The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the short list of 15 documentaries that are up for the Oscar this year, culled from the 126 that were eligible.

Here’s the list:
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Chasing Ice
5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
The House I Live In
How to Survive a Plague
The Imposter
The Invisible War
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Searching for Sugar Man
This Is Not a Film
The Waiting Room

It’s a strong list that reflects a strong year in documentaries, most notable for two films that play almost like narrative features because of their storytelling and production value. I’m referring to Searching for Sugar Man, about a missing folk singing legend, and The Imposter, a sordid crime story about a cunning chameleon. Less aesthetically accomplished, but still great docs that have the important Oscar assets of engaging important issues, are Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (sexual abuse in the Catholic church), How to Survive a Plague (AIDS and the activists who battled it), Bully (bullying in schools across America), Chasing Ice (climate change), Detropia (the death and, hopefully, rebirth of Motown).

And then there’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a film that has the most compelling subject of the bunch, a Chinese dissident artist. It’s one of those films that makes you feel better after watching it, which is always Oscar bait. Then there are those long shots, the films that seem to have little going for them except the integrity of strong cinéma vérité; such as The Waiting Room, a film about a hospital waiting room in Oakland, which might be the little film that could. I’d say a good dozen of the films on this list could end up in the final five, which, again, speaks to how good the year in docs has been.

This was the first year with new Academy voting rules in the documentary category, which sought to weed out more minor television-oriented docs. Judging from the list, the change didn’t seem to have much of an impact. Once again, there was the weird inclusion of a small-screen doc (Ethel, which aired on HBO) but more important, there was the exclusion of three very worthy docs; The Central Park 5, West of Memphis and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. The Central Park 5, in particular, is such a strong film — well made, socially relevant, and with incredible pedigree (Ken Burns directed it with his daughter and son-in-law). My only explanation for why it didn’t make the cut is that voters were so overwhelmed by the load of films they had to judge, that they just never got to it. The film came out in late November, so I do wonder if it was late in arriving to voters.

So, how do we predict the five films that’ll get nominated on January 10th for the 85th Academy Awards (which will be held on Feb. 24)? That’s a tough call, so let’s look at our tea leaves and check in soon.

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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