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

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Doc Soup: Oscars 2010 Short List

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The Oscar short list is here! The Oscar short list is here! Last week, to the joy of some and the consternation of others, the 15 films that the Academy documentary committee deemed worthy of a nomination were presented. From those, five films will be picked to be the nominees to win the Oscar.

I use that word, “worthy,” purposefully because it’s such a loaded, subjective term. Do I sound sore? A bit. Let’s first take a look at the list:

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer – Dir. Alex Gibney
Enemies of the People – Dir. Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath (POV 2011)
Exit through the Gift Shop – Dir. Banksy
Gasland – Dir. Josh Fox
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould – Dir. Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont
Inside Job - Dir. Charles Ferguson
The Lottery – Dir. Madeleine Sackler
Precious Life - Dir. Shlomi Eldar
Quest for Honor - Dir. Mary Ann Smothers Bruni
Restrepo – Dir. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
This Way of Life - Dir. Thomas Burstyn
The Tillman Story – Dir. Amir Bar-Lev
Waiting for ‘Superman’ – Dir. Davis Guggenheim
Waste Land – Dir. Lucy Walker
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe – Dir. Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (POV 2010)

The documentary most notably missing is none other than POV’s The Oath, a film that had been pretty much universally accepted to be a frontrunner for the Oscar this year, because of its poignancy and filmmaking accomplishments. Why is it not worthy? I couldn’t even guess. The doc Oscar selection process used to be rife with accusations of nepotism, but I don’t see that being the reason here. I’m just dumbfounded. The other big omission was Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, but that’s more understandable, given its relatively thin subject matter.

Let’s break it down. The favorites, the films with the best chance of getting to the next level are the ones with the best press and best pedigree (two components that tend to follow each other, for better or for worse). They are: Waiting for ‘Superman,’ Client 9 and Inside Job.

And then I’d give the fourth slot to one of the two very worthy war documentaries, Restrepo or The Tillman Story, with the latter getting the edge because of its more specific, sympathetic subject, and because The Weinstein Company distributed it, and those Weinstein boys have a way with Oscar. So, that leaves an open race for the fifth slot. Who are the top contenders? I think Exit through the Gift Shop and Waste Land look strong. Exit has a lot of momentum, with strong box office and critical support and two award ceremonies (Cinema Eye, IDA) to help bolster its presence. It also has a certain wow factor, with its shadowy origins. Waste Land is the wild card; it’s got strong buzz, a recent release, and covers a matrix of issues (art, poverty, the indefatigable human spirit and the environment) that usually rings with voters.

Next up, I’d give Genius Within and POV’s William Kunstler a shot because each could win the Old Fogey Vote; with the average age of Academy voters being 57-years-old, it’s reflective reminiscences like these that get a shot. There’s been a fair amount of attention given to The Lottery and Gasland so they’re long shots, but The Lottery even more so because Superman might win the education-inclined voters. The rest of the films, well, there’s always that chance of a random surprise, but I don’t see that happening.

Just a note here, before any slings and arrows are tossed my way: I’m not commenting on the actual worth of these films — just how I see Academy voters voting.

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