Film Festival is over, we have a couple months respite before Sundance, so naturally thoughts turn to the Oscar race. While I'm as curious as anyone else which films will end up garnering the big nod (and I will be really surprised if Juno doesn't get a few noms, especially for screenwriting), as an indie girl I'm most interested in the docs and foreigns. I'm a documentary dork, and one of the things I most look forward to covering at any given film fest is the doc slate -- which, as both David Poland and Anne Thompson have noted in post-Toronto columns, have been weak this year relative to the past couple years. No one really seems to be sure why this is, exactly, although the surprising success of March of the Penguins in 2005 fueled an interest in documentaries that led, perhaps, to a bit of a glut.
The trouble with documentaries is that, penguin love aside, docs are not something your average person is going to go out of their way to shell out ten bucks to see at a theater. Rent from the video store or add to your Netflix queue, perhaps, but when you're looking for a film to see on date night, the depressing topics that tend to make up much of the available documentary fare are not really the first thing that comes to mind. When's the last time you said, "Hey, honey, I know what to do tonight -- let's get dinner at that place over in Little Italy we like, and then let's go see that new Iraq war doc!" Given a choice between a bummer doc and, say, Superbad, most folks are going to opt for the laughs over the conscience-pricking dose of reality.
Perhaps it's also that so many docs lately have been about war -- the war in Iraq, the war in the Sudan, the war in Uganda, the war on terror, the war on war. Poland, in his post-Toronto Oscar race column, noted that it's not just the downer war docs that weren't playing well at Toronto; the trio of war features -- Rendition, Redacted, and The Valley of Elah -- had only ho-hum audience responses as well. Poland notes also that no docs yet have really emerged as big "must nominate" Oscar picks thus far, but nonetheless there are a few worth noting that I think have (or ought to have) a shot at Oscar gold.
But first, let's take a look back at the last few years of Oscar nominees in the documentary feature category:
An Inconvenient Truth -- Davis Guggenheim (WINNER)
Deliver Us from Evil -- Amy Berg and Frank Donner
Iraq in Fragments -- James Longley and John Sinno
Jesus Camp -- Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
My Country, My Country -- Laura Poitras and Jocelyn Glatzer
March of the Penguins -- Luc Jacquet and Yves Darondeau (WINNER)
Darwin's Nightmare -- Hubert Sauper
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room -- Alex Gibney and Jason Kliot
Murderball -- Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Street Fight -- Marshall Curry
Born into Brothels -- Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski (WINNER)
The Story of the Weeping Camel -- Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa
Super Size Me -- Morgan Spurlock
Tupac: Resurrection -- Lauren Lazin and Karolyn Ali
Twist of Faith -- Kirby Dick and Eddie Schmidt
The last two years, the doc winner was also the big box office hit. This year hasn't really seen a doc smash the box office to that degree, but there are some notable docs that deserve a shot at Oscar gold. Leading the pack, in my book, are War/Dance, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix-Fine's moving documentary about a group of northern Ugandan orphans competing in their nations national music and dance competition, and No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson's fantastic Iraq war documentary (produced, notably, by Enron director Alex Gibney, who has his own Iraq-related doc, Taxi to the Dark Side, out now). Although I liked the artistry of Iraq in Fragments, No End in Sight is the one Iraq doc that's actually gone beyond merely showing the atrocities of the war and delved deep into the colossal screw-ups behind-the-scenes, told by the people who actually were behind-the-scenes.
The last few years have seen films with religious bents getting nommed -- Twist of Faith, Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp all fit that category. My pick this year for a doc with a religious theme is For the Bible Tells Me So, directed by Daniel Karslake, which goes after the religious right's interpretation of what the Bible says about homosexuality with frank profiles from a spectrum of folks ranging from Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be elected a bishop in the Episcopalian church, to Dick Gephardt, whose daughter Chrissy came out as a lesbian just as he was running for president, to young activist Jake Reitan, whose Minnesota family, once opposed to homosexuality because that's what their church had taught them, have since become vocal activists for gay rights, protesting together (and getting arrested together) in front of Focus on the Family. Karslake pulled together a truly impressive cross-section of both gay activists and religious leaders for his film, and he deserves recognition for this film.
Michael Moore's SICKO might get a nom just because he's Michael Moore; wrenchnig Darfur doc The Devil Came on Horseback also stands a fighting chance at a nod -- it played very well at fests. Another film I'd put in the running is In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington's doc about the Apollo missions, if for no other reason, because it's owned by THINKfilm, which last year managed Half Nelson to a well-deserved Oscar nod for Ryan Gosling. Anne Thompson notes in her post-Toronto wrap that THINKfilm made some of the savviest acquistions at an otherwise lackluster fest in terms of biz; look for THINKfilm to continue this trend of smart buying decisions and savvy marketing.
The Leonardo DiCaprio environmental doc The 11th Hour pretty much came and went without much notice, but it is about the environment, so it might sneak in there; so might Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. Nanking, directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (and produced by Ted Leonsis) might sneak in on the Oscar shortlist as well.
My pick for the doc most likely to surprise everyone is Darius Goes West, a sweet, very personal film about a group of friends who take their pal Darius Weems, who's dying of Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy, on a cross-country road trip to try to get MTV to "pimp" his dilapidated wheelchair. Darius has been a huge crowd pleaser on the fest circuit, winning audience awards right and left, and I think that's in large part due to the honest, heartfelt direction by Darius's friend and mentor, Logan Smalley. Smalley is one of the good guys (he's now at Harvard continuing work toward a degree in special ed, so he can move forward with a career working with kids like Darius) and there is nothing that would warm my occasionally cynical cinephile heart more than seeing Smalley, Darius, and all the guys from the film sitting in the crowd on Oscar night, cheering for this little film with a big heart.