Oscar Guide 2011: Best Documentary Short

(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.)

For the second year in a row the documentary short nominees will be included in Shorts International/Magnolia Pictures’ theatrical program of Oscar-nominated shorts. The films release as a package in 200 theaters nationwide on tomorrow, February 10.

The docs this year were an interesting and diverse assortment. At least two of them are top-notch works of cinema. Another is a gripping if somewhat clinical dissection of an unfortunate wartime event, while one will likely land well for its old Hollywood connections. The least-compelling of the lot is a new spin on familiar Civil Rights movement territory. Meanwhile, there are three former nominees in the line-up, two of them having been chalked up for feature work in the past.

The nominees are…

“The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement” (Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin)

“God is the Bigger Elvis” (Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson)

“Incident in New Baghdad” (James Spione)

“Saving Face” (Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy)

“The Tusnami and the Cherry Blossom” (Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen)

The thing to watch for with these films, typically, is that golden combination of craft expertise and emotional impact. Only members who show up, sign in and screen the films can vote, so there is no auto-pilot to be considered. Each film has to speak for itself.

Every couple of years it seems we’re due a Civil Rights movement entry in this category, and no disrespect to “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement,” but so rarely is anything unique added to the conversation or revealed in the filmmaking. Of course, this film, from directors Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin, does have the events of the 2008 presidential election as a novel element to explore their impact on aging Civil Rights activists in the South, but it feels like the heat around the subject has passed so the impact isn’t that significant. The film is centered on barber James Armstrong, but somewhat arbitrarily so. Though he is a charismatic focus in and of himself, I was nevertheless left feeling as though I had seen it all before.

“God is the Bigger Elivs,” from director Rebecca Cammisa and producer Julie Anderson, tells the story of actress Dolores Hart, who in 1963 left a successful film career (including being an Elvis Presley leading lady) to become a Benedictine monk. Cammisa was nominated once in the feature doc category for 2009’s “Which Way Home” (a film that made a nice companion piece to foreign feature “Sin Nombre” the same year), so she’s quickly becoming a stand-out filmmaker in the field. Here she does a nice job of packing a lot into the film’s 40 minute running time, and the familiar, industry-specific story could resonate for the branch. But I found it a little bit dull. It could be formidable, but it doesn’t have the impact that some other contenders do.

James Spione‘s “Incident in New Baghdad” is a rather disturbing dissection of one of the most unfortunate events of the Iraq War: the accidental murder of two journalists and a group of mostly unarmed men on the streets of Baghdad by US Black Hawk helicopters in 2007. The film hinges on veteran Ethan McCord, who was on the ground that day and gives a stirring account that, when juxtaposed with the WikiLeaks-leaked aerial footage of the incident, makes for a gripping cinematic experience. It could be a sleeper to watch, though it’s a bit clinical, which made the inevitable emotions it dug up feel a bit disconnected to me. Still, it’s a must-see in the field, and sometimes that’s powerful enough to win.

Other times, a film just stands out from the pack for being powerful and vital, raising awareness, shedding light, thoroughly exploring its subject, the whole package. “Saving Face,” from former nominee Daniel Junge (“The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardener”) and producer Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, is just that. A revelatory piece of work about the persistence of acid attacks on women in Pakistan, the film boasts one of the meatier running times of the lot, profiling a handful of victims, the London-based, native Pakistani doctor who sees treatment of the victims as his life’s work and the nail-biting legal sequence that will lead to either justice or further tragedy in a region clearly victimized by its religious tenets. This one feels like a stone-cold winner to me.

But it could face some competition. Former Oscar nominee for features, Lucy Walker (“Waste Land”), is back a year later with an entry in the short field, “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” produced by Kira Carstensen. The film packs an emotional punch to say the least, opening on four solid minutes of some of the most harrowing video I’ve seen of the tsunami that wreaked havoc on the Tohoku region of Japan on March 11, 2011. The film then depicts the gut-wrenching toll of the tragedy as survivors recount seeing loved ones perish and struggle to make a new life on the erased ruins of their old one. It’s the most artful entry of the bunch, with beautiful original music from Moby, and I could see it taking the win easily.

Will win: “Saving Face”

Could win: “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom”

Should win: “Saving Face”

Should have been here: (abstain)

(Read previous installments of the Oscar Guide here.)

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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