With “The Act Of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer” and “The Square” among the nominees, this year’s Best Documentary Feature category is one of the strongest we can remember. But that doesn’t mean that the Academy got everything right. Many of the year’s most notable non-fiction films were ignored, most notably Sarah Polley‘s “Stories We Tell,” a movie which managed to top many critical lists and was widely acclaimed as not just one of the best documentaries of 2013, but as one of the best movies of any kind.
But Polley’s in good company. Perhaps even more so than with the main Best Picture prize, the documentary branch have a long history of overlooking the towering classics of the form completely. Sure, some great docs have been recognized by the Academy—”The War Game,” “Woodstock,” “Hearts And Minds,” “Harlan County USA,” “When We Were Kings,” “4 Little Girls,” “Man On Wire“—but it’s far from uncommon for the truly classic contenders to be completely ignored in favor of movies that are about the right issues, or tug the heartstrings in the right way.
So with the Oscars now less than two weeks away, in commiseration with “Stories We Tell,” and to celebrate IFC’s Sundance Now Doc Club for the month, which features a number of non-nominated films hand-selected by non-fiction mover-and-shaker Thom Powers, we’ve picked out ten phenomenal documentary movies that failed to even get an Academy Award nomination, let alone win the prize. To narrow it down a little, we mostly excluded concert films and music documentaries, along with multi-part movies like “The Sorrow And The Pity” and the “Up” series, and other films that were ineligible. The ones left, below, all qualify as essential viewing.
Still a high watermark by which the biographical documentary is judged, Terry Zwigoff‘s “Crumb” makes high art out of low, and even two decades on, proves to be a bleakly funny, deeply moving look not just as its principal subject, but of those who surround him, digging deeper into the Crumb family whereas so many similar films only skim the surface. Zwigoff (who’d go on to make acclaimed comedies “Ghost World” and “Bad Santa“) here examines his long-time friend Robert Crumb, a legendary underground comic book artist (creator of Fritz the Cat, among others), whose cult work won him countless fans, as well as attacks for the alleged racism and sexism of the work. Zwigoff gets into all of this, and his close relationship with his subject makes him unusually forthcoming on camera, almost as though he has no filter (not that there was ever much filter present in his work), but Zwigoff doesn’t make it into a beatification, giving a voice to the artist’s critics as well as his fans. But there’s a reason that the film is called “Crumb” and not “Robert Crumb”—the heart of the picture lies in the way that the director gives almost as much focus to Crumb’s brothers Max and, in particular, Charles. While Robert found an outlet for his hangups and obsessions through his art, the others weren’t saved in the same way, with Max living a monkish, masochist existence, and Charles troubled and lonely (he killed himself not long after the movie was shot). There are acres of unexpected feeling in their scenes together, and the result is a bleakly beautiful film about how the past haunts us, and how some are able to escape that, while others end up stalling. Praised to the skies when it premiered at Sundance in 1994, the film, along with one other movie on this list from the same period, caused so much outcry when it was snubbed by the Oscars that it caused the Academy to revise their voting process for the category (previously, the committee had been dominated by documentary distributors, who favored their own films).
“Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father” (2008)
As the lack of a nod for “Stories We Tell” demonstrated, the Academy tends to have a certain tendency to ignore the more personal side of the documentary world in favor of films that are more issues-driven. But you’d have thought that 2008’s “Dear Zachary” might have done better, given that it’s both a searing, incredibly powerful true story with a very personal angle, and an emotional appeal for victims’ rights. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne grew up as best friends with Andrew Bagby, who even appeared in, and even helped to finance, some of Kuenne’s shorts. So like many, Kuenne’s life was upended when Bagby was murdered by his unstable older lover, Shirley Turner. Turner fled to Canada, and announced that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, who was later named Zachary. As the extradition process dragged on, and Bagby’s parents fought for custody of Zachary, Kuenne began making his film as a quiet tribute to his friend for his son (as the subtitle goes, “A Letter To A Son About His Father“), but sadly, there was one more tragic twist in the tale to come. It’s a terrible, devastating story—one that it’s impossible not to be moved by—and Kuenne deftly manages to make it, simultaneously, into a potent tribute to a dear friend, an impassioned how-the-fuck-was-this-allowed-to-happen cri de coeur, and a propulsive true-crime thriller. It’s rough around the edges, certainly, but that gives the film an unrefined, raw quality that makes it feel all the more powerful and truthful as a result. The film never got an especially wide release, and it may be that the Academy thought that the film wasn’t objective enough—but how could you possibly remain objective to a story like this one?
“F For Fake” (1973)
We’ll acknowledge that, were “F For Fake” to be nominated for an Oscar, there probably would have been a fair old fuss about it. Orson Welles‘ final masterpiece is nominally a documentary, beginning as a BBC project about art forger Elmyr de Hory, originally only to be narrated by Welles. At some point, after it emerged that Clifford Irving, who’d featured in the footage in his guise as de Hory’s biographer, had himself pulled off a giant hoax by fabricating an “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes, Welles took over the project, and turned it into something quite different, and quite remarkable, a meta-tastic, undoubtedly self-indulgent and self-satisfied examination into fakery, to the extent that much of the film’s last half-hour, involving Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar and Pablo Picasso, appears to be made up. But truth is subjective, and the playfulness of the way Welles approaches his subject enhances its themes in a way that a more straight-ahead film probably wouldn’t be able to manage. And it would have to be a film: Welles is commenting on the artform that dominated his life as much as he is on anything that Hory and Irving have managed. It’s a dense film, heady with ideas, but hugely entertaining too, even as its digressions occasionally spin off into dead ends. It’s sort of unclassifiable, which is probably one of the reasons it didn’t get an Oscar nomination (along with the fairly mediocre tastes of the selection committee, and Welles’ general outsider status in Hollywood at that point). But if there’d been a category for best documentary/fiction/cinematic essay/experiment/trick, it surely would have been a shoe-in…
“Hoop Dreams” (1994)
Probably the best-known of the Oscar-snubbed documentaries, and the second of the two 1994 films, along with “Crumb,” that finally caused a change in the system (the film had been touted by some as a possible Best Picture nominee, so that it failed to be even nominated as a documentary caused a bona-fide outcry), “Hoop Dreams” still stands today as one of the finest films about sports ever made. Directed by Steve James (whose equally terrific “The Interrupters” also missed a nod more than fifteen years later, and whose new Roger Ebert tribute “Life Itself” is pretty great too), the film was originally intended to be a half-hour short for PBS, but grew and grew over time into a three-hour epic that took eight years to shoot. It follows William Gates and Arthur Agee, two hugely talented young basketball players recruited by a scout for a mostly white high school with a top basketball program. At one level, it’s a tiny story, about two good kids who struggle with everyday pressures to get by and maybe build a better future. On the other (like several of these movies), it’s a film about America, and the American dream, unsentimentally drawing a picture of the low-income households from which the kids come from, while never promising that their sporting prowess will actually prove to be their way out. It captures real life in a way that the form so often promises, but very rarely manages, which isn’t to say that there’s no artifice, but more that it’s hidden masterfully by James (who really is a top-flight filmmaker). It was never lacking in acclaim—Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990s, and it did even manage an Oscar nod for Best Editing, deservedly so. But that the documentary committee couldn’t see its worth (reportedly, it was turned off after twenty minutes) simply begs belief, given that it’s one of the crowning achievements of the documentary artform.
“Paris Is Burning” (1990)
To its credit, the documentary category has often been a way for the Academy to spotlight certain minorities or subcultures that might yet take decades to make an impact in the mainstream categories. But there was a limit to that, and that must have been one of the reasons that “Paris Is Burning” was ignored by the Academy, despite being probably the most acclaimed documentary film of its year. Directed by Jennie Livingston, it peeks behind the curtain of “ball culture,” walk-offs between drag artists who belonged to a system of houses. Hitting just as Madonna‘s “Vogue” was helping to bring the world into the mainstream, it takes an expansive and in-depth look at the scene, deftly introducing wider audiences to a culture that must have been rather alien to many (including, presumably, those voting for the Documentary Oscar). The performance scenes are vivid and energetic, capturing the buzz and appeal of the balls, but just as memorable is the way it draws the politics of the scenes (the rivalry between the different houses), and the personality of its figures, permanent outsiders who’ve found a scene where they finally fit in. The film’s undoubtedly dated a bit in the intervening years, and one almost wishes for a sequel, given the tragic fate of some of its protagonists (one prominent figure, Dorian Corey, died in 1993, at which point a mummified body, dead for over 15 years, was found in her apartment), but it’s still a beautiful snapshot of a time, a place, and the people who lived there. Given that it was something of a hit at the time (one of the films that helped make the name of Miramax), and that it won prizes from Sundance, Berlin and the New York Film Critics Circle, it’s very puzzling that it was so ignored by the Academy.
“Point Of Order” (1964)
That “Point Of Order” was rejected from the New York Film Festival for “not being a real movie” is symptomatic of the lack of imagination that the Academy’s documentary branch can bring to their picks. As recently as “Grizzly Man,” they’ve been (often incorrectly, as in the case of the Herzog film) disqualifying movies that are only made up of archive footage, and few of those films that slipped through the crack have been better than “Point Of Order.” Directed by Emile de Antonio (the legendary groundbreaking political documentarian, who was nominated for the 1968 film “In The Year Of The Pig,” about the origins of the Vietnam war), it creates a 90-minute collage reconstructing the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, in which the U.S. Army’s accusations that Senator Joseph McCarthy had attempted to win influence for a former employee, Private G. David Schine, helped to ruin McCarthy’s reputation, and end his reign of terror. It’s an admittedly academic and dry approach, without cutting to later recollections, or ever even leaving the room of the hearings, but it’s incredibly rigorous in its formal restrictions, and all the more fascinating for it. There’s a hypnotic quality to its rhythms (not least in watching the repulsively charismatic McCarthy work his magic), and it’s quietly, subtly constructed into a real courtroom thriller. By the time it reaches its emotional climax—as the dignified, powerful Joseph Welch tears McCarthy to shreds, telling him, famously, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency”—you realize the powerful craft of de Antonio’s cutting. You can see for yourself now—the film is available in full on YouTube.
Almost no filmmakers have had the kind of impact on the form of documentary cinema that Albert and David Maysles did—they’re endlessly influential, and their films, including “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens,” are still regarded as absolute classics of the genre. And yet, the pair’s only Oscar nomination came for Documentary Short in 1974 for “Christo’s Last Curtain,” which means that not only were the aforementioned two features overlooked, but also the earlier, equally great “Salesman” (co-directed with editor Charlotte Zwerin) which might be their most fully realized and satisfying film. Having helped popularize the direct cinema style in the U.S., the brothers, inspired by Truman Capote‘s description of “In Cold Blood” as a “nonfiction novel,” set out to make a nonfiction feature film with this picture, which tracks a quartet of bible salesmen, loosely en route to a meeting in Chicago. Echoing Arthur Miller (not least in its depiction of Paul Brennan, the film’s most compelling and unforgettable character, whose becomes more and more depressed at his lot in life as the film progresses), it’s an examination of the American dream, and the link between religion and capitalism, but more importantly of four people: the film’s compassionate viewpoint on its central quartet never forgets their humanity (it’s why we’d pick it over “Grey Gardens,” which feels exploitative in a way that this never does). The film’s less well known these days than some of its contemporaries, but one only has to look back at it to realize the extent of its influence—everything from “Glengarry Glen Ross” to the movies of Paul Greengrass to “The Office” and “The Simpsons” have been touched by “Salesmen.” History has spoken up where the Academy hadn’t.
“Sherman’s March” (1986)
Remember what we were saying about personal movies rarely finding favor in the Documentary category? “Sherman’s March” may be the best example of that. The film, from director Ross McElwee, set out to follow the footsteps of General Sherman’s devastating path through the South during the Civil War, and the scars it still leaves today, but just before he began production on the film, McElwee was devastatingly dumped by his girlfriend, and his movie turned into something much more sprawling, taking in his fear of nuclear war, elements of religion, and, more than anything else, McElwee’s romantic life, as he falls for a series of women across his journey through the south, none of which ever end particularly well (the film is subtitled “A Meditation On The Possibility Of Romantic Love In The South During An Era Of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation“). Very much ahead of its time in its wear-its-heart-on-its-sleeve transparency (it’s a movie for the Facebook age, twenty years before the creation of Facebook) it’s a sprawling and transgressive piece of work that will madden some—at two and a half hours, it arguably outstays its welcome—but it’s so stacked with memorable characters, incidents and landscapes that it absolutely confirmed McElwee as a hugely exciting voice (his subsequent films have often been variations on a similar theme, to less exciting ends). It’s a portrait both of a person, and of a place (or series of places, really) that feels totally fully-formed on both counts, and stuffed full of charm and humor. A surprising hit at the time (on release, it was the tenth-biggest grossing documentary of all time), and the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, nowadays it would certainly have been in the Oscar conversation, but was superseded by less playful, formally inventive work back in ’86.
In defense of the documentary committee, “Shoah” is one of the most intimidating prospects in cinema history—an oral history of the Holocaust, told by its survivors, that runs at nearly ten hours long. But given that it delivers the definitive take on the 20th century’s greatest atrocity, you’d think they could have tried a little harder. Made by French director Claude Lanzmann over the course of eleven years, and assembled from 350 hours of interviews, it eschews contemporary found footage and relies entirely on first-person testimony, both of Jewish survivors and occasionally their guards and captors (some of which was captured with hidden cameras; the discovery of one caused Lanzmann to be beaten and hospitalized for a month), centering on the death camps of Treblinka, Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau, and of those in the Warsaw Ghetto. As you might expect, it’s as wrenching and nausea-inducing a film as you’ll ever sit through, but one, almost by definition, of deep humanity, even as it deals with the worst examples of inhumanity you can imagine. And it’s about as vital a film as has ever been made: a last chance for those who were there to testify as to what they witnessed, and as a result, it’s historical value is unquestionable. But it’s also a beautifully made film, impeccably constructed by Lanzmann from the first minute to the 566th. For it to be overlooked by the Academy is inexcusable, but it always had a much greater, higher purpose, and one that it lives up to entirely.
“The Thin Blue Line” (1988)
One of the best known documentarians working, Errol Morris finally won an Oscar in 2004 for his “The Fog Of War,” and while that’s a very good film, it’s hard not think that it was something of an apology to the filmmaker for overlooking his earlier work, and in particular his 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line,” a legitimate crossover hit that, nonsensically, was considered “nonfiction” rather than documentary, and was thus disqualified by the Academy. About as gripping a true crime story as has ever been made, the film relates and recreates (those scenes being the ones that led to the film being disqualified, though it’s now a more accepted practice) the miscarriage of justice that followed the death by shooting of Dallas police officer Robert Wood in 1976. There were two men in the stolen car that Wood had stopped before he was shot—16-year-old driver and car thief David Ray Harris, and 28-year-old Randall Adams, who’d accepted a lift from Harris, and on whom the murder was pinned. Adams, despite being totally innocent, was charged with capital murder, in part because Adams was a minor and wouldn’t face the death penalty, and he spent twelve years in prison for the crime before Morris’ film helped him to be released. Morris had worked as a private eye in the past, and he builds a solid case for reasonable doubt in Adams’ conviction, but also admits and engages with the idea that the truth is essentially unknowable. Morris has a point-of-view, certainly, but it’s far from the only one. It’s also a fine example, as are most of the director’s films, that a documentary doesn’t just have to be a series of talking heads and archive footage. The beautifully shot re-enactments might have caused the film to miss out an Oscar nomination, but they also make the movie linger far longer in the memory.
Honorable Mentions: It’s almost easier to name the great films that were Oscar-nominated in the documentary category than the ones that weren’t. But to name but a few, there was also “Roger & Me,” “The Interrupters,” “Grizzly Man,” “The Last Waltz,” “Grey Gardens,” “A Grin Without A Cat,” “Lake Of Fire,” “Hearts Of Darkness,” “Sans Soleil,” “American Movie,” “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” “The Celluloid Closet,” “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and remarkably, any Frederick Wiseman films (though we’re not sure of their potential eligibility in a lot of cases). Any other notable ones we’ve missed out? Just let us know in the comments section.