Academy’s Best Documentary Shortlist a Disaster, As Usual

It happens just about every year: The Motion Picture Academy’s Best Documentary Feature category omits deserving works and rewards terrible ones. They keep changing the rules, and it never gets any better.

That’s the case again this year with the nominees, the “shortlist” of ten of which was unveiled Tuesday.

Now I should say at the outset that I have not seen all of the films under consideration. Studio publicists don’t often screen documentaries early for critics, and most of the pictures in question are not yet available on DVD or video on demand. But based on what I have seen, there are some pretty outrageous omissions and inclusions.

Among the films on the shortlist is “Bully,” the Lee Hirsch-directed documentary that was a total failure from both a filmmaking and storytelling standpoint. The picture, shot in amateurish, often blurry cinematography, adds just about nothing to do the discussion and teaches us nothing about bullying that we didn’t already know.

Yet as I was leaving the theater, it occurred to me: the combination of the of-the-moment subject matter and Harvey Weinstein being the producer pretty much made the film a shoo-in for the Best Documentary Oscar. And it’s well on its way.

On the other hand, there are some truly excellent films not on the list. Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles,” a near-brilliant examination of the 2008 economic meltdown through the eyes of a particularly loathsome one-percenter family, didn’t make the cut. Neither did David Gelb’s joyous Japan foodie doc “JIro Dreams of Sushi.”

Other, highly regarded films that I haven’t seen- Ken Burns and Sarah Burns’ “The Central Park Five,” Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa” and Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” -won’t be nominated either.

I’ve heard very good things about the AIDS epidemic film   “How to Survive a Plague,” the Iranian film “Searching For Sugar Man,”  “The Imposter” and “The Gatekeepers,” and  all of which did make the cut. Here’s hoping one of them defeats “Bully’- and the Academy can come up with some way to do justice to this category.

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