Oscar’s doc branch skips big names

Academy picks focus on smaller, artier titles

With the motion picture Academy, documentary fans have often wondered if being a crowd-pleasing doc is a quick ticket out of Oscar contention.

The Acad’s docu branch, perhaps the most determinedly arty of all its factions, this year again skipped over the biggest docu draws in its first round of Oscar voting, raising gripes about its selection process and accessibility of its choices.

On Nov. 17, the Acad unveiled its short list of 15 films competing for the five noms. Among those missing: Bill Maher‘s “Religulous,” the year’s top-grossing docu at $12.6 million, and Marina Zenovich‘s “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” which drew kudos at Sundance and Cannes. Last year’s winner, Alex Gibney, also came up short for his Hunter S. Thompson docu “Gonzo,” which tackled a far lighter subject than “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which explored torture at Guantanamo Bay.

The docu branch has worked to become more inclusive in the wake of such eyebrow-raising exclusions as 1994’s “Hoop Dreams.” In more recent years, it has given noms to popular documentarians such as Michael Moore and “Super Size Me” helmer Morgan Spurlock. (Moore even won for “Bowling for Columbine” in 2003.)

In some ways, the exclusion of this year’s trio is not surprising. The docu wing leans toward “serious” undertakings and, interestingly, docs about showbiz or pop culture tend to be shut out. In 2002, for example, there was no Oscar love for “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “Lost in La Mancha” (about Terry Gilliam‘s attempts to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”).

Though the list of high-profile omissions includes Steve James‘ “Hoop Dreams,” Errol Morris‘s “Thin Blue Line” and Werner Herzog‘s “Grizzly Man,” all three helmers made the cut this year. Morris is up for “Standard Operating Procedure,” another war torture doc; James and Peter Gilbert for “At the Death House Door,” a look at capital punishment gone wrong; and Herzog for “Encounters at the End of the World,” a relatively cheery visit with scientists in Antarctica.

Of those three, “Encounters” has the biggest box office, just under $1 million, with “Death House Door” yet to bow outside of fests.

With “Religulous” eliminated, docu-watchers are curious to see if any of the remaining docs will be able to click with both auds and the Academy.

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