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One of the categories we did not touch in yesterday's inaugural 2012 Oscar prediction was Best Documentary Feature, a race that routinely requires a greater magnifying glass than its narrative counterparts -- and even then, tend to defy prediction. This year, however, I have less of an excuse than usual for not building up a documentary contenders list -- because for the first time, the category's eligibility schedule is more or less in sync with the US release calendar.
You may recall the recent rule adjustments the Academy, assisted by Oscar-winning firebrand Michael Moore, recently made to a beleaguered category that, on an near-annual basis, finds a way to exclude some of the year's most significant documentaries from consideration. Last year, the critical wails were as loud as ever, as acclaimed favorites like "The Interrupters," "Senna," "Page One" and "Into the Abyss" failed to make the Academy's longlist, while a number of scarcely-seen mediocrities took their place.
The milquetoast taste of the Academy's documentary branch is largely to blame for such oversights, but the situation wasn't helped by an opaque qualifying process that ran across separate years and allowed non-theatrical titles to enter the race with the barest of qualifying releases. Greater clarity was called for, and while the Academy can't do much about voters' preferences, they have attempted to simplify the eligibility issue: switching the qualifying window from January 1 to December 31, as it is for all non-ghettoized Oscar categories, and requiring that all contenders both complete a week-long commercial release in New York and Los Angeles theaters, and receive reviews in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
Some complained that the new stipulations discriminate against smaller and/or distributor-less titles -- to which one can only say that the Academy is damned if they do and damned if they don't. As it stands, the new rules aim increase the relevance of the category by limiting the race to contenders that have some form of public and critical profile. That seems reasonable enough to me: you can't expect people to care much about a category where no regular moviegoers have had a chance to view certain nominees. If you ask me, the Best Foreign Language Film award should work the same way.
Under the new system then, we (well, NY and LA folk, at any rate) have already seen half a year's worth of contenders for the 2012 documentary Oscar -- and in a category that's less tilted toward late-year releases than most, that's more than enough to begin the contender conversation. So, what are the January-to-June documentary standouts we should be considering?
The top-grossing non-fiction effort of the year so far doesn't pose much of a threat: Disney may have racked up $28 million for their Tim Allen-narrated nature doc "Chimpanzee" (pleasingly, it sits one rung above Katherine Heigl's "One for the Money" on the 2012 box-office ladder), but this kind of family fare needs to be a cultural phenomenon on the scale of "March of the Penguins" to register with voters.
Moving from the commercial champion in the field to the critical one, Jafar Panahi's "This is Not a Film" would be a leading contender for the title if journalists had their way: the embattled Iranian filmmaker's deeply personal, not-quite-categorizable essay on his own house arrest, filmed covertly and smuggled out of the country, has received a steady stream of critical adulation since premiering at Cannes last year. (For those of you who rate such statistics, it currently tops Metacritic's 2012 chart with a score of 90.)
It's arguably an even better news story than it is a film, but nonetheless, expect a number of critics' awards at the year's end. The fusty Academy voters, however, are more likely to take the film's ironic title as given: even those aware of Panahi's predicament may not be ready to accept an intimate film partly shot on an iPhone as one of the year's best.
Between those two poles, however, lie a number of more viable possibilities. Running a fairly distant second to "Chimpanzee" in the box-office stakes, with a healthy $3 million-plus gross, is the year's most well-publicized documentary. Lee Hirsch's "Bully," a candid study of bullying in North American high schools, benefited from the mini-controversy over its MPAA rating: when its teen-delivered profanity earned at an R rating, effectively barring its target audience from seeing it unaccompanied, the ever-savvy Weinstein Company garnered much media awareness and sympathy from their (ultimately only semi-successful) appeal.
Reviews were mostly strong, particularly from the now-crucial coastal beacons, and the Weinsteins (who, amid their overwhelming domination of the 2011 Oscars, also nabbed the documentary prize for "Undefeated") will no doubt campaign hard for it. Whether its cause célèbre backstory attracts or deters voters -- and whether the middle-aged Academy is all that sympathetic to contemporary teen troubles -- remains to be seen.
A more surprising, and far more modestly promoted, commercial success is "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," a gentle character study dedicated to an 85 year-old Tokyo sushi chef widely deemed to be the world's greatest. It doesn't sound the likeliest topic for a feature, but critics and audiences alike have been charmed to the tune of over $2.3 million. If voters decide there's room for a lighter entry on their ballots -- or if, perhaps, they're simply feeling hungry while watching it -- this Magnolia Pictures sleeper could fit the bill nicely.
Rounding out the commercial success stories is an entry from a former Oscar winner: since taking the award for "One Day in September" in 1999, Kevin Macdonald has become more widely known for big-scale narrative work, but his substantial, straightforward "Marley" represents a robust return to the documentary form. A generous, entertaining account of the life and times of reggae legend Bob Marley, it's perhaps a little too fat with detail -- I wrote in my Variety review at Berlin that its 145-minute running time could hinder its crossover success, and I maintain that it could have done better if tightened a little -- but it's rousing and moving in all the right places. The Academy is often resistant to music documentaries, often preferring more self-consciously weighty human-interest fare, but Macdonald's profile is a major plus. (A BAFTA nod for the British hit, meanwhile, is a safe bet.)
Beyond that, things get murkier -- though it's not for lack of options. A glance at the New York release schedule reveals that over 80 feature documentaries (precious few of which I've seen, or even know anything about) have been released in the city so far this year. Meanwhile, it'd take someone with more time on their hands than I have to check how many of them had, or will have, a corresponding LA release, plus the requisite reviews.
Still, a few titles seem worth keeping an eye on. If "Marley" can't overcome the Academy's music-film resistance, perhaps the well-reviewed Paul Simon doc "Under African Skies," with its added political resonance, can. "Indie Game: The Movie," with its youthful focus on game developers, isn't exactly up the Academy's alley, but Sundance prizewinners should never be discounted in this game. "The Island President," a look at the crises faced by first post-democracy president of the Maldives, won an Audience Award at Toronto last year, and could have the gravitas voters tend to favor in this race. Meanwhile, the film that polled just behind it in Toronto, IFC's youth ballet doc "First Position," is doing strong business and could be another contender for the category's part-time cultural slot.
I could go on: "Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present?" "Bill W.?" "Five Broken Cameras?" "Scenes of a Crime?" I think we can safely discount former nominee Morgan Spurlock's double-shot of male-grooming doc "Mansome" and the self-explanatory "Comic-Con IV: A Fan's Hope," but I'm doubtless overlooking something. Have you seen anything that should be flagged up for consideration? Let me know in the comments and we'll soon devise a skeleton for that Contenders page.
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