What do Tyson, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Anvil!: The Story of Anvil have in common? Well, they are all documentaries, some of the most notable to be released in 2009. They were well received with film critics and with audiences. And they also seemed to be a shoo-in to be the running for a Best Documentary Oscar.
Not so fast on that last one. Because the three films share another certain distinction–all three have been left off the 15 film short list used for consideration of a Best Documentary nomination. They join other notable docs such as The September Issue, Good Hair, and This Could Get Loud.
Popular documentaries being snubbed by the Academy is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it is a long standing tradition. The Thin Blue Line was snubbed in 1989, Roger & Me in 1990, Hoop Dreams in 1995 and Grizzy Man in 2005. While these films might not have been nominated, they did transcend their years to become part of the cultural consciousness and are remembered years after they were in theaters. The same can’t be said for Super Chief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren, Waldo Salt; A Screenwriter’s Journey, Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, and Darwin’s Nightmare, a short list of films nominated in each of the years the above list came from.
What was on this year’s short list? The Beaches of Agnes, Burma VJ, The Cove, Every Little Step, Facing Ali, Food, Inc., Garbage Dreams, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Mugabe and the White African, Sergio, Soundtrack for a Revolution, Under Our Skin, Valentino The Last Emperor and Which Way Home.
Only four of the contenders made over $500,000 at the box office and eight were only released for one week in one theater in New York and Los Angeles, the barest minimum for a movie to be considered in the voting.
Of course, as usually happens, there is outrage and controversy about these snubs. James Toback, director of Tyson, was quite irate in speaking to the New York Times. The executive director of the academy, Bruce Davis, had this to say in response to the general overall grumpiness:
“In the documentary category and best picture, it would be nice if the best works of art were also the pictures that had been seen by the most people,” he said. “It doesn’t always work out that way.”
This argument might hold more water if the snubbed movies aren’t art, if the nominated films were intended to be seen in theaters at all and the category doesn’t appear in the Oscar telecast each year.
The use of the term “art” was a savvy one by Davis, because we all know that “art” is in the eye of the beholder. But for the sake of argument, let’s say critics are an arbiter of art in the field of movies (I know, I know, just go with me on this). I looked up the snubbed movies and the 15 selected films on the review aggragate site, Rotten Tomatoes.com, to see what their average review was.
If positive reviews are a sign of quality art, the only snubbed film you can not make an argument of inclusion on the list is Capitalism: A Love Story. It rated an average of 76% positive reviews, lower than any of the 15 selected docs (well, less than any of those docs that were reviewed, we’ll get to that later). Tyson scored an 86%, which was better than Valentino (78%) and Under Our Skin (81%). So you can make the case that it should have made the final 15.
However, Anvil! scored 98%. There was only one film on the list of 15 with a higher average and one with the same average. So, if your are talking about quality “art”, not only should Anvil! be on the list, but should have been one of the final five nominated.
Of the list of 15 selected documentaries, four do not have enough reviews to come up with an accurate average, and three do not appear on the site at all. Surely these films fall into the “one week in NY and LA just to meet Oscar nomination requirements” list I spoke about earlier. I’d imagine the producers of these documentaries didn’t supply review screenings to reviewers. Because it is really not important for these films to be seen by reviewers or even by the general public. It is only important that the Oscar voters see these films.
Unlike the dramatic Oscar bait that open in limited release before the year ends, these films will probably never see the inside of a movie theater regardless if the get nominated for an Oscar or not. The producers will turn the nomination, if it comes, into a selling point when PBS or Cable TV comes around.
So these features are films by only the slightest margins. These are not pieces of art meant to be appreciated, these are Oscar bait looking for TV distribution.
Every year, there are complains about the length of the Oscar telecast. But each and every year, the Best Documentary Feature award is part of the show. If Davis was truly serious about the whole “art” argument, if people seeing these documentaries isn’t that big of a deal, then the Documentary Oscar should be given out in a separate ceremony. Why should movie fans have to sit through an award honoring documentaries they had no chance of ever seeing in theaters? The Oscar will still be an Oscar even if millions of people don’t see it given out.
The nominating process for documentaries is broken, and the documentarians in charge of it have no interest in fixing it. Until they do, why should we take the award seriously?