2009 Academy Awards Best Documentary Short List Unveiled

Bloggers and pundits haven’t really gone into full Oscar prediction mode yet this year, mainly because some of the expected Oscar contenders still have yet to hit theatres, but the Best Documentary category always seems to be slightly ahead of the game. This week the Academy unveiled their shortlist of the 15 documentaries that are potential nominees, and while I’ve only seen a few of them, I am definitely surprised by some of the omissions.

Doc heavyweights Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are going head to head with their films Standard Operating Procedure and Encounters at the End of the World (some may remember that Herzog’s Grizzly Man was criminally overlooked back in 2005). Another big favourite on the list is Man on Wire, a movie that I haven’t seen yet, but seems to be getting spectacular reviews everywhere you turn. Personally I’m stoked to see Ellen Kuras’ powerful film The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) on the list, which we were able to see at Hot Docs earlier this year and I think definitely deserves at least a nomination.

However, where is Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, the emotional flick that is getting so much good buzz? And what about Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson? I guess since Taxi to the Dark Side won last year, they took him out of the running. I may be jumping to conclusions here, but from looking at a lot of the other titles, it seems like another line-up of documentaries chosen more for their subject matter than their artistic merit. Has anyone out there seen any of the other titles on this list? Which ones do you think will make the final cut?

  • At the Death House Door
  • The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
  • Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
  • Encounters at the End of the World
  • Fuel
  • The Garden
  • Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
  • I.O.U.S.A.
  • In a Dream
  • Made in America
  • Man on Wire
  • Pray the Devil Back to Hell
  • Standard Operating Procedure
  • They Killed Sister Dorothy
  • Trouble the Water

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    • Goon

      Man on Wire is still my favorite movie of the year, and the clear favorite to win of the ones i’ve seen on this list. then again, Morris’ movie is about Iraq. hmmm. you know how those voters are.

      Bigger Stronger Faster* should have been nominated.

    • I saw THE BETRAYAL (NERAKOON) at Sundance – beautifully shot. Ellen Kuras did phenomenal work interweaving individual story with American history mostly unknown to the general public. The same goes for Margaret Brown’s ORDER OF MYTHS (also seen at Sundance and IFC Center Stranger than Fiction doc series). Another personal involvement that draws the audience into a place where no one knew existed and still exists since the first Mardi Gras in Mobile Alabama in 18th century America. Compelling on more than the obvious issue. I’m surprised this film was not recognized. MAN ON WIRE is excellent and kept me on the edge of my seat despite knowing the inevitable outcome. Well done all around including reenactments while not usually my favorite portions of a doc, they work in this film.

    • Jules

      They Killed Sister Dorothy – About Sister Dorothy Stang a 73 year old missionary that went from Ohio to the northern part of Brazil, where the Amazon forest is located, and end up killed by some powerful people there.

      It is a good movie, but the story is not over yet. The appeals are not over. One guy that in the movie is found guilty, is free now, while other that was freed is now in jail. He should have waited 2 or 3 more years to release it and give us a full story.

      And you are damn right, where is “Dear Zachary” on that list? That movie have more twists and turns than any piece of fiction. I was floored at the end of that movie.

    • Ryan

      At the Death House Door could be an underdog favorite in this one. Done by the creators of Hoop Dreams, it tells the story Caroll Pickett, a death house minister in Texas who carried out the first ever lethal injection. The fascinating part of the story is Caroll recorded interviews with all of the 95 men he sent to execution. The other thread of the story is about a convicted criminal that is believed to be innocent, and Pickett had to eventually administer the death penalty to. It’s a powerful story that touches on a very politically sensitive topic in an unbiased way. If you haven’t seen it you should.

    • Nacho

      I didn’t watch any of the other documentarys, but “Bigger Stronger Faster” was an excellent and very very honest documentary. Maybe it should be nominated. It was about trying to say the real truth about not only steroids, but American society right now in time. Perhaps the Academy didn’t like what it mentioned about actors like Sylvester Stallone, George Bush or Arnold Schwarzenegger, the current Governor. The movie shows without a doubt these two characters lie as professional athletes.

    • What about “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” … it is the best documentary I have seen in years and really unveils the hypocrisy of performance enhancing drugs in America, and in many ways the hypocrisy of America itself.

    • John

      I’ve seen them all and Trouble the Water is the best one on the list.

    • Claire Sharp

      Unfortunately it seems that a brilliant film, Valentino: The Last Emperor, by first time Director, Matt Tyrnauer did not make the short list. It is about a 45 year love and relationship and the inner workings of the Atelier and the women who work there. It is also filled with breathtaking works of Art in the form of couture. As a male friend who saw the film said, “the Director’s work on this film is as magnificent as the couture clothing in it. True, this movie is not filled with angst and/or exposure of a societal problem. Still very worthy of being seen and I believe being on the short list.

    • Lee

      In a Dream is the best film I saw all year. A powerful film about the life of mosaic artist, Isaiah Zagar. It’s a must-see and should be an Oscar favorite.

    • Tiffany

      The Cove and Dear Zachary are two of my favorite documentaries.

    • The Inquiry

      Too bad nobody seems to have seen “Collapse” by Michael Ruppert. I can guarantee that after seeing it, it would be on most people’s top list for a documentary. It involves a subject that concerns all of us with no exception.

    • “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” it is the best documentary I have seen in years and really unveils the hypocrisy of performance enhancing drugs in America, and in many ways the hypocrisy of America itself.