2009 Oscar Preview: The Shortlist

A look at the fifteen documentaries chosen for the 81st annual Oscar shortlist.


A still from Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's "Trouble the Water," which made the Oscar documentary shortlist.
A still from Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's "Trouble the Water," which made the Oscar documentary shortlist.

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After three-quarters of a century of recognizing excellence in cinema achievement, the Oscar Awards presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, needs little introduction.

Held since 1929, the world famous red-carpet event draws everyone from die-hard celebrity fans to devoted fashion addicts. But anyone hoping for a preview of which major movies will make it to the top five, will have to wait until January 22 when a complete list of this year’s 81st Academy Awards nominations will be announced, with the grand-slam Hollywood event slated for Sunday, February 22, 2009, when all envelopes will be opened.

Meanwhile, for those in the independent film community much was revealed this past November when, from a record pool of 94 films that had originally qualified for the category, the Academy announced a shortlist of 15 feature docs that will advance in the voting process in which a final list will be narrowed down to five films to be announced with all official nominations on January 22.

The shortlist of documentaries from 2008 offered a combination of expected and unexpected films. Making the shortlist, Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure and Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World clearly represent the heavyweight end of the list, and the two filmmakers are likely to be seen as going head-to-head with their most recent works.

Some notable omissions from this year’s shortlist include Bill Maher’s Religulous, Marina Zenovich’s well-received film Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, American Teen, directed by Nanette Burstein, and the Margaret Brown-directed The Order of the Myths.

The list has inspired some criticism as just another line up of docs chosen more for subject matter than their creative and artistic achievement (see article by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir here), as films like Fuel or I.O.U.S.A. could not have been better timed to tap into the current state of the economy. Yet, it is also the very nature of the genre that allows socially conscious films to dominate the category, and several of the social docs have had much success in the festival circuit. Pray the Devil Back to Hell, honored at Toronto, looked at the women of Liberia’s peace movement to end the violence of their country’s civil war. Other films reflect on cultural issues here in the states like Trouble the Water and Made in America, while The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) effectively spans both domestic and international relevance.

The list does, however, leave room for some more culturally inspired films that present artistic portraits of individuals, like James Marsh’s Man on Wire, Scott Hicks’ Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, and Jeremiah Zagar’s In a Dream, a family portrait built around the prolific mosaic artist, Isaiah Zagar, also the filmmaker’s father, one of just a few of the smaller films that carved out slots on the list.

Below is the complete short list for documentary films:

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

The award 81st award ceremony is set to take place on February 22, 2009 at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. To learn more about The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and view a complete list of Oscar nominations, visit: http://www.oscars.org/


Doc Short List

Why are the names of the directors not on the list?