The documentary is in. “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore’s provocative meditation on violence in America, not only won the Oscar as best documentary feature in March but also went on to shoot down a commanding $21.6 million in domestic box office.
Jacques Perrin's lyrical study of birds in flight, “Winged Migration,” and Jeffrey Blitz’s suspenseful study of kids in competition, “Spellbound,” both Academy Award nominees, went on to gross $10.7 million and $6 million, respectively. Meanwhile, Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall account of a Long Island family drawn into a child abuse case, opened to unanimously enthusiastic reviews in June and has gone on to collect $3.1 million.
This week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences notified the filmmakers who have made the first cut in the current Oscar race for best documentary. Twelve have been singled out, from which five nominations will be chosen when the nominees are announced Jan. 27.
Throughout most of the 1980s and ’90s, the Academy’s selection of the year’s best documentaries inevitably triggered howls of outrage as a succession of popular and critically well-regarded docs were routinely ignored. Such titles as Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” and “A Brief History of Time,” Moore’s “Roger & Me” and Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” received Oscar snubs.
But beginning in 1999, the Academy reorganized its documentary committee, ensuring that its members were actively involved in nonfiction filmmaking. This year, it further refined its rules so that wider theatrical exhibition became one of the qualifying factors. “We are trying to encourage a legitimate theatrical rollout,” Freida Lee Mock, chair of the documentary branch executive committee, explained at the time.
As a result, documentary connoisseurs have begun to give a thumbs up to the Academy’s choices.
“In the last few years, ever since they made changes to the committee, the choices have been very strong,” Sony Pictures Classics co-head Michael Barker says. “Last year, any one of those five nominees deserved to win.” Sony is distributing Morris’ newest documentary, “The Fog of War,” which made this year’s shortlist.
“Errol is the greatest documentarian in America, and this is the first time he’s made the shortlist, so we’re overjoyed,” Barker says.
Adds Mark Urman, who heads distribution at ThinkFilm, which secured two spots on the shortlist: for Jonathan Demme’s “The Agronomist” and Felipe Lacerda and Jose Padilha’s “Bus 174”: “The doors have opened in the narrative, nonfiction category. When I distributed Errol Morris’ last feature (1999’s ‘Mr. Death’) — a masterwork — the committee wasn’t interested. The category was still very moribund and contentious. They still defined an acceptable documentary as objective, no opinions, information only, but we are now seeing the narrative, nonfiction category open up to embrace more personal, authorial voices.”
The remainder of the shortlist includes Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domenech’s “Balseros,” Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” Richard Schickel’s “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin,” Marc Levin’s “Heir to an Execution,” Peter Hegedus’ “Inheritance: A Fisherman’s Story,” Megan Mylan and Jou Shenk’s “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect: A Son’s Journey,” Jonathan Karsh’s “My Flesh and Blood” and Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s “The Weather Undergound.”