Oscar Statue
This coming Sunday is the Academy Awards ceremony, and we’ll no doubt be subjected to a crack or two during the evening about the ugly duckling documentary category. Maybe they’ll even get Ben Stiller to do a Pina dance in a bodysuit. Never mind. For those of us who care, we’ll be eagerly watching the results of one of the closest races in years.

Before we look forward, it makes sense to look back. The films that have won tend to be successful at the box office (March of Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth), but this year, only one of the nominees had boffo box office before voting ended: Pina. Does that mean it’s a sure winner? Not so fast!

Since the dawn of Doc Soup four years ago, I’ve predicted the winner each year, but this time I’m plagued with self-doubt.

Since 2008, the winners had a particular glow for me: Taxi to the Dark Side, Man on Wire, The Cove and Inside Job. These films had strong pedigrees and rave reviews, political poignance or strong B.O. (except for Taxi which was released just before the Oscars). But, more than anything, they were deeply affecting stories.

So, how do this year’s nominees measure up?

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, POV 2011)

Watch If a Tree Falls on POV’s site for a limited time! »

First, let’s give props to POV and director Curry for scoring yet another nomination. This is all the more impressive because this is a film that isn’t particularly sexy or overwhelming in high-drama pathos. It’s just an incredible story, told very well. But the imprisonment of an environmental activist whom few people recognize, and the decline of a movement that few can feel fully sympathetic for, aren’t going to rally Academy voters.

Hell and Back Again (Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner)

Great cinematography, an embedded journalist and a wounded soldier in Afghanistan could spell success, but we’ve seen this sort of documentary before. And war docs get nods (Restrepo, Operation Homecoming), but they don’t win Oscars.

Undefeated (TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas)

An uplifting, feel-good film about an underdog football team has to be reckoned with. You have to respect the power of those Academy heart strings being plucked. And with the Weinstein brothers distributing Undefeated, there could be some dark magic at work. But I think there’s just not enough here to contend with the competition. Undefeated is a very close third.

Pina (Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel)

A beautiful film shot with innovative 3D technology by a world-renowned director is a tough one to beat. German choreographer Pina Bausch is rendered exquisitely by Wenders, but Academy voters spend a lot of time watching beautiful stories by revered directors. When it comes to the nonfiction category, they want to reward a film that means something more. Oscar prognosticators are picking Pina to win, but I think, ultimately, its subject — dance — will limit its appeal.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky)

I’m picking Paradise Lost to win for several reasons. First, you can’t underestimate the importance of the way this film exonerated three wrongly-accused men from spending the rest of their lives in jail. Not since The Thin Blue Line has something like this happened, and many voters are cognizant of that. There’s also what I’ll call The Lord of the Rings factor. The first two LOTR films made a small dent at the Oscars. But the third collected a record number of gold. In other words, when it comes to a trilogy, the third film is rewarded for everything that happened before it. There’s a cumulative effect. Even if Academy voters didn’t love Paradise Lost, many must have been blown away by one, or both, of the previous films. Another significant factor is that the trilogy was produced by HBO Documentaries, and its head Sheila Nevins, who must have a lot of friends in the Academy.

As for the Documentary Short category, I can’t say I have much of an inside line on what the outcome will be. Here are the nominees:

  • The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement (Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin, POV 2012)
  • God Is the Bigger Elvis (Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson)
  • Incident in New Baghdad (James Spione)
  • Saving Face (Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy)
  • The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen)

For my money, I’d think Tsunami has the best chance. It’s about Japan’s awful tsunami disaster, with vivid images of the catastrophe and intimate portraits of survivors, by the director of the previously Oscar-nominated Waste Land. Sounds like a winner.

Think you can out-predict Doc Soup Man? Let us know who you think will win in the comments!

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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