Oscars 2012: Best Documentary Feature and Short Subject Predictions

Unlike in previous years, the Best Documentary Feature award has none of the widely released, popular or well-known documentaries. I’m not sure who make the shortlist, but they’re probably the same people who choose what constitutes an “original score.” In the short subject, it’s all about the topic of discussion, as the Academy has shown some tendencies over the years. In reading some detailed descriptions of these films, I’ve put together my personal predictions.

Best Documentary, Features

  • “Hell and Back Again”
  • “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”
  • “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”
  • “Pina”
  • “Undefeated”

Pick a doc, any doc. Most documentary movie fans are incensed at the list of nominees this year. With no “Project Nim,” plus Steve James’ “The Interrupters” not even making the shortlist, most have turned their nose to this category for 2012.

If any has developed a buzz, it’s Pina. The documentary comes in 3D and honors the life of a choreographer. That’s rather noteworthy, but at the same time it falls under the “artsy doc” column and not the hard-hitting, which the Academy prefers to honor.

Among the striking and jaw-dropping docs this year are Hell and Back Again and If a Tree Falls. Both could be considered head-shakers, with the former following a marine unit in Afghanistan intercut with the life of a discharged marine. We’ve seen the embedded take with “Restrepo” before. The latter shows some powerful protest imagery and is the decidedly most liberal documentary on the ballot as it talks about the aftermath of the eco-terrorist movement (they burned a lot of stuff).

Paradise Lost 3 is just that, the third (and final) film in a series of docs by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky focusing on the West Memphis 3, a story that looks to be getting the Hollywood treatment soon. 11 years after its predecessor, many are banking on this one to have a “Return of the King” effect and win in this last go around.

Your typical underdog story is Undefeated, which focuses on a high school football team and its intriguing volunteer coach. It reportedly has plenty of emotional moments that will tug at heartstrings and it comes with a push from The Weinstein Co., which means you better believe it got into voters’ hands.

It’s a total toss-up, but “Pina” or “Undefeated” seem most likely based on visibility.

Prediction: “Undefeated.”



Best Documentary, Short

  • “The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement”
  • “God is the Bigger Elvis”
  • “Incident in New Baghdad”
  • “Saving Face”
  • “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom”

It’s all about the subject in these films. We’ve seen a lot of motifs in recent years: quirky character studies, the aftermath of cataclysmic events, children facing barriers, soldiers devastated by war and women overcoming societal hardships. Check off most of those boxes this year.

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement traces the CRM up through Barack Obama’s election in 2008, recounting the deeds of unsung hero James Armstrong, now deceased. It will speak to to the liberal leaners for sure, but seems the most generic of all the nominees.

This year’s character study is God is the Bigger Elvis, about former Hollywood starlet Dolores Hart who starred alongside Elvis Presley but then decided to become a nun. The film will likely be the most enjoyed, but these light-hearted/colorful subject matters never walk home with statuettes.

Incident in New Baghdad takes the (pardon this) “shock and awe” approach. This centers on a soldier’s recount of a the 2007 U.S. airstrike that devastated Baghdad and also killed two Reuters journalists and was made public by WikiLeaks in 2010. It’s certainly one of the more controversial nominees, but deals in a subject that’s not exactly new news, however tragic it was. It has won a number of awards at film festivals and comes from a veteran doc short filmmaker in James Spione

Saving Face will be on most predictor’s lists this year based on subject matter. It focuses on a surgeon who repairs women’s faces in Pakistan, women who have been victim of acid violence. Call it cynical or what have you, but issues involving women overcoming serious physical and societal obstacles fair quite well, especially physical deformity and disease.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is the artsier short film. It should turn some heads, but the natural disasters of China and Japan have not done very well at the Oscars (I feel like a horrible person typing that, but it’s true). It could steal just for being poetic in its imagery, but these films tend to have fallen short because they aren’t has hard-hitting.

Prediction: “Saving Face”


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