Editor’s note: The updated version of our For Your Consideration column
looks at films and events related to awards season that we find
exciting and different. For detailed analysis of every Oscar category,
check out our Oscar pages.
The night before the Oscar nominations gave several contenders an excuse for celebration, a very different kind of party convened in Queens. The ninth annual Cinema Eye Honors offered yet another showcase of documentary achievements and an explicit contrast to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ meager acknowledgement of non-fiction.
Yet even there, mere hours before the early morning announcement of the Oscar nominations, expectations for the next day loomed large.
In the event program handed out at the Museum of the Moving Image, organizers included a blunt message to the filmmakers in attendance. "Yes, there will be some very good news for a few of you tomorrow morning," they wrote, "but we know from experience that you deserve one last bit of revelry with your large troupe of fellow travelers. Your community."
And so it went, with a tight 90-minute ceremony that highlighted numerous documentaries from 2015, spreading the love far beyond the limitations of a single category. Winners ranged from the Sundance-acclaimed tale of teen cinephiles "The Wolfpack" (which nabbed Best First Feature) to the experimental half-hour look at "Buffalo Jugglos," which is exactly what it sounds like (it landed the short film award, in a tie with "Hotel 22").
In the years since the Cinema Eyes launched, the ceremony has contributed to ongoing conversations that have yielded significant rule changes in the documentary race. Still, the Cinema Eyes provide a bigger snapshot of the documentary world, which too often becomes ghettoized by the larger industry.
Three movies that ultimately received best documentary Oscar nominations made it to the museum’s stage — "Amy" (Best Editing), "Cartel Land" (Best Cinematography) and "The Look of Silence," which dominated with three wins in major categories (production, direction and Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking, the Cinema Eyes’ version of best picture). As a result, the Cinema Eyes celebrated the majority of this year’s Oscar nominees while offering a wider view.
Nevertheless, the host of the ceremony knew the crowd was feeling the heat around the corner. "You’re not going to sleep well tonight," said documentarian Steve James, addressing several contenders in the room, and he spoke from experience.
Casting James as a central figure at the Cinema Eyes was a statement unto itself. A year ago, most pundits agreed that the filmmaker’s touching Roger Ebert portrait "Life Itself" would almost certainly land a nomination. But James encountered the same situation he endured four years earlier, when his probing look at Chicago gang violence "The Interrupters" also failed to garner a nomination.
Theories have swirled around these snubs for years: Does the Academy simply dislike James? Is he not on the scene enough? Are his subjects too specific? By now, years after James’ disappointments fueled broader conversations about the documentary race, even he has developed a sense of humor about it. When Cinema Eye co-founder A.J. Schnack came out to thank the sponsors, he engaged in a clever bit with James in which the filmmaker claimed he was on the shortlist of potential nominees, since "Life Itself" made the cut a year earlier.
"There’s no rollover," Schnack explained, at which point James’ face fell in mock frustration. "But you’ve won Cinema Eyes," Schnack added, and James silently walked off the stage. It was the kind of punchline that carried a kernel of truth: Any attention is nice, but nothing beats winning an Oscar.
Steve Martin by way of cinema verite, James proved a constant source of amusement at his own expense. He shared a photo of a nearly empty theater playing his last film in Portland, where he was the only audience member in attendance. He poked fun at the serious nature of his work and his annoyance at the long coat check line outside the theater. He joked about the similarities between several documentaries that deal with late music icons. But even his sarcasm carried an underlying warmth that he shared with the crowd, which received a video tribute to the late Albert Maysles just as eagerly as it saluted "The Look of Silence."
That movie’s director, Joshua Oppenheimer, delivered more than one heartfelt speech weighted with incendiary remarks about his topic. Ultimately, he pointed out the little-discussed role of the United States in the Indonesian genocide that reverberates throughout "The Look of Silence" and his previous Cinema Eye winner, "The Act of Killing" — another Oscar nominee the next morning.
Oppenheimer, who carries the air of a well-spoken academic, looked a bit overwhelmed by the proceedings. Beforehand, he expressed some fatigue over the prospects of yet another awards event. But even as he took to the stage, it was clear that his mind was whirring: Was this his last chance to discuss his film at a podium?
Time will tell, though "Heart of a Dog" director Laurie Anderson already knows she won’t make it any further than her Cinema Eye prize for Best Music. Her tender diary film may have been a dark horse Oscar contender that never quite got there, but the Cinema Eyes ensured she got the chance to give a moving speech that acknowledged the recently departed David Bowie. Such endearing moments offered a wonderful juxtaposition to the aggressive tactics that define awards season.
The next day, Netflix would land two nominations for documentaries barely acknowledged by the Cinema Eye awards, clearly because the well-heeled company knows how to spend on an effective campaign. But the company also sponsored the Cinema Eyes and their after-party, where countless documentarians looked ahead to Sundance and their next projects. Even the power players dominating the game knew it was in their interest to play a role at this far more genuine event, which adheres to a different set of rules.
James put it best as the evening drew to a close, once again addressing the filmmakers in the room. "There are a lot of films that aren’t on that short list that are great films," he said. "The Oscars are the Oscars. It’s great if you can get in…but you know what? It ain’t everything." He got the biggest applause of the night.