Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Handicapping the 2009 Best Doc Oscar Winner

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Academy Award forecasting is such fun. I wish I could put together a chart with the various factors that I see determining the film with the best odds of winning the doc Oscar this year. Without a graphics department on my side, I’ll just mention the main variables: quality of film (yes, that matters!), popularity (at the box office), critical popularity (amongst critics, that is), marketing (the distributor behind the film; the special Oscar screenings that they set up and the advertising they spend), social importance (for a while, Holocaust docs were a sure-winner), current relevance, entertainment value and filmmaker popularity amongst Oscar voters.

This year, in the Oscar category, forecasting is not quite as much fun because there’s such a clear-cut favorite. Of the films nominated: Trouble the Water, Man On Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, The Garden, and The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) (POV 2009), Man on Wire is way, way ahead. It wins in the most important of the categories I mentioned above: popularity (both critical and at the box office), entertainment value and marketing (thanks to its popularity, the film has been touted in newspapers and magazines much more than the other films). I just have a hard time seeing it not winning.

But that won’t stop me from entertaining the possibilities. First, forget The Garden. The one thing that film has going for it is that it’s set in Los Angeles, where most of the Oscar voters reside, but that’s not enough. Encounters has interesting prospects because voters have sided for environmental docs in the recent past (March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth). Plus, more than anything else, director Werner Herzog, who lives in L.A., is much revered. Still, I don’t see that pushing it into contention. But then what about the little doc that could, The Betrayal? Director Ellen Kuras has immense popularity thanks to her connections as a well-regarded DP. And yet, I still don’t see that being enough. Hm, what about Trouble the Water? That had a lot of strong critical support. Plus, its subject matter, the effects of Hurricane Katrina, still resonates for many in Hollywood. Hm, I have to say no: the film just didn’t have the cultural impact necessary.

No, if you look at the last few years, Oscar voters tend to go for the favorite. I know that last year’s Taxi to the Dark Side seemed like an upset of No End in Sight, but I’d wager that it won because of the popularity of its filmmaker (Alex Gibney) as well as the panache with which he told his story (No End in Sight was way too by-the-book). I do look back to 2004, when Born into Brothels won instead of the far more popular Super Size Me, but I think that had to do with Brothels‘ soul-lifting, yet serious subject matter, as opposed to the goofy Super Size Me.

So, in a somber era, when many of us are looking back to when times were better, and wondering how did we get into this mess, I think Man on Wire, a film that deftly balances between nostalgia, lyricism, hope and American/pre-9/11 patriotism, is a must win. Plus, might they bring the man on the wire, Philippe Petit, up on the stage? That might have been rattling in the backs of voters’ minds, and, boy, Oscar voters love a good show.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki