And the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to… Undefeated!

Wow. I guess there had been an overwhelming buzz that preceded last night’s event that this documentary, about a race relations and a down-and-out football team, was going to win. But I didn’t listen to it. I thought Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory would win.

Here’s why I think Undefeated ultimately won: It moved people. From now on, that is going to be my new standard for what wins an Oscar. When you look at the films that have won over the past 10 years, they are all incredibly moving. They’re not all necessarily heart-string pluckers like Undefeated, but they have moved audiences, whether it’s wide scale outrage (Inside Job; An Inconvenient Truth), sympathy for animals (The Cove, March of the Penguins) or sympathy for children (Born into Brothels). Those are the kind of subjects that move people. Man on Wire had more of an uplifting, historical impact, like that of a fiction feature, one that was rousing thanks to the magic of a moment in history and a particularly charming man, but I think it can still be called moving.

I’m not sure whether the Documentary Short Subject category works within the same model, but last night’s winner, Saving Face, certainly looks to have been a deeply powerful film. Voters may have felt sympathy for the disfigured subjects, the female victims of acid attacks in Pakistan.

As much as I wanted to see Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky win for Paradise Lost 3, it was pretty cool to see the young guys, Daniel Lindsay, TJ Martin and Richard Middlemas, get up there so palpably excited. And that one of them, Martin, is the first African-American director to ever win an Oscar, is especially awesome. It’s a tribute to the documentary form, I think.

Watch an interview with Undefeated‘s TJ Martin and Daniel Lindsay »

At first, I was tickled by the choice of the star power presenters — Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow — for the award. But then I began to think about how the Academy has often relied on similar heavy hitters, like Oprah or Jerry Seinfeld, to present the documentary award, and I think it’s overcompensation. It’s like the Academy is so afraid audiences are going to be bored by the category, that they try to blind them.

Nothing is more evident of that discomfort than Downey Jr.’s shtick last night, in which he pretended to be directing his own documentary about himself as a presenter. He took on this persona of being a pretentious, self-involved documentary director. It was weird. A parody needs to have a reference point, right? Who amongst us knows anyone like this? It came off as if he was mocking the documentary form without having a clue what it was — another indication that Hollywood just isn’t comfortable with the documentary category.

On the biggest platform they’ve had yet, the Undefeated guys failed to mention the subjects of their film. Could that have been a first in the category? Oscar documentary directors are notorious for political posturing or delivering the message of their films, something I’m always enthusiastic to see in such an apolitical atmosphere, but the guys blew it in this respect. Afterwards, they told the press they regretted it and had been cut off (getting bleeped for cursing didn’t help), so let’s chalk it up to youthful enthusiasm.

They did, after all, first get together while working on a documentary about beer pong. Not every doc moment, it turns out, is a teaching moment.

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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