OscarIt’s head-scratching season again, which is to say: it’s Oscar time. Last week, the shortlist of 15 documentaries being considered for the five Academy Award nominations was announced. And, sure enough, there were some head-scratchers out there.

The most confounding was the exclusion of Michael Moore‘s Capitalism. Sure, this further confirms what I said a few weeks ago that he’s lost his luster but the Academy took things way too far. Almost as surprising was that RJ Cutler‘s The September Issue didn’t get a chance at a nod, and perhaps not as surprising but equally unjust was that Sacha Gervasi‘s Anvil: The Story of Anvil was left out in the cold.

Here’s the list:

  • The Beaches of Agnes, Agnès Varda, director
  • Burma VJ, Anders Østergaard, director
  • The Cove, Louie Psihoyos, director
  • Every Little Step, James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, directors
  • Facing Ali, Pete McCormack, director
  • Food, Inc., Robert Kenner, director*
  • Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander, director
  • Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, Mark N. Hopkins, director
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, directors
  • Mugabe and the White African, Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey, directors
  • Sergio, Greg Barker, director
  • Soundtrack for a Revolution, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, directors
  • Under Our Skin, Andy Abrahams Wilson, director
  • Valentino: The Last Emperor, Matt Tyrnauer, director
  • Which Way Home, Rebecca Cammisa, director

Moore’s film was well-reviewed, it has made more than $14 million at the box office, and, jeez, he’s like the Michael Bay of non-fiction filmmaking. I joke, but perhaps that proves my point from that previous post: Moore’s status as a cutting-edge, must-see filmmaker is softening.

I suspect the exclusion of some of the films that were praised by the mainstream press and wider audiences is a sign of a retrenchment by members of the Academy documentary committee. I think they’re shaking off the years of “This is the year of the doc,” and saying that they’re not selecting docs just because they’re “hot” — but rather, what they like.

And what do they like? What has always been at the core of the Academy’s decision-making for the Best Documentary is the same question for all documentary lovers: What makes a good doc good?

It comes down to four factors: social import, filmmaking (or, aesthetic) achievement, a unique point of view, and entertainment value.

And then the other element that really stirs the pot, or I should say, soup, is popularity, and when I say this, I mean it in terms of two types of popularity: within the doc-insiders circle versus the good ol’ American box office.

When I crunch those factors and elements, and look at this list, I see greater emphasis on social import and point of view over filmmaking and entertainment. And you know what else I come up with? The Academy doc committee, by nixing Capitalism, September, and Anvil, has cleared out the potentially strong competition for The Cove, which is no doubt going to be the favorite in the general Academy voting pool. I’m not saying this was their intention. I’m just saying.

* Watch for Food, Inc on POV in 2010.

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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