[For the third year in a row I had the pleasure of previewing the Best Documentary Feature nominees as part of The LAMB Devours the Oscars, a month-long series profiling each of the 24 Academy Award categories. Head over to the Large Association of Movie Blogs to learn about the other 23.]
If there is a common thread among the (rather surprising) five nominees for Best Documentary Feature this year, it is that they herald the maturation of the "agit-doc", or activist documentary. Their purpose is not necessarily to tell a story in the traditional documentary filmmaking style, but to make you mad, call you to action, and encourage you to tell all of your friends that they just have to see "the dolphin movie".
If you're picking up on the sarcasm in my voice, forgive me - it's just that the runaway best documentary of the year, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, is not among this group of five. It's as if voters let their political compasses guide them above everything else this year; during these challenging times it's evident that we want to get mad, get even, and get to work about this social issue or that social issue. In any case, let's take a look at the nominees, in order of most likely to least likely to win:
The Cove - If The Cove had lost any momentum as the frontrunner in this category over the last few months, last weeks' horrific Sea World accident must be considered a bittersweet endorsement. Cleverly threading animal rights, dolphin intelligence, Japanese cultural quirks, international politics, and food safety into a slick, action-packed, one-sided argument with all the flair of a lawyer's opening statement, The Cove also features the bloodiest scene among all of the nominees. If it bleeds, it leads, and I mean that literally in this case. Mark it on your Oscar pool ballot with confidence.
Food, Inc. - Were it not for the last decade of food activism, from Super Size Me to the organic/slow food movements to Fast Food Nation to "The Omnivore's Dilemma", this film would have made a much larger impact on the cultural landscape in 2009. Of course, were it not for those things I mentioned this film wouldn't exist in the first place. In other words, it's a nice summary of everything that you've already been told is wrong with the American food industry. Serves as a nice reminder but doesn't bring much new to the dinner table, as it were. A win may depend on whether the many celebrities who comprise AMPAS have chosen food safety as their cause du jour.
Burma VJ - Splashing onto the scene at Sundance just over a year ago, Burma VJ earned raves from critics and audiences on its limited festival tour in 2009. It is an absorbing and shocking fly-on-the-wall look (shot entirely by undercover reporters) at the "Saffron Revolution" of 2007, in which Buddhist monks led a peaceful series of protests against the ruthless Burmese government. Burma VJ is reminiscent of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (which focused on an attempted coup against Hugo Chavez), but the stakes are much higher here and the sick feeling you have afterward will last much longer.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers - Filling the token annual role of "Documentary Nominee with an Outrageously Long Name", The Most Dangerous Man is also the only nominee about the American war machine (there were three nominees in 2007 alone). Daniel Ellsberg was a former Pentagon insider who covertly smuggled top-secret Pentagon files to the media that outlined how U.S. presidents had lied about their war plans for nearly two decades. Sounds like a conspiracy theorist's worst nightmare come true, right? I have not seen it but it is slated for a theatrical release next month and a broadcast on PBS later this year.
Which Way Home - The heavy underdog in this group, Which Way Home sounds like the documentary version of last year's underrated Sin Nombre or 2008's forgettable Under the Same Moon. The film, about children who make the perilous train journey alone through Mexico on the way to an ostensibly "better life" in the United States, was not released theatrically (according to my research) and did not earn even one nomination of any kind aside from this nod for Oscar and a Spirit Award nomination (where it will go up against the likes of Food, Inc. and Anvil!). It's unlikely that many voters have seen it and a nomination may be considered recognition enough for this one. Or, who knows, maybe it will come out of nowhere as the winner if the votes for the favorites are evenly split.