Oscar is coming! The nominees were announced late last week and I am sure my POV minders are psyched to see one of their own on the list of five: Ellen KurasThe Betrayal (Nerakhoon), which will be broadcast on PBS in 2009, joins:

Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog
The Garden, Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Man on Wire, James Marsh
Trouble the Water, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Oscar statue I’ll pat my own back for having named four out the five — although I missed The Garden, a fascinating sounding film about an urban garden in L.A. made by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. (Kennedy made the well-received OT: Our Town.) I can’t be too proud, however: those four were the obvious standouts. The big surprise was that past Oscar winner Errol Morris‘s Standard Operating Procedure didn’t make the cut. Pretty incredible, but maybe not when you consider how it fell flat at the box office and how it was met with some controversy (undeserved, I’d say) because of its stylistic indulgences and Morris’ admission that he compensated some of his interview subjects.

When I look at the list, it actually makes a lot of sense. Man on Wire was, hands down, the most critically beloved of all docs this year, and it made good money at the box office — it’s fair to say that it actually made a ripple in the cultural zeitgeist. It’s the film to beat, without a doubt. And then Werner Herzog is a revered pro, and his film, Encounters at the End of the World is yet another example of his assured filmmaking. Trouble the Water was also a critical and festival favorite. I think it’s fair to say that The Garden (which I haven’t seen) and Betrayal are two relative dark horses, but worthy films that made the cut.

Seeing this list brings to my mind something that I read in my former colleague Anne Thompson’s blog: a play-by-play account of a fight between producer’s rep Jeff Dowd and critic John Anderson at Sundance about whether the documentary Dirt! The Movie was any good, and whether it deserved to be championed simply because of the moral imperative.

Why? Because I think these five documentaries are on this list at least partly because Oscar voters are trying to make sure that worthy films that might otherwise disappear have at least a fighting chance in the marketplace. And I say, good for them. I know when I write this, I suggest that these films somehow do not deserve to be there. And sometimes that’s the case. But, in this instance, I think it’s not. I haven’t seen The Garden, but I think the other films belong up there for quality alone. It’s the age-old question: Do we like a doc because of its social value or because of its formal merit? When I look at the fiction features, I see that the best films are often shunted for what’s hot or popular. I think Oscar voters think differently when it comes to docs. And I say: good.
One final note: it’s interesting that in the Foreign Film category, there are two quasi-docs — the one from France, The Class, which uses a real teacher and real students to recreate its reality-based tale. And then there’s Israel’s Waltz with Bashir, the recreated animation-doc about a mass killing in Lebanon. Combine those with the doc footage in Best Picture nominee, Milk, and it’s clear to see that the Oscars this year are doc-heavy.

The 81st Annual Academy Awards ceremony takes place on February 22, 2009.

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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