The Oscars occur only one night per year (the televised ones, at least), so how does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences embarrass itself and slight the medium it ostensibly exists to celebrate during the other 364 days? The answer: Shortlists. Of any given year's qualifying documentaries, the pertinent branch of the Academy will ultimately consider only 15 as potential nominees. Perennially it's the Best Foreign Language Film category and its absurd mechanics that yields the most baffling choices and mortifying snubs, but the Best Documentary division is often a close runner-up. This has been a particularly strong year for documentaries both in quality and quantity (there were 101 eligible pictures), effectively guaranteeing that great films would fall on both sides of the cutoff. And as is often the case with guarantees, that's exactly what happened.
To start with a moment of praise and give the Academy credit where credit is due, the usually conservative bunch went out on a limb and included the absolutely terrific Sundance sensation 'Exit Through the Gift Shop,' a particularly bold choice given how hip and elusive the film is, and that Banksy -- its assumed creator -- is virtually anonymous. Whether or not it actually lands a nomination is yet to be seen, but for the Academy to even acknowledge a film so critical of art and its true value is kind of a landmark in its own right.
Other unexpected but entirely deserved selections include Madeleine Sackler's excellent 'The Lottery' (which features terrific music from TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe), Josh Fox's 'Gasland,' and Lucy Walker's 'Waste Land.' Those three films join equally strong but practically predetermined choices like Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's 'Restrepo,' and -- the likely winner -- Charles Ferguson's 'Inside Job' (an enraging polemic about our financial collapse told with an eye for the masses, but also with the intellectual rigor worthy of a spot in this year's New York Film Festival).
Of course, it's with the omissions that things get ugly. It's a mild relief that voters weren't seduced by the cheap, tired, and facile theatrics of 'Catfish,' but the three best docs of the year were all ignored. Lixin Fan's exquisite and unforgettable 'Last Train Home' -- which Cinematical's documentary guru Christopher Campbell will tell you is his favorite film of the year -- was brutally snubbed, perhaps because it's unfettered approach and discomforting lack of closure didn't sit well with some viewers. Werner Herzog's 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams,' which illuminates the entire reach of civilization from the dark of a single cave (and arguably features the most revelatory and practical use of 3D in the history of motion pictures), was also left off the list. Ditto Frederick Wiseman's characteristically masterful but uncharacteristically epic 'La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,' which at 159 minutes may have simply been too daunting for a group which wasn't required to watch all of the eligible films (or maybe they all just elected to watch 'Black Swan' instead, which -- when you take out all the psychoses, monsters, and Vincent Cassel -- are pretty much the same movie). There was initially some confusion, but all three of these films were indeed eligible.
Herzog couldn't be reached for comment, but we're going to assume that he was completely devastated by the snub, and has spent the afternoon sniffling the most badass sniffles that have ever been sniffled. Having said that, the Academy's refusal to recognize his work isn't much of a surprise, especially in the wake of 'Slumdog Millionaire's' Best Picture win, because if there exists a diametric opposite to the films of Werner Herzog, it's 'Slumdog Millionaire.' It's a real shame, because without Oscars how will Werner Herzog and Frederick Wiseman ever know that they're great filmmakers? Moreover, without Oscars can Werner Herzog and Frederick Wiseman even be considered to be great filmmakers? Of course not. Kidding aside, Lixin Fan and his great debut feature could definitely have used the attention, and 'Last Train Home' is one of those films that makes the world a better place by virtue of being widely seen.
The Academy has certainly had better moments, but they've also had far worse. At the end of the day, the strength of this year's documentary field all but guarantees that a good film will take home the trophy, and there aren't that many other categories about which that can be said. The nominations for all categories will be announced on the morning of January 25. Let us know your thoughts on the shortlist, which is posted in its entirety below.
'Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,' Alex Gibney, director (ES Productions LLC)
'Enemies of the People,' Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, directors (Old Street Films)
'Exit through the Gift Shop,' Banksy, director (Paranoid Pictures)
'Gasland,' Josh Fox, director (Gasland Productions, LLC)
'Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould,' Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, directors (White Pine Pictures)
'Inside Job,' Charles Ferguson, director (Representational Pictures)
'The Lottery,' Madeleine Sackler, director (Great Curve Films)
'Precious Life,' Shlomi Eldar, director (Origami Productions)
'Quest for Honor,' Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, director (Smothers Bruni Productions)
'Restrepo,' Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, directors (Outpost Films)
'This Way of Life,' Thomas Burstyn, director (Cloud South Films)
'The Tillman Story,' Amir Bar-Lev, director (Passion Pictures/Axis Films)
'Waiting for 'Superman'', Davis Guggenheim, director (Electric Kinney Films)
'Waste Land,' Lucy Walker, director (Almega Projects)
'William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,' Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, directors (Disturbing the Universe LLC)