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OSCARS DEATH RACE: Surveying the race for Best Documentary

OSCARS DEATH RACE: Surveying the race for Best Documentary

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarah D. Bunting of is watching every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. She has completed the category for Best Documentary and now surveys the competition. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]

Ah, Best Doc — where the short list gets the finger-pointing and pearl-clutching underway early. I like to imagine Steve James watching the Oscars at home with a bottle of Goldschlager and a Krazy Straw, wearing PJs with basketballs on them, because as you probably heard, he didn’t get nominated. (Again.) Let’s look at what did.

The nominees

Hell and Back Again: Compelling traditional-structure doc with a likeable subject whose sound-editing tricksiness could work either for or against it. Topicality of subject matter may give it a slight edge.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front: Also compelling and topical, also straight-ahead in structure; very well done and informative

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory: I think very highly of the filmmakers’ previous two works on the subject of the West Memphis 3, whose release I supported. Attending a New York premiere of the film with the WM3 present was a thrill. With that said, the film qua film is rushed and collage-y, and I’m not sure viewers not familiar with the case and/or the other films would get much from it. The ending changed on the filmmakers, and they did well with that circumstance, but in theory, the Oscar rewards the best in the category, not the happiest ending. In practice…this probably wins.

Pina: …Unless this wins. I think it’s between PL3 and Pina; the latter has the edge in its use of technology, and it pushes the form harder. It may also push the audience…into a nap? It won me over, but this may not be a film Academy voters will force themselves to see.

Undefeated: Entertaining enough for an hour and a half, and another charismatic subject, but may seem somewhat familiar or not “issues-y” enough to voters.

Who shouldn’t be here: May not be the right question. It’s more of an apples-and-oranges issue, and we have three apples (the more traditional docs) and an orange (a doc that’s more of a recap, tied to a news event) and…a kiwi, in a way (dance experiment/elegy), so it’s not that the apples in question don’t rate; it’s which fruit the Academy is in the mood for. See below.

Who should be here, but isn’t: Like the apples metaphor? …Too bad, we’re stuck with it. So: as apples go, I think The Interrupters (airing this week on Frontline, I believe) and Project Nim are a little tastier than Undefeated. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop did some interesting things, in spite of pacing issues and O’Brien presenting as rather off-putting.

Who should win: Pina.

Who will win: The WM3 is a tough arc to resist, but I’m calling it for Wenders and Ringel.

Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine,, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She’s the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.comFor more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.

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