With the Oscar deadline for submissions now long passed by (September 2; in order to be eligible, a film had to show for one week in Los Angeles and Manhattan), I figured it’s time to stick my head out the window and check who’s in the running for an Academy Award for this year. I think last year’s Oscars was a clear view into the state of the theatrical doc: we started with a controversial shortlist that had a number of dubious inclusions, and then the actual nominee list was an impressive fivesome showing a range of fantastic non-fiction technique and reporting (Sicko, War/Dance, No End in Sight, Operation Homecoming and Taxi to the Darkside). The fact that eventual winner, Alex Gibney‘s Taxi to the Darkside, didn’t make any money at the box office was also indicative of the state of the doc.

This year, we’ll see some changes. While last year saw three out of the five nominees focused on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this year, there may be just one, Errol MorrisStandard Operating Procedure. That film has had little buzz and it came out in the beginning of the year, but Morris is the most recognizable director from the past year and he’s such a titan. I just see him getting to the shortlist and, possibly, to becoming one of the nominees. But he ain’t winning.

The two most probable nominees in my book, are Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and Man on Wire. Hollywood loves little more than itself, and once the Polanski doc gets on the shortlist, I see it pushing up to the final five. It’s also really good, so that should help. And then there’s Man on Wire, a doc that’s doing really well at the box office (over $2 million), has received widespread critical favor and seems to have the early momentum.

There are three others that may or may not make it, but they pose interesting questions. There’s the religious right’s incredibly successful doc pushing the “intelligent design” theory: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Normally, a doc with its success at the box office ($7.59 million) can count on at least the shortlist, and I could imagine the Academy committee going out of its way to be inclusive by keeping this in there, but, ultimately, the film is such a piece of reactionary propaganda that I actually don’t see it making it. And then there’s Religulous, the Larry CharlesBill Maher doc that eviscerates religion. Maher is such a polarizing personality, and, frankly, he’s such a jerk in this movie, that although it’ll make it to the shortlist, I don’t see it being nominated. Ah, and then there’s Shine a Light, the doc about the Rolling Stones that has had healthy B.O. and is directed by Martin Scorsese. Could it be Scorsese’s first doc nomination? Actually, I think not, but stranger things have happened.

There are bound to be one or two smaller, strong docs that’ll push through, but a partial list of the more notable docs that I think are in the running are Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Encounters at the End of the World, American Teen, Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Trouble the Water, and Chicago 10.

And my last word on the subject (for this post, that is) is that the one doc that would have been shortlisted, would have been nominated, and would have won the Oscar, damn it, is not even in contention: Young@Heart. It had it all: makes you laugh, makes you cry, is well executed and is distributed by powerhouse Fox Searchlight. But it was aired first on British television so it’s disqualified from the running. Not sure who really gains from such rules. Well, I guess the makers of Man on Wire might — but that’s still to be seen.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen