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

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Reviewing the 2014 Oscar Shortlist for Best Documentary Award

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Doc Soup Man Tom Roston thinks that The Act of Killing will make it into the top five nominations for Best Documentary at the 2014 Academy Awards.

Last week, the shortlist of 15 films eligible for the best documentary Academy Award was announced, and, perhaps for the first time in the history of the Oscars, there wasn’t a chorus of hem’s and ha’s and WTF’s!

“For the second straight year we have an incredibly strong short list of 15 compelling, well-received documentaries,” Michael Moore told me, clearly in a triumphant mood, having spearheaded the revamping of the selection rules two years ago.

“It’s clear to me, and lot of people in the Academy, that going to a full-democracy system where everyone votes has been the key to the vast improvements we’ve seen,” he said.

I agree. The shortlist used to be selected by committees of members of the documentary branch, and now the selection is made by the entire documentary branch. The emphasis used to be on greater curation and secretive selection that had allowed a few voters to tip the scales in favor of particular pet films and filmmakers. Now, there is both greater fairness and transparency.

Here’s the list:

The Act of Killing
The Armstrong Lie
Blackfish
The Crash Reel
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
First Cousin Once Removed
God Loves Uganda
Life According to Sam
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
The Square
Stories We Tell
Tim’s Vermeer
20 Feet From Stardom

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What a stellar list! There only a few other films that could have been considered among the best fifteen of the year, and they include The Unknown Known, At Berkeley, Leviathan, Let the Fire Burn, After Tiller, American Promise and Valentine Road.

But I don’t think the exclusion of any of those films counts as an absolute travesty. (The only film I truly wish were on the shortlist, and that isn’t, is Is the Man who Is Tall Happy? but I recognize I am in the minority on this one.) And, in fact, some of the “snubbed” films provide strong arguments against the biggest worry about the new system: that the democratization would lead to just the most popular and powerfully-backed films making the list.

Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley and Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known didn’t make it, despite their top-notch pedigree. And Salinger, backed by Harvey “Oscar Iron Fists” Weinstein, didn’t either.

It’s not a perfect system. There were a record 151 qualifying films, and there’s a real question of whether all of the voters can really watch all of those documentaries. Moore is aware of the problem. “There’s one thing still left to fix,” he said. “The Academy is supposed to consider only films that had a theatrical release. We have to bring the number of films we’re expected to watch down to just those that had a true theatrical run. What defines “true” is what we are discussing now.”

That’s good that they are working out the kinks, and at least the problem is a transparent one. One of the related problems is that the shortlisted films are weighted toward releases in the first half of the year, ostensibly because voters are getting more of an opportunity to see them. But that’s an issue that everyone can at least see clearly, and distributors can potentially cope with (release your film earlier in the year or wait until next year) rather than being the result of some back room shenanigans.

As for which of the shortlisted films are going to make it to the top five, I think it’s clear that The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell, and 20 Feet From Stardom 
are locks. For the other two slots, I see The Square, Dirty Wars, Blackfish, and, possibly, First Cousin Once Removed and Cutie and the Boxer, battling it out.

I’ll break it all down, closer to the release of the nominees on January 16th. But, for now, I’ll say a “hurrah,” for a strong fifteen, and hope that these films benefit from the added publicity.

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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
  • Coltrane Kline

    Excluded docs you mention are almost all directed by people of color or women. Hmmm.

    • Tom Roston

      Half are, half aren’t. And if you include IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? and SALINGER, then most of the snubs don’t apply to your analysis.

  • Tristan Elijah Sauvageau

    disgusting that ‘Bridegroom’ wasnt included