The analysis

And the winners were … Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman for ‘Born Into Brothels’
Ordinarily documentary filmmakers are praised for trying to maintain objectivity, keeping themselves at a discreet distance from their subjects. But “Born Into Brothels” won widespread acclaim and an Oscar for diving right into the midst of its subject: the stigmatized children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Calcutta’s red-light district. Co-director Zana Briski changed the lives of seven children by giving photography classes that helped them document their lives. Although “March of the Penguins” would seem to have a lock on the doc Oscar this year, last year’s high-profile films like “Super Size Me,” “Tupac: Resurrection” and “Twist of Faith” lost the Academy Award to the little-seen “Born Into Brothels.” Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman also were not well-known. In this case, the emotional subject proved overpowering with Acad voters and less controversial than a dead rapper, a fast-food addict or abusive priests.

A decade ago, much of the chatter at Oscar season centered on the documentary film award. The Academy, critics complained, had blithely overlooked some of the most notable and popular films in order to nominate the tried, the true, the obscure and, above all, the staid.

That isn’t the case today as the genre emerges from the moviegoing margins to become one of the most popular among the masses.

This year is such a good one for documentary film it’s not surprising that the crowd-pleasing “Mad Hot Ballroom” and the critically acclaimed “Grizzly Man” failed to make the Oscar cut by a few votes. Even if they had been nominated, it’s clear that the French doc “March of the Penguins” remains the front-runner.

Still, those Antarctic birds have plenty of competition. There’s the timely “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” which recounts the biggest scandal since Teapot Dome, showing how the energy company bilked both stockholders and everyday consumers. The court case is under way even as the Oscar ballots go out.

Then there’s “Murderball,” about quadriplegics who play full-contact rugby in wheelchairs and overcome numerous obstacles to compete in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. Mixing sports thrills and medical uplift, it’s quite a show.

A dark horse if there ever was one, “Street Fight” follows the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, N.J., in which bright newcomer Cory Booker attempted to unseat longtime mayor Sharpe James and faced no end of trouble. So did filmmaker Marshall Curry, in whose path James placed obstacle after obstacle.

Finally, there’s “Darwin’s Nightmare,” which deals with the African nation of Tanzania. Despite the worldwide exports of fish caught by its peasant population, the country remains poor and hovering on the brink of political unrest. Putting aside the clear lead of “Penguins,” it’s quite a contest among worthwhile works.

Darwin’s Nightmare
Hubert Sauper

Oscar pedigree: none
Current kudos: Label Europa Cinemas (win), Venice Film Festival (win)
Why it will win: The doc illuminates a story of wide public interest that hasn’t been highlighted by mainstream news in the manner that it deserves.
Why it won’t: It’s a bit too downbeat to provide any of the “uplift” the Academy favors, especially in the doc category.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Alex Gibney and Jason Kliot

Oscar pedigree: none
Current kudos: Gotham (nom), Independent Spirit (nom), Online Crix (nom), Satellite (nom), WGA (nom)
Why it will win: Here’s the classic topical news story told in a way that provides illumination and insight not seen in the mainstream press.
Why it won’t: The film is too red-hot, especially since the story it recounts is far from over.

March of the Penguins
Luc Jacquet and Yves Darondeau

Oscar pedigree: none
Current kudos: Broadcast Crix (win), National Board of Review (win), Online Crix (nom), Satellite (nom), WGA (nom)
Why it will win: It’s one of the biggest documentary hits of all time, embraced by the public and hailed by critics for its scrupulous detail and epic beauty.
Why it won’t: Something unforeseen wins the Academy’s fancy over those ultra-cute penguins. But the loss will be by a hair — or rather, a feather.

Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro

Oscar pedigree: none
Current kudos: Boston (win), Gotham (win), Online Crix (nom), Satellite (nom)
Why it will win: With the doc’s mix of action and uplift, there’s nothing around quite like it.
Why it won’t: Wheelchair roughnecks are less sympathetic than penguins.

Street Fight
Marshall Curry

Oscar pedigree: none
Current kudos: WGA (nom)
Why it will win: Curry provides an exciting insider’s view of big-city corruption and brass-knuckles politics on a local level.
Why it won’t: Curry is far too controversial in his no-holds-barred expose of African-American politicians at each other’s throat.

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