Documentary Feature

It’s one thing to award the Gore doc the big prize during the Bush administration; it’s something else entirely to award the Obama doc during the Obama administration. Nonetheless, the new doc about the Obama campaign is getting a qualifying run, according to AJ Schnack over at ATWT.

The trick appears to be to get the qualifying run but also not dampen any buzz a bigger opening, with proper reviews, could cause – thus, as Schnack points out, the Doc will be screened in just a couple of venues and currently has no critical blowback. Gee, I wonder what Ann Coulter is going to think of it? This doc comes at a time when the right is coming at Obama with claws outstretched so reception of this film, no doubt, is going to be somewhat controversial. Oscar will be in the mix, especially if the film is shortlisted and even nominated. Here is a great piece about the filmmakers and the doc itself.

Food for thought: could a movie made about the Republicans ever get anywhere near the Kodak?

More docs are getting their qualifying, says Schnack – and, as it seems to be going lately, the doc and foreign language race are among Oscar’s most fascinating:


DisneyNature will release Earth on April 22nd, Earth Day, and if it makes a boatload of cash it could be a contender for the doc race, even if it isn’t particularly hard-hitting. Earth was made by the same filmmakers who did the dazzling Planet Earth, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. It also revives a Disney/nature tradition that was Oscar-friendly back in the day. So, will it be just a fun day at the movies for the kids? Or will it be something more?

More gorgeous stills after the cut.

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Intended to be inspirational and awe-inspiring rather than raise worrisome environmental concerns, Disney’s epic Earth is positioned as March of the Penguins minus all the Inconvenient Truth. The dramatized story of 3 wildlife families spans 42 countries, and took 5 years to shoot over 2000 hours of film in the field (so brace yourself for the director’s cut). Due to be released on April 22 (Earth Day), the timing is auspicious in another way too. With a DVD release just in time for the holidays, Blu-ray discs sent out instead of traditional single-layer screeners will made every other documentary this year look like dirt. Except, in order to vote for it, Academy members will still have to see Earth in a theater. As if that ever enhances the chances that the best documentaries will win — or even be nominated.

Philadelphia muralist Isaiah Zager is the subject of his son Jeremiah’s documentary, In A Dream, whose trailer comes to us via Cinematical. Winner of the audience award at SXSW Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, the film will be screening across the country on a schedule you can find at the In A Dream blog. Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Like the dazzling, colorful mosaics that Isaiah has pasted to buildings around town – crazy-quilt images of people (often the artist himself), shards of shattered mirror, cracked crockery, bottles, bicycle wheels – his life has been kaleidoscopic, yet singularly focused. Now 68, Isaiah and his wife, Julia, have been fixtures in Philadelphia since the hippie days of yesteryear. She runs the Eyes Gallery and he runs around town, looking for blank walls to cover. There are more than 100 of his murals in the city, and the “magic garden” in front of his studio has become a tourist destination…

Mixing old home movies, wonderful animated sequences derived from Isaiah’s art, and scenes of Isaiah at work, of Julia in agony, and of their eldest son, Zeke, grappling with his own demons, In a Dream captures a family imploding. Their lives are laid bare, in broken bits, like the ceramic that Isaiah uses for his art, and they come together in In a Dream with sadness and beauty, rage and insight.

Wikipedia says: “Embedded in many of his works are the words ‘Art is the Center of the Real World’. His murals reflect an appreciation for the imaginative human and sensual element in the potentially bleak urban environment.” Beautiful portrait of Isaiah Zagar after the cut.

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“…in the category for which I should have been nominated,” as he said just now on HBO’s Real Time.

He also revealed that the Oscar’s are cutting back on glitz this year. In fact, Maher says, “Sean Penn will arrive in a rented huff.”

(Religulous DVD trailer after the cut)

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It happens every year. The defacto choice in a category becomes mirage-like, shimmering in the distance and we wonder, briefly, if it is really as solid as we think it is. Even the most secure winner can look like a mirage at times, which is sort of how this revelation from Kris Tapley at InContention comes off; I appreciate that he saw Man on Wire first and the other docs second, which could account for the replacement of feeling. On the other hand, as he points out, this is very likely how the other voters will be seeing things:

I have a lot of respect for “Man on Wire.” I think it’s blend of energetic interviews with Philippe Petit and stock footage of his daring high-wire act is at times quite beautiful. The score is magistrial, a lullaby throughout. Yet overall, I can’t imagine the film would have the same emotional resonance if it weren’t a sort of ghost story, given the fate of the twin towers. And I can’t help but marvel at the innovation of the other contenders more so than the piecing together of older material and manifestation of scenes to push “Wire”’s story forward.

And I doubt I’m the only one. I don’t have any insight into the voting committee of this year’s documentary contenders. I haven’t made any calls to find out who’s voting for what. So this is purely a speculative piece. But we must keep in mind that, while most of the other categories can allow for a voter to choose without having seen this or that contender (thereby allowing the groupthink to sway opinion in some instances), members of the Academy who wish to vote in the documentary field must watch each of the nominees in order to have a say. And when you stack up the competition, “Man on Wire” seems a bit flat.

It is unfortunate that the docs, the foreign films and the shorts I think are the only categories where voters have to seen all five contenders (seeing them should be mandatory for all Academy members, in my fascist opinion) to vote. This is usually why weird shit goes down at the Oscars that no one sees coming. I think Kris dismisses the idea of the ghost story, though, too quickly; those are some pretty powerful ghosts. But I’ll reserve judgment until I see them all.

QUESTION: I think that the debate that you’ve been having, your calls to expand the idea of what documentary can be – if that’s been a debate, it seems to me that you’ve won.

WH: No, come on, it’s not winning or losing. We are not in horse races. No, it is just finding, how shall I say, finding an adequate answer to the massive onslaught on our sense of reality. And I’m speaking of digital effects in cinema and photoshop and virtual realities on the net and video games and reality TV, you can continue on. In the last decade a massive onslaught on our sense of reality and we, as filmmakers, are called upon to redefine our sense of reality. That’s what’s behind it. And cinema verite’s the answer of the ‘60s.

Encounters at the End of the World director Werner Herzog talking to All These Wonderful Things.

All These Wonderful Things has announced the complete nominees for the 2008 Cinema Eye awards for non-fiction film. The group was born out of frustration with the Academy’s and other awards groups methods for choosing documentaries. Here is how it’s shaking down:

Ari Folman’s acclaimed animated film, WALTZ WITH BASHIR, received a record-setting 7 nominations, including nods for Director, Producer, Editor, Music, Animation, International Film and the top prize, Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking. In addition, Ari Folman leads all nominees with four individual nominations.

Guy Maddin’s MY WINNIPEG received six total nominations, while James Marsh’s MAN ON WIRE had five. Margaret Brown’s THE ORDER OF MYTHS, which received four nominations, and Marina Zenovich’s ROMAN POLANSKI: THE ORDER OF MYTHS are also in contention for the top award.

Of the five films nominated for the top prize, only one – MAN ON WIRE – is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Feature Documentary.

Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD received four nominations, joins Margaret Brown, Ari Folman, Guy Maddin and James Marsh in the category of Outstanding Achievement in Direction. Margaret Brown becomes the first woman to be nominated for the directing prize.

Looks like Waltz with Bashir will win big.

AJ Schnack brings the news that the International Documentary Association (IDA) has announced its winners in all but the top prize category. Schnack thinks it will be down to Young @ Heart versus Man on Wire. Also in the running for Doc Feature, Waltz with Bashir, also poised to do some damage in the awards race in one way or another.

I read a few sites with commentary on the Oscar documentary short list but I must admit I was waiting to hear what AJ Schnack over at All These Wonderful Things had to say and it turns out it isn’t bad:

Let’s get one thing out of the way. There will be no outraged commentary this year. For one, we’ve tried to swear that kind of thing off after last year’s debacle and our subsequent response. For another, despite the numerous flaws in the Academy’s process (and Lord knows they are legion), it’s not a terrible shortlist this year, despite some high profile omissions.

In fact, the Academy, through no fault of its own, managed to include veterans (Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Steve James & Peter Gilbert, Stacy Peralta) as well as first timers (Ellen Kuras, Jeremiah Zagar) and still found room for the two front-runners (James Marsh’s MAN ON WIRE and Carl Deal & Tia Lessin’s TROUBLE THE WATER). This despite a process that made it ever increasingly simple to qualify for Academy eligibility.

Women filmmakers took yet another hit this year:

Two years ago, women filmmakers dominated the shortlist. This year, just two films (the aforementioned BLESSED IS THE MATCH and PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL) were credited solely to a female filmmaker. Last year, only one film had that distinction. (TROUBLE THE WATER and THE BETRAYAL have one woman sharing credit with a man, although Ellen Kuras gets the primary credit on THE BETRAYAL.) Brown, Burstein and Zenovich are among the filmmakers missing from this year’s list.

AMPAS released the contenders for the Documentary Feature and they are:

“At the Death House Door”
“The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)”
“Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”
“Encounters at the End of the World”
“The Garden”
“Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts”
“In a Dream”
“Made in America”
“Man on Wire”
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell”
“Standard Operating Procedure”
“They Killed Sister Dorothy”
“Trouble the Water”


Indiewire posted the nominees for the International Documentary Association Awards. It is starting to look like one of the sure things in this year’s doc race is Man on Wire, as it’s the one that is finding itself on almost every list thus far. Young@Heart is not eligible for the Oscar, neither is Waltz with Bashir (which is eligible for Foreign and Animated). It doesn’t appear to be shaping up like a political year for docs, though, unless you count Trouble the Water – because how do you talk about Katrina without talking about the government?

Fataculture’s Nick Plowman called Stranded one of his favorite documentaries of the year and reviews it here. And Kassim the Dream looks pretty fabulous too (trailer above).

The full list of nominees:

Distinguished Documentary Achievement: Feature
Kassim The Dream,” directed by Kief Davidson
Man on Wire,” directed by James Marsh
Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains,” directed by Gonzalo Arijon
Waltz With Bashir,” directed by Ari Folman
Young@Heart,” directed by Stephen Walker

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As a huge fan of such films as The Krays, The Long Good Friday, and the BBC miniseries, The Krays, this looks like the dog’s bollocks.

Press Release: A VERY BRITISH GANGSTER, the acclaimed profile of the notorious British gay crime boss, Dominic Noonan and his family, has qualified and been entered into the Academy Award Documentary Competition for consideration. Directed by Donal MacIntyre Рan award winning BBC investigative reporter – the film was the result of a four year odyssey with Noonan and his team of enforcers, as he lurched from trial to trial, evading convictions on charges involving a million dollar kidnap and torture case, a $1.2 million heroin deal and gun running.

Alan Maher, production executive of the Irish Film Board said, “We are thrilled with the success of A VERY BRITISH GANGSTER and are proud to have this film represent the best of Irish cinema for a chance at Oscar gold.”

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Winner of Best Documentary at Tribeca, Pray the Devil Back to Hell recounts the courageous efforts of Liberian women to overcome dictator Charles Taylor and end decades of warlord violence.

Reticker, whose docus have all concerned women, presents the females’ calm visages and voices of reason in direct contrast to the unctuous public doublespeak of Taylor and the self-serving soundbites of the marauding warlords. Reticker’s film, enriching the already vast cinematic gallery of extraordinary African women, takes their innate power one step further, showing them quietly, determinedly putting a stop to the seemingly endless civil wars that are ravaging the continent and the globe. (Variety)

Thanks to jennybee for the pointing us to another outstanding documentary contender. What a cinema utopia we’d have if narrative feature filmmakers offered us the range and depth that documentarians explore in recent years. Trailer after the cut.

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We’ve mentioned Man on Wire several times as an almost certain nominee for Best Documentary. Swept up in the general consensus that it’s one of the very best films of the year, apparently we’ve taken it for granted by never featuring the trailer. Correcting that oversight now. Our good friend Craig Kennedy at Living in Cinema has been raving about Man on Wire since he saw it at LAFF in July. Craig bestows 5-star reviews only a little less frequently than he hands out bailouts to crooked bankers, so when a movie receives the LiC 5-star rating, you can bank on this: it’s really something special. (extended trailer after the cut)

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TGIF buzz kill, sorry.
The poster after the cut has a bold Bauhaus agitprop vibe.

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Filmmakers hanging their highest hopes on winning an Academy Award know it’s the dream scenario guaranteed to boost box-office with a post-Oscar bump worth millions, right?¬† …um, not always. Not when the distributor is caught up short and unprepared to capitalize on this chance of a lifetime opportunity. The New York Times has the disheartening story of how ThinkFilm dropped the ball on this year’s incredible Best Documentary Oscar-winner, Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney:

In a June 19 filing with the Independent Film & Television Alliance, an industry organization, Mr. Gibney’s company, X-Ray Productions, asserts that ThinkFilm defrauded him by not having the financing to distribute and promote “Taxi” properly and seeks to reclaim the film’s distribution rights. The complaint says ThinkFilm’s failure to pay vendors caused the film’s Web site to shut down, and that the company did not advertise the post-Oscar run in major magazines. Since its release in January, the movie has made less than $250,000 in theaters.

“I’m upset because the whole commercial strategy of the film was predicated on the idea of winning awards,” Mr. Gibney said. “The fact that they were fiscally unable to capitalize on the Oscar infuriated me for two reasons: They had been in financial difficulty for some time and hadn’t disclosed it to us; and we won the Oscar, and they still hadn’t disclosed it to us.”

The single solitary movie about the war that manages to break through the Iraqnophobia of critics and industry obstructions — and it dies out of sight, due to negligence or outright abuse of authority, snuffed out in custody behind walls of confusion, incompetence and mismanagement. Sad, and ironic.

Variety’s Robert Koehler raves about the French doc, Beloved:

Lovely, extremely heartfelt film helps redefine the term “homemovie” as the director examines the sad, multilayered life of his grandmother Therese, who died of tuberculosis at 36. Desplechin once again demonstrates his capacity for turning anything into a cinematic moment, and accomplishes what many viewers might wish they had done with their own relatives. Tube buyers will lead the request line for this gentle, human document.

Yet, John Anderson has no kind words for Madonna’s I Am Because We Are (reminds me of the Colbert book, I Am, America, and So Can You – I think Madonna pays a tiny price, tiny, for staying out of touch with TV):

More famous for her personal reinventions than her music (or certainly her acting), Madonna now has apparently chosen to morph into Sally Struthers. For all its noble intentions, “I Am Because We Are” is little more than a longform PSA about the horrors of life in AIDS-ridden Malawi, one that asks many questions without providing answers — except, of course, the ministrations of a multimillionaire, and whatever one can donate via her website. Producer-writer’s celebrity might generate some ticket sales, but wide exposure was never in the cards, not will it be, unless the doc gets rear-projected during Madonna’s next concert tour.

Ouch. The title actually is, according to Wikipedia, “from Desmond Tutu‚Äôs (famous Archbishop from Cape Town, South Africa) words. ‘Ubuntu’ is an idea present in African spirituality that says ‘I am because we are’ – or we are all connected, we cannot be ourselves without community, health and faith are always lived out among others, an individual‚Äôs well being is caught up in the well being of others.”

(click for supersized version suitable for printing and posting on classroom corkboards)

“An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.”
Sicko (2007) – Tony Benn

[Whether they slant Left or Right, when movies are used as a tool for politics then political movies become an important topic on movie websites. That’s reason enough for me to bring this up again. Skip to the nearest photo of Angelina Jolie as safe haven if you’re not interested.]

“What bugs a lot of us is the Intelligent Design proponents ugly and aggressive tactics in forcing their religious and political agenda into the national school curriculum. Kai was 100% on target when he pointed out the mastodon elephant in the room: This sudden push for ID has nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics and culture.”

Jack Stark (and many others) ask: “What‚Äôs wrong with showing both sides of the coin? Nobody is arguing that we should only teach creationism. What we ask is to teach both sides of the issue, so children can be exposed to different points-of-view and make up their own mind. It is wrong in my book for children to be exposed to only one perceptive on anything.”

Political documentaries have exploded many myths in the past few years, and conservatives wonder why the myth-busters always seem to be the “liberal elite.” I’d like to suggest that there’s a reason why conservative documentaries don’t get Oscar nominations. They’re crude and weak and usually wall-to-wall lies.

Arguing this topic is as exhausting and pointless as arguing about how much Crash sucks. Lots of people think Crash a great movie, and I’m fine with that. But you can’t teach that belief in science class, ok? Teach it at home, or anyplace else. Expose your own kids to whatever disturbed falsehoods you want. Just don’t do it in the classroom.

There is no science behind Intelligent Design. It’s a fabricated construct whose only design is the avowed agenda of “The Discovery Institute” to inject religion into schools.

This would be funny if the repercussion weren’t so serious, but sometimes humor is the best way to make a point. A few more examples after the cut.

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New York Times critic Manohla Dargis saw the Roman Polanski doc when it briefly appeared in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles in order to qualify for the Oscars. Dargis writes:

“Wanted and Desired,” which opened on Friday without advance press screenings, was bought by HBO at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Its one-week theatrical run will make it eligible for Academy Award consideration, though given that organization’s often pitiful record when it comes to nonfiction film, it seems unlikely that a movie this subtly intelligent would make its short list. That’s especially true because the director, Marina Zenovich, refuses to wag her finger at Mr. Polanski, even when presenting the sordid and grimly pathetic details of his crime, like the Champagne and partial Quaalude he furnished the 13-year-old girl and her repeated nos.

Dargis speaks like a real critic when she disses the AMPASS, but I I think she goes too far suggesting that the film would do better if it wagged its finger at Polanski. The truth is, if AMPAS had anything against Polanski they wouldn’t have honored with a Best Director Oscar for The Pianist. Look at how badly they’ve exiled Russell Crowe, not that Crowe’s behavior can compare to Polanski’s but just that when the Academy wants someone to pay, they pay.¬† Read Dargis’ full review here.

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