Oscar Statue
Wow. The Oscar nominees were just announced this morning and I have to admit I was shocked. I was so expecting a number of popular and incredibly well-made films to get the nods, but I was wrong. What won out was indeed a list of very well-made films, but it and to was not the popularity contest I’d thought it would be.

Here are the nominees:

  • Hell and Back Again (Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner)
  • If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman)
  • Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky)
  • Pina (Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel)
  • Undefeated (TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas)

First, let’s give props to Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman… and to POV! The film has the most important elements a great doc should have: a compelling lead character (Daniel McGowan, an activist serving hard time for his idealism) and a socially relevant cause (environmentalism).

Pina, to me, was not a surprise. Director Wenders is pushing the medium to new heights by making an artful documentary in 3-D. Paradise Lost 3 was also a very strong contender; it’s the summation of an incredible three-part series that has captivated a strong following, and had a real impact in essentially creating the campaign to exonerate the men known as the West Memphis 3.

Hell and Back Again also had so much going for it: Embedded in the war in Afghanistan, with stunning cinematography, the film covers the human toll as well as the epic nature of war. I suppose I should have seen Undefeated coming — It’s a heartfelt sports doc about a football team that makes good when no one believed it was possible. That, and with the power of Oscar-campaigner-savant Harvey Weinstein behind it, helps explain its rise to glory.

The biggest surprises are, actually, the omissions. Buck, a heartfelt and beautiful film about animals and people, also with connections to Hollywood; how could it not be picked? And then there was Project Nim, a fantastic film that did well at the box office and was considered, critically, one of the best movies of the year.

Like I said: Wow.

But as we tend to say year in and year out, it was a strong year for documentaries, and here’s the proof.

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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