Vulture Handicaps This Year’s Documentary Oscar Race

With the long-awaited release of Inside Job and the approaching release of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, most of the major contenders for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar will soon be in theaters. That’s saying something, because this year has been a pretty amazing year for documentaries — beginning with a crowded field of Sundance heavyweights in January, and continuing with impressive lineups at Tribeca, Telluride, and Toronto. So, which docs will most likely battle it out in the postseason? Here are our predictions.

Five Front-runners Likely to Be Nominated:

The Tillman Story
Full of righteous anger, Amir Bar-Lev’s look at the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman and his family’s subsequent efforts to confront the Pentagon’s cover-up hits two birds with one stone: It’s a portrait of an inspiring group of people (the Tillmans) as well as an exposé of government malfeasance.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: The current front-runner, it seethes with righteous fury, it’s full of great characters, and it takes aim at the hypocrisies of the military-industrial-political complex. Oh, and it’s being distributed by the Weinstein Company, who’ve been known to be good at this whole Oscar thing.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: The movie was originally called “I’m Pat %#$! Tillman!” and some may worry about a profanity-laced acceptance speech.

Waiting for “Superman”
An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim’s harrowing trip through the moribund U.S. education system gives the teachers unions the same treatment Michael Moore once gave the NRA, thus taking on a traditional liberal interest group. And it’s already sparked a lot of discussion.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: Exactly the kind of heartbreaking, hot-button documentary that wins awards. Plus, it’s tackling a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon — terrible news for America’s youth, but great news for the film’s producers.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Guggenheim already has an Oscar (though don’t tell that to Fox News, who think the award went to Al Gore). Teachers unions might protest.

Inside Job
Documentarian Charles Ferguson’s exploration of the 2008 financial crisis and its deep roots walks a fine line, explaining complicated economic concepts while trying not to talk down to lay viewers.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: It’s got outrage to spare, it’s topical, and it will surely get people talking. Plus, Ferguson was seen by many as having been robbed when he didn’t win for his 2007 Iraq War doc, No End in Sight.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Topicality can be a double-edged sword: Recent news that TARP may not have cost all that much and may even turn taxpayers a profit might blunt the film’s message. Plus, one of the film’s chief bogeymen, Larry Summers, is leaving the Obama administration next month. The film’s fate may depend on what the economy looks like come January.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Alex Gibney, quite possibly the hardest-working man in documentaries today (he released three doc features this year, and also co-directed Freakonomics), turns the story of the New York governor’s sex scandal and subsequent downfall into something akin to a political thriller. True, Spitzer himself laid the groundwork for his own demise, but Gibney also unearths what appears to be a deep political conspiracy at work.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: It’s a riveting and suspenseful movie about an important subject, and Gibney gets great access, managing to interview most of the key players.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Gibney’s already got an Oscar. That he was involved in so many other high-profile documentaries this year might dilute his voting pool. Also, Spitzer’s rehabilitation is already well on its way — the guy’s got a TV show! — so it may feel like yesterday’s news come voting time.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
This portrait of the life and career of the legendary comedian/actress/punching bag not only attracted critical raves, it also scored box-office gold, becoming one of the most financially successful doc releases of the year. Our own David Edelstein called it “a thoroughly exhilarating, thoroughly depressing portrait of the agony and ecstasy of celebrity.”
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: Joan Rivers plays right into the Academy demographic — she’s not only the right age, she also hosted an Oscar red-carpet show for years. Also, if the film wins, she’ll probably be called to the stage.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: All those other scare-the-crap-out-of-you docs released this year may have convinced voters this is no time for frivolity. Also, if the film wins, she’ll probably be called to the stage.

Five Contenders With a Chance:

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s raw, ground-level portrait of a small platoon of U.S. soldiers stuck in a fifteen-man operating base in Afghanistan’s most treacherous region is part war movie and part nature doc, in which humans are the subjects.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: The film is as much a physical feat as it is an artistic one; voters may well be impressed by the fact that the filmmakers spent so much time on the frontlines in the Afghan War.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Oscar likes its politics pre-digested, and Restrepo refuses to take sides — which means that each side is accusing it of taking the other’s side. Also, The Tillman Story might steal some of its war-doc mojo.

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s documentary follows Schulman’s photographer brother Nev and his odd online relationship with a family in Michigan. Okay, “odd” is kind of an understatement, but it’s best not to know what exactly happens in this film before you see it. Suffice it to say that this is a fascinating look at the mercurial nature of identity in the social-networking age.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: A hot topic, especially in the documentary community. Plus, it could ride The Social Network’s Facebook coattails.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Many are convinced it’s a fake. Also: ew, young people.

A Film Unfinished
A documentary about another documentary, exploring the arresting footage of a propaganda film shot by Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and using it as a springboard to explore issues of memory, history, and the constantly shifting nature of truth.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: Let’s face it, Holocaust documentaries have a pretty amazing track record at the Oscars …
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: … Though in recent years, they’ve been surprisingly unlucky.

Countdown to Zero
Documentarian Lucy Walker, with a little help from talking head Valerie Plame Wilson, looks at the history and the state of the world’s nuclear arsenal, exposing several very realistic scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used. Produced by Lawrence Bender, who also produced An Inconvenient Truth (as well as many Quentin Tarantino films), it follows that earlier film’s formula of offering ways we can do our part to help.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: It’s the kind of terrifying, we’re-all-doomed documentary that’s hard to shake. The presence of Valerie Plame Wilson could help if Doug Liman’s Naomi Watts–starring Fair Game (which is based on the Plame Affair) also becomes a contender in the Oscar race.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: There’s room for only so many terrifying, we’re-all-doomed documentaries in any given year, and this one kind of underperformed, especially given its pedigree.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
The mysterious street artist Banksy lays bare the fickle and craven nature of the art world by charting his relationship with a French immigrant art buff named Thierry Guetta, who managed to reinvent himself as a Los Angeles art-world phenomenon named Mr. Brainwash.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: It’s a critical darling and a bona fide box-office phenomenon, still playing in theaters months after its release.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: “Street artists”? A mysterious director who masks his face and distorts his voice? Who are these people? Also, it might be a put-on.

Eight Dark Horses That Might Surprise Us:

The legendary Errol Morris trains his eye for the perverse on one very fascinating lady named Joyce McKinney — a former Miss Wyoming who later fell in love with a Mormon missionary, then traveled to England and kidnapped him, and became tabloid fodder in the process.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: Despite the goofy subject matter, the film has plenty to say about celebrity culture and the postmodern soul’s thirst for fame. Also, Errol Morris is God.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: God has an Oscar already.

Doing for babies what Winged Migration (2002 nominee) did for birds and March of the Penguins (2005 winner) did for penguins, Thomas Balmes’s film focuses on the first couple of years of four babies from all different parts of the world, giving us a glimpse of the wildly different child-rearing methods of different cultures.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: Which part of “babies” did you not understand?
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Cuteness overload.

Smash His Camera
When We Were Kings director Leon Gast’s entertaining take on the career of notorious ur-paparazzo Ron Galella uses the photographer’s many tales of relentlessly pursuing celebrities to explore the fluid nature of celebrity, privacy, and art.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: It’s a celebration of classic movie star glamour that should play well to the Academy’s older voting blocks.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: A film that honors a paparazzo’s life and career might not go over so well in Hollywood.

Jeff Malmberg’s film uses the tale of Mark Hogancamp, a man who was beaten into a coma and then, as a kind of therapy, created a compulsively detailed miniature WWII-era town out of dolls and action figures, to explore obsession, trauma, and our terror of the unknown.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: In a year full of alarmist social-issue docs, it’s an intimate, touching, and very human story, clearly a labor of love for its filmmaker …
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: … Which is exactly the kind of documentary that almost never wins an Oscar.

An interesting (and rare) account of nonviolent resistance in the Middle East: A Palestinian village unites to protest the takeover of their land by the Israeli Separation Fence, and even manages to bring some Israelis over to their side.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: A chance to do some genuine real-world good — by giving the film exposure, the Academy could help to promote more nonviolent resistance in a region mired in violence.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Some may feel the Academy has honored enough documentaries about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Here’s an idea: a sprightly, playful film about the shady titular process whereby politicians carve out districts according to ethnic, political, and other questionable lines in order to stay in power. Yes, the practice makes a mockery of American democracy, but director Jeff Reichert mixes his outrage with a healthy dose of incredulity, so the results actually play like a comedy.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: It’s a surprisingly entertaining and funny film about a painful, depressing subject.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: Other higher-profile social-issue docs may take precedence. Plus, older voters may get confused and think it’s a sequel to Gerry.

My Perestroika
An intimate and lovely documentary that follows five Soviet classmates who came of age right before the Iron Curtain fell — the children of a vanished world — and charts the lives of these children of that vanished world as they navigate a rapidly changing society.
Reasons Oscar May Go for It: Another rare example of a personal documentary in a field packed with big-ticket social-issue docs.
Reasons Oscar May Not Go for It: See also: Marwencol.

Jackass 3-D
Hey, it could happen!

Vulture Handicaps This Year’s Documentary Oscar Race