Hoop Dreams. Crumb. Michael Moore's Roger & Me. Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line. Michael Apted's 7 Up series. These are some of the finest documentary features in recent decades, and they share one distinction: none received an Oscar, or even a nomination, for Best Documentary. An outcry over the exclusion of films like these and charges of cronyism within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' selection committee led to rules changes in 2001. So this year's list will be a lot sharper, eh?
Nay. Let's name five of the most acclaimed nonfiction films of 2005. The Aristocrats is the deconstruction, by dozens of comedians, of the world's most notorious dirty joke. Why We Fight cogently analyzes the U.S. military-industrial complex. The Power of Nightmares provocatively compares the doctrines of al-Qaeda and the American neo-cons. Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, a study of a wildlife activist's annual trip to commune with the beasts who finally tear him apart, is a kind of Brokebear Mountain, evoking human love and obsession. It shared the New York Film Critics' Circle award for Best Documentary with Herzog's The White Diamond, about an attempt to fly an airship over the Guyanese rain forest--sheer soaring rapture.
All five films received fervent reviews. And none made the preliminary Oscar short list of 15 documentary features, from which will come five nominees to be revealed next week.
The Academy's regulations, which are about as byzantine as Medicaid rules, disqualify a film that's been shown on TV before its theatrical opening. So Why We Fight was out, because it had aired on the BBC (which co-produced it). As for Grizzly Man, we guess the selectors just didn't like it. Arthur Dong, a governor of the Academy's documentary branch, can't say why any film was refused because "we don't discuss the films among ourselves." But could he give his own opinion of Grizzly Man? "No."
Herzog sounds serene over the rejection. "I don't lose one moment of sleep over it," he says. "I'm perfectly content with the success of the film with audiences and critics."
One could still cull a comely quintet of nominees from the current gang of 15--including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mad Hot Ballroom, Murderball, Rize and, of course, March of the Penguins. Perhaps Herzog can take solace in the fact that, as those penguins proved, persistence is everything.
Read Corliss's coverage of the Oscar nominations on time.com Jan. 31