What should have made the Oscar Shortlist?

Nominations for the 2015 Academy Awards will be announced on January 15. But the race for Best Feature Documentary has been on for a while since the Academy announced the 15 films which had been shortlisted from 134 which had been submitted. While many expect the final race to come down to a competition between Life Itself and Citizenfour, we asked some members of the Docs In Progress community what they wish had made the shortlist. Feel free to weigh in in the comments below.




Executive Director, Docs In Progress


While I loved many of the films which made the shortlist this year, in a year when race and the justice system are at the forefront of national news, it surprised me that Darius Clark Monroe's Evolution of a Criminal was overlooked. While the film started as Monroe's NYU thesis project, it has an incredible maturity in the way it combines intimate interviews, reenactment, and personal reflection. I thought it was one of the best films I saw this year -- and that is saying something in a field of really great documentaries. Ironically the week that Oscar nominations come out, the film will premiere on Independent Lens. If you missed it at a festival or during its theatrical run, it's a must-see.



Co-Founder, Docs In Progress/Director, Romantic Warriors series/Adjunct Professorial Lecturer, American University

After music documentaries (Searching for Sugarman and 20 Feet from Stardom) won the last two Oscars, it surprised me that 2014 saw very few music documentaries being considered for the award. Very few made the long-list and only one (Keep on Keepin' On) made it on to the shortlist. I would have loved to see Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory on the shortlist. Michael Rossato-Bennett's film won an audience award at Sundance and is a compelling story about the use of music therapy for dementia patients.



Co-Founder, Docs In Progress/Director, Transcending Surgeon

As one of the most creative documentaries of the year, I had wished Bill Morrison’s The Great Flood made the Oscar shortlist.  Without getting into the debate of the value of creative space versus social responsibilities in documentary films, I found the storytelling method of Morrison compelling and captivating in a way I never experienced before.  The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the most devastating flood in American history.  Images through the use of degraded film stock effectively conveyed the pain and struggle of life, the destruction and peril that set off the Great Migration and became the roots of acoustic blues.  The haunting soundtrack provided by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell is astonishing and brings so much to the experience. A wonderful film.



Director, Let the Fire Burn and Professor at George Washington University

This year, that’s an easy one for me: Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot. Marshall is an expert at deep character studies, and this is no exception. Twice before he has been nominated for an Oscar, and IMHO, Point and Shoot may be his best yet. The film got a mixed review from the New York Times, but I think the reviewer seemed to totally misunderstand the film. I wonder if this dulled its prospects or if Academy members were similarly befuddled to see a problematic character opened like an onion but not tied up in a bow.


Filmmaker and Docs In Progress Screening Committee Member

Biography seems to have been a trend this year both for narrative films (Mr. TurnerUnbrokenWildThe Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything). While there are a few biographical documentaries on the shortlist (most notably Life Itself about Roger Ebert, one film I wish were included among them is Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot. It is really an autobiographical film since most of the footage was filmed by its protagonist, Matthew Vandyke, who films his own venture into adulthood, including his participation in the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya. It is special because of that (Curry put everything together and added interviews). The film certainly fits within the genre of films chosen but has the advantage of capturing the real person and not just the image of an unrelated filmmaker who, retrospectively, views historical footage by third parties to create the story.



Nerds Make Media (and Co-Organizer, Documentary Roundtable)

One of the primary purposes of the Academy is to “advance the art and science of motion pictures”. This is why documentaries that are paradigm-shifting, or even just innovative should be primary contenders for the shortlist. Warsaw Uprising is a unique motion picture that lets the audience experience an event in a far more immediate way then most historical films. Rare black and white footage from the uprising was laboriously colorized in a process that took over a year. In addition, lip readers were employed to discern what the people shown were saying. This made the assembled film feel incredibly up-close and personal. In fact, Warsaw Uprising may be one of the most realistic and devastating films about war every made.




Program Director, Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival

After winning the Grand Jury Award at Sundance, the buzz around Rich Hill couldn't have been any bigger. With that high profile award and the fact that I thought it was the best documentary I saw this year, I was quite surprised not to see it on the short list of potential Oscar nominees. Not having seen all of the 15 shortlisted films, I'm obviously biased in favor of films I've seen. But I thought that Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo's subtle and patient treatment of these teenage boys as they navigate an American landscape many of us never see -- and would prefer to pretend doesn't exist -- was wonderfully intimate and ultimately rewarding. With subjects so easily rejected and laughed at in the first third of the film, it was a tremendous feat of filmmaking to find their humanity amid the squalor and make us not only root for them, but want to find them and give them a hug. I think the difficult subject matter and near exploitative, poverty-porn of the first 20 or so minutes of the film may have had many Academy voters bailing before the true beauty and importance of the film revealed itself.



Earth Science Producer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


(and Co-Organizer, Documentary Roundtable)

It is rare to have a documentary about science that exposes the passions and frustrations of scientists. Particle Fever, directed by Mark Levinson, follows six physicists as they finish construction of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and seek to discover evidence of the elusive Higgs boson. To show their journey, Levinson combines observational footage, interviews, and video diaries by the scientists themselves. The film reveals the human effort and commitment that goes into any research project, large or small. Along the way, we learn fundamental truths about the universe as well as intimate portraits of the central characters.




Nerds Make Media (and Co-Organizer, Documentary Roundtable)

I would narrow it down to two. Like Simone, I was really impressed by Warsaw Uprising. The restoration, exacting addition of color and sound, and remarkably innovative use of fragile and almost lost archival film from the 1944 brings a tragic and sometimes neglected story to light in an astonishing way. This is surely one of the best archival film documentaries ever made, and should be seen by more audiences.

Another film which deserves more recognition is We are the Giant. This intimate look at the Arab Spring in Syria, Libya and Bahrain should be seen by as many as possible because it takes you deeply inside the events that are difficult to understand from news reports. This effectively shows the power of documentary to put the audience in the shoes of three incredibly brave young people who risked their lives for revolution, and those who risked their lives to make this film. It is hopeful but also tragic and incredibly vivid given the difficult nature of recording the events.



Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies, Hendrix College

(and Documentary Appreciation Salon Facilitator)

While the food industry has frequently been the subject of high profile documentaries, those who labor at the ground level of production often seem to exist beyond the frame. Director Sanjay Rawal’s Food Chains examines the lives and activism of Florida tomato farmers and their efforts to fight for the Fair Food Program, an initiative that seeks to make major super market chains responsible for helping to create a living wage and human rights protections for farm workers. In the tradition of issue-oriented advocacy nonfiction, Food Chains places these critical matters in a fresh framework and helps viewers to understand what nonviolent protests can achieve and the pragmatic steps for future action. I was also moved by how flashbacks to the landmark documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) help place some of these concerns as well as their documentary representation in historical perspective. Food Chains should be the stuff of dinner table conversation and Oscar buzz.


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