The Academy Awards Non-Fiction Shortlist: Why Are We Still Surprised??

Project Nim

It’s that time of year again! The Oscar shortlist for best documentary feature has been released, and as usual, non-fiction fans are steaming over some pretty glaring omissions. I have such little interest in the Academy Awards that I feel it’s insincere to even be posting about this, but the documentary nominations have been a recurring issue within the non-fiction community for years now. Most famously, Steven James’ Hoop Dreams was snubbed back in 1994, drawing criticism from Roger Ebert (among others), who was an aggressively vocal supporter of the film. Now, 17 years later, Steve James is once again ignored as his great film The Interrupters didn’t even make the short list. Asif Kapadia’ Senna (one of my favourite films of the year) was another noticeable snub. I can’t help but wonder how anybody is still surprised by the Academy’s oversights or why this seriously flawed and outdated organization still holds power or influence over anyone other than consumers of populist, blockbuster entertainment.

I don’t want this to sound elitist or snobby. I’m not one of THOSE people. I don’t consider “blockbuster” a dirty word. I take pride in my well-rounded love of cinema and try to embrace a variety of films — blockbusters included — with a fairly open mind. Still, I have little love for the Academy Awards. They’ve gotten it wrong one too many times and their nominations are usually uninspired across the board. Yes, the documentary category is particularly infamous for it’s snubs, but why is this still news? Can’t we just accept the fact that the Academy favours a certain type of film and leave it at that? I’m perfectly fine with writing them off as irrelevant dinosaurs. I realize that an Oscar nomination can mean a lot for a film and the careers of the people behind it, but what does ‘Oscar worthy’ really even mean? In my mind, it refers to a film that panders to a fairly conservative audience and does little to shake up traditional storytelling conventions. As for the documentary category, it usually means issue/advocacy films that put message over craft (although Man on Wire’s win a couple years back was a refreshing choice).

Having said all of that, why do people continually insist on shaping this organization into something it’s not? Every year there are complaints about the host, the nominees, the winners, the musical numbers, the length, the jokes, etc. Isn’t there a point where you just have to cut your losses and conclude that the Oscars just aren’t for you? This show is one of the highest rated televisions events of the year and they’re certainly not going to jeopardize that by showcasing only the films that TRULY deserve recognition. The dependance upon ratings seems to guarantee that the big categories will play it safe to avoid alienating a casual moviegoing crowd. The documentary category (and foreign film category) is the place to let voters take some chances, but more often then not they insist on focusing on issue films rather than highlighting some of the more potentially accessible non-fiction films (Senna, Tabloid, Best Worst Movie, etc.). No wonder casual filmgoers assume all docs are boring! Thankfully we have the Cinema Eye Honors to recognize some of the films the Academy overlooks (including The Interrupters and Senna).

Alright, enough of the ranting. Let’s look at the films that actually made the list. It’s not all bad…I was thrilled to see Buck, Project Nim, Paradise Lost 3, and Undefeated made the cut. There are a bunch I’ve yet to see (Bill Cunningham, If a Tree Falls) and some I’d never heard of (The Loving Story, Semper Fi: Always Faithful). Sure, one of my favourite films of the year (Tabloid) didn’t make the cut, but that doesn’t really bother me. I guess it’s just not an “Oscar worthy” film, whatever that means.

Anyways, check out the list (along with trailers) after the jump.

Battle for Brooklyn

Bill Cunningham New York


Hell and Back Again

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

Jane’s Journey

The Loving Story

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory


Project Nim

Semper Fi: Always Faithful

Sing Your Song



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