Doc Talk is a bi-weekly column dedicated to non-fiction cinema.
Which film is more likely to become a documentary classic, 'Inside Job' or 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'? Regardless of our preference, we can all agree Banksy's Oscar-losing fan favorite is a more timeless story and will likely be more enjoyable with repeat viewings. Charles Ferguson's Academy Award-winning look at the financial crisis will certainly remain a great piece of historical document but probably won't be revisited often for entertainment or artistic value. And sadly, like many timely docs, it could even one day be forgotten, like Lee Grant's 1986 Oscar-winning Reagonomics critique 'Down and Out in America,' which is pretty obscure only 25 years later.
Before announcing the Best Picture winner Sunday night, Steven Spielberg made a comment clearly meant to appease Team 'The Social Network' by implying that losing the award still puts a film in good company (his examples being 'Grapes of Wrath,' 'Citizen Kane,' 'The Graduate' and 'Raging Bull'). The same goes for the Best Documentary Feature award. 'Inside Job' joins the likes of 'Woodstock,' 'Hearts and Minds,' 'Bowling for Columbine' and 'Man on Wire.' 'Exit,' meanwhile, joins a group including 'In the Year of the Pig,' 'Streetwise,' 'Capturing the Friedmans' and 'Encounters at the End of the World.'
Many documentary favorites and significant works are absent from either group. Of Time Out's recent list of the top 50 documentaries of all time, only 13 were nominated for an Oscar (some of course were produced before the Academy honored docs, and others were simply ineligible). Similarly, only 19 of the Chlotrudis Society's Top 100 were nominated, 4 of The Documentary Blog's Top 25 and 6 of Vanity Fair's 25, while the International Documentary Association is more Academy friendly with 11 out of its 25 of all time recognized, as is GreenCine with 26 out of 50.
Some of the most important and influential filmmakers in the field who have not won an Oscar (asterisks denote those who've at least been nominated) include Fredrick Wiseman, DA Pennebaker*, Les Blank, Albert and David Maysles*, Werner Herzog*, Ken Burns*, Robert Drew, Joris Ivens, Alain Resnais, Richard Leacock, Ross McElwee, Claude Lanzmann, Chris Marker and Jean Rouch, as well as a few who made history too early for such an honor (for more, see AJ Schnack's very long list of the most significant documentary filmmakers of all time, few of whom have been nominated let alone won). Documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty sort of won, but for his final film, 'The Titan: Story of Michelangelo,' which is barely thought of today. It's like how the Maysles' nomination is for a little-known short ('Christo's Running Fence') rather than any of their classic features, like 'Salesman,' 'Gimme Shelter' and 'Grey Gardens.'
Is there a reason why so many classics were not recognized by the Academy? Critic Matt Zoller Seitz, while a guest on The Brian Lehrer Show last week, mentioned that the Oscars have always been behind when it comes to what's happening with documentary film and so the most groundbreaking works, especially of the arty and foreign variety, are typically overlooked. I can agree to an extent. This is possibly why it took so long for guys like Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Herzog and Pennebaker to receive nominations, because they're less conventional. Yet some upstarts get in early, such as Morgan Spurlock and now Banksy. But, as Seitz suggests, they're still probably too weird for the win.
'Born Into Brothels' vs. 'Super Size Me'
Speaking of Spurlock, his 'Super Size Me' is a modern classic, one that should have won the Oscar if we believe the award should go to the most important film, which also advances the documentary mode. It is very arguably not the best doc of 2004 -- -- subjectively you might say 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' 'Tarnation,' 'Touching the Void,' 'Control Room,' 'Riding Giants,' 'Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,' 'The Corporation' or my favorite of the year, 'Dig!,' none of which were nominated -- but of the nominees it was technically the most influential, with many films copying its style since, and it had the greatest social impact. But the Academy went with 'Born Into Brothels,' a film I love to despise, which is now best remembered as a self-satisfying poverty-porn doc that helped a few select Indian kids go to college in America. Watch the much better 'Super Size Me' below:
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'Albert Schweitzer' vs. 'On the Bowery'
If we are to think of documentary classics as those with cultural, social and aesthetic significance, perhaps the National Film Registry is better than the Academy in recognition of non-fiction cinema. And if so, Lionel Rogosin's 'On the Bowery,' which was added to the Registry two years ago, should have beaten Jerome Hill's 'Albert Schweitzer' in 1958. The former continues increasing its prestige, having recently received an acclaimed theatrical re-release (it plays in Chicago this week, by the way). Neither film appears to be available on DVD in the U.S., however (nor is the other nominee from that year, 'Torero'). You can at least watch 'Albert Schweitzer' on Hulu, below, and wonder if it's indeed worthy of its award:
'The Anderson Platoon' vs. 'A Time for Burning'
Of course, some of the National Film Registry's picks were not even nominated, such as John Huston's 'The Battle of San Pietro' Bert Stern's 'Jazz on a Summer's Day,' Robert Drew's 'Primary,' Ross McElwee's 'Sherman's March,' Errol Morris' 'The Thin Blue Line,' Fred Wiseman's 'High School,' Steve James' 'Hoop Dreams' and the Maysles' 'Salesman' and 'Grey Gardens.' Then there's the NFR-preserved 'Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman,' which lost the 1974 Oscar to Peter Davis' 'Hearts and Minds,' a Criterion selection that many would defend as the best documentary of that year. As for the NFR pick 'A Time for Burning,' which lost to 'The Anderson Platoon,' in 1968 (also the year of 'High School'), I think it might hold up just slightly better (the French may disagree). You can watch 'Burning' in full on YouTube ('Anderson Platoon' can also be seen there in parts, or in full on either Netflix Instant or Amazon Instant):
'The Hellstrom Chronicle' vs. 'The Sorrow and the Pity'
Another tough choice might be between Walon Green's 1971 Oscar winner 'Hellstrom Chronicle,' a combo nature doc and doomsday fearmonger film that really deserves a DVD release (with a better print than seen below), and Marcel Ophuls' Oscar-losing 'The Sorrow and the Pity,' which is much more famous and much more widely seen. People argue that 'Sorrow' probably wouldn't be as well known were it not for 'Annie Hall.' Regardless, I think many would still claim it was more deserving than 'Hellstrom,' which you can check out segmented on YouTube ('Sorrow' can be watched on Netflix Instant):
'Taxi to the Dark Side' vs. 'No End in Sight'
Ophuls would go on to win an Oscar later with the also great 'Hotel Terminus,' just as Ferguson went on to win an Oscar this year after losing back in 2008 to his own producer, Alex Gibney. I think 'No End in Sight' is a far better film than 'Inside Job,' and I think Ferguson should have won earlier. Gibney's 'Taxi to the Dark Side' is notable for its storytelling, but it's not quite as polished or necessary as Ferguson's exhaustive early history of the Iraq occupation. 'No End in Sight' can be watched segment on Google Video (and 'Taxi' is there in one full video):
I don't have an issue with 'Inside Job' outside of some formal choices, particularly the narration, but I disagree with Seitz's claim that it's a very traditional film. Ferguson is clearly doing something progressive with the way he interviews subjects. Somewhere between the rudely antagonistic methods of Michael Moore and the safer journalistic practices of many truly traditional documentarians, he is able to dig deeper and present more surprises, particularly in the form of angry interviewees, than others working in that style. As much as I argued for the case of 'Exit' winning, due to it being different, I do think 'Inside Job' is the better film, for now, even if it might not age as well.
We might further argue for other Oscar losers that should have won. Any other choice in 2006 (of the nominees 'Murderball,' 'Street Fight,' 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' and 'Darwin's Nightmare') would have been better than 'March of the Penguins,' for instance. To make more comparisons, I'd need to see more of the past examples (I will one day embark on the project to see all of the Oscar-nominated docs, where available). Was there any year in which you really thought the best doc lost to a lesser film? A favorite doc that should have been nominated? Is it easier to answer in retrospect? Chime in below.