In the case of foreign films, of course, fans are also extremely nationalistic, which turns some of the preliminary races into cultural border wars. And since most documentaries advocate some kind of political action or reform, their supporters consider awards for them essential to humankind -- and they suspect conspiracies when their films are ignored. But at the end of the nominating process, both ballots end up with five titles on them, and they are the focus here. Though they aren't the most popular Oscar categories in terms of TV audience interest, the Documentary Feature and Foreign Language Film categories typically produce the most controversies of Academy Award seasons. It's not because there are more eligible contenders -- there were 65 eligible foreign films, 89 docs and 274 features -- but because supporters of docs and foreign films are extremely ardent.
In the case of foreign films, of course, fans are also extremely nationalistic, which turns some of the preliminary races into cultural border wars. And since most documentaries advocate some kind of political action or reform, their supporters consider awards for them essential to humankind -- and they suspect conspiracies when their films are ignored. But at the end of the nominating process, both ballots end up with five titles on them, and they are the focus here.
Fans of James Toback's 'Tyson' and Michael Moore's 'Capitalism: A Love Story' were noisily miffed that their films were left off not only the final ballot, but also the short list of semifinalists announced in mid-November. But an objective observer looking at the lists would totally understand the absence of a movie about a thug boxer and the latest self-serving political rant from Moore.
The subject matter of the five nominees includes the protests of atrocities in Myanmar ('Burma VJ'), the senseless slaughter of dolphins in a small Japanese fishing village ('The Cove'), the domination of the U.S. food industry by greedy giant corporations ('Food, Inc.'), a character study of the man who helped end the Vietnam War ('The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers') and the plight of Central American children risking their lives riding freight trains bound for the U.S./Mexican border ('Which Way Home').
Past documentary races have been scarred by allegations of conflict of interest among members of the Documentary Branch responsible for winnowing the list of eligible movies down to the final five. In short, there were people of influence in the Documentary Branch who were involved with docs that were in consideration. The Academy responded to the outrage of perceived conflicts and abuses with periodic adjustments in both the nominating process and the eligibility of committee members, and this year has gone smoother than most.
Anyway, the committee's work is done. For the final ballot, all Academy members who register at screenings for all five nominees can vote. And they can't complain about their choices.
'Burma VJ.' At great risk to their lives, Buddhist monks and students protesting Myanmar's military dictatorship used hidden cameras ('VJ' stands for video journalists) to capture images of the brutality against them in 2007. Those images were smuggled out of the country via satellite and eventually edited into this documentary by Danish filmmaker Anders Ostergaard.
'The Cove.' Director Louis Psihoyos and one-time 'Flipper' trainer Ric O'Barry led a team of gonzo filmmakers into the one-time whaling village of Taiji on the western coast of Japan to film its ritualized annual slaughter of dolphins. The slaughter threatens the population of Pacific dolphins, whose mercury-rich flesh is sold as whale meat to unsuspecting consumers in Japanese markets.
'Food, Inc.' Eye-opening and stomach-churning, Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein's film focuses on the plight of American pig, cattle, chicken, soy and corn farmers under the thumbs of food conglomerates, whose bottom-line policies affect almost everything they produce and we eat.
'The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.' The now 78-year-old Ellsberg, the hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1970s, narrates the story of his political awakening and his transformation from longtime White House insider to a conscientious objector who leaked documents to the New York Times revealing how the government had lied to the country about the war through five presidencies.
'Which Way Home.' Rebecca Cammisa's camera crew follows a group of young Guatemalans as they ride 'The Beast' -- a freight train -- from their homeland to the U.S./Mexican border where they hope to cross into a better life for themselves and their families.
Of the five nominees, 'The Cove' and 'Burma VJ' stand out for the degree of difficulty in getting the necessary images and in arousing the passion of viewers. But I think 'The Cove,' partly because of our history with "show" dolphins, like the terminally depressed star of the 'Flipper' TV series, will get the win.
Foreign Language Feature
Because individual countries submit lone entries for consideration, the winner of this award can never be considered the actual best foreign language film of any given year. Spain, for instance, overlooked Pedro Almodóvar's excellent 'Broken Embraces' this year for Fernando Trueba's 'El Baile de la Victoria,' which has no U.S. release date. The Spanish selection committee, like those from other countries, are often motivated by political or personal interests.
Anyway, the current nominees include Israel's 'Ajami,' a crime drama that serves to probe the cultural differences of an Israeli town's Christian, Jewish and Muslim inhabitants; Argentina's 'El Secreto de sus Ojos,' a thriller about a killing, a 25-year manhunt and romantic intrigue among prosecutors in Buenos Aires; Peru's 'The Milk of Sorrow,' a drama about a young woman with an inherited a fear of sexual abuse in an impoverished section of Lima; France's 'A Prophet,' a prison drama about a young French Arab who enters a prison population with precocious skills as a survivor; and Germany's 'The White Ribbon,' a mystery/suspense/thriller about a pre-WWI German village where a rash of accidents are linked to the town's fascist roots.
The best bet? Well, 'The Milk of Sorrow' won the top prize at last year's Berlin Film Festival, 'A Prophet' won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and 'The White Ribbon' won Cannes's top award, the Gold Palm. I'm going with Michael Haneke's 'The White Ribbon' because it actually has a second Oscar nomination, for Christian Berger's extraordinary black-and-white cinematography. The more nominations, the more love.