Oscar Guide 2011: Best Documentary Feature

(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy’s 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.)

I have no idea what’s going to win the Best Documentary Feature category. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I might as well get that out of the way right at the top. And I’ve even seen each film twice. It’s a rare year that sees such solid arguments in favor of each and every nominee of the bunch. That’s not to say that, personally speaking, each nominee is award-worthy, but I could just see the Academy’s doc voters falling for any of them.

It was a typical year where the narrow-down process was concerned. Controversy indeed met the list of finalists that dropped in November, which snubbed critics’ favorites “Senna” and “The Interrupters” (the latest smack in the face of filmmaker Steve James), while yet another Werner Herzog entry was ignored completely. Nevertheless, there is a wide cross-section of issues represented here, and that’s never a bad thing.

The nominees are…

“Hell and Back Again” (Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner)

“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” (Marshall Curry and Sam Cullan)

“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky)

“Pina” (Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel)

“Undefeated” (T.J. Martin, Dan Lindsay and Rich Middlemas)

The big snub of the remaining films was actually James Marsh’s “Project Nim,” which many even figured was the frontrunner to win (especially after its dominance on the circuit). Alas, chalk it up as another crazy year for the branch. The process will change next year, though. We’ll see how that affects things.

It feels like the impact of “Hell and Back Again,” from director Danfung Dennis and producer Mike Lerner, is diminished just a bit in the wake of Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington’s brilliant “Restrepo.” Of course, not all war docs are created equal, so don’t misunderstand. The film is a stirring account of Sergeant Nathan Harris’s life in the States after seeing action in Afghanistan, with plenty of footage from the latter on display. Indeed, there are some unflinching images in this film that stick with you. Harris makes for a somewhat compelling anchor. But I don’t know how derivative the enterprise might appear to some. (Side note: The filmmaker calls his own film “cinematically revolutionary” and “a masterpiece” on the film’s IMDb page. I’d say that’s overstating it.)

Sometimes sterling journalism can be a strong contender in this category. Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman‘s “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” is precisely that. It seemingly starts out as an advocacy piece for the titular group’s mission but soon transitions to a delicately balanced portrait. It’s unique in its deep dissection of the clandestine, scattered enviro-crusader organization that has been accused of domestic terror. It’s a vast piece, edited from a lot of different footage sources, making for, surely, the most complete documentation of the situation to date. I feel like it’s lagging behind a few other nominees, but I could certainly be wrong about that. Just like the rest, it could easily win.

My chips are currently placed on “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which is the latest and, it would seem, final installment of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s 16-year examination of the West Memphis Three case. The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September, one month after Alford Pleas were entered and Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley finally walked free. You have to imagine these films had something to do with that, and so it goes without saying, this is a ripe opportunity to recognize the impact this series has had on justice. Not only that, it’s a great film and a brilliant distillation of everything that’s happened. Of course, just ask Errol Morris how far exacting change can get you in an Oscar race.

The relative “star power” of the nominees this year is Wim Wenders and his heartfelt ode to modern dancer Pina Bausch: “Pina” (produced by Gian-Piero Ringel). The film has a couple things going for it. It stands out as more of a filmed performance art exhibit than a typical doc. It was filmed in 3D and has been considered (perhaps rightly) the most compelling use of the medium to date. And if there are any modern dance fans among voting members, well it has a leg up there, too. Part of me thinks this is an obvious winner. After all, it also came pretty close to being a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and is certainly no fringe player. Plus, the other four “typical” docs could split the vote, allowing for this to slide right in. But I can’t be sure.

Late in the game there is a bit of leaning toward T.J Martin and Daniel Lindsay‘s “Undefeated” (nominated alongside producer Ed Cunningham) for some, which, like “Hell and Back Again” and “Pina,” does not have the crutch of pre-existing footage to potentially hold it back. The film is one of the best of the nominees with a very strong subject to follow in football coach Bill Courtney. Voters haven’t often sprung for considerations of inner-city issues, but the emotion of this one could be enough to catapult it past the others. It’s certainly the only one of the nominees that made ME cry twice. There are a number of genuine moments captured throughout the film, which is as much a profile of Courtney as it is a portrait of a milestone high school football season that makes you feel thankful the cameras were there to capture it.

Will win: “Undefeated”

Could win: “Pina”

Should win: “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”

Should have been here: “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life”

Keep track of our current rankings in the Best Documentary Feature category via its Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature?  Who got robbed?  Have your say in the comments section below!

(Read previous installments of the Oscar Guide here.)

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