Oscar’s feature documentary category traditionally honors those pics in which the filmmaker’s vision truly makes it to the screen with serious matters predominating. This year, docu feature contenders are limited to the 57 qualifying submissions that have met the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s stringent criteria.
For the second year in a row, the Academy will follow a divide-and-view procedure in which preliminary screening committees of credited documentarians view 15 features (on cassette) and rank the submissions by a point system that narrows the qualifiers down to 12. Members who have seen 10 of the 12 can then nominate the final five films to be considered. Only members that have screened all of the nominated docs can cast a final ballot.
A number of this year’s contenders have critical and festival buzz coupled with previous Oscar nods for their creators, giving them better than even odds at making the short list.
“Long Night’s Journey Into Day,” directed by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann, and produced by Frances Reid, is a searing look at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Sundance 2000 documentary grand jury winner.
“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” directed by Mark Jonathan Harris (director of Oscar winner “The Long Way Home”) and produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, chronicles the rescue of 10,000 Jewish and other children by Britain in the months before World War II.
“Reckless Indifference,” directed by William Gazechi (“Waco: The Rules of Engagement”), and produced by Gazechi and Dale Rosenbloom, examines a miscarriage of justice. Four suburban teenage boys are sentenced to life in prison after a backyard brawl at a local drug dealer’s house that results in the death of the dealer’s best friend, a police officer’s son.
“Fight to the Max,” directed by Simeon Soffer (“The Wildest Show in the South”), and produced by Soffer and Jonathan Stack (“The Farm: Angola USA”), is a look at the Louisiana penal system told through the story of one boxer who literally fought his way to freedom via the state’s prison boxing championships.
The two most successful docus in terms of circuit buzz also might have a chance at a nomination. “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” directed and produced by Aviva Kempner, is a 16mm sports doc that grossed more than $1.7 million in limited release.
The doc tells the story of the Detroit Tigers Jewish first baseman and Hall-of-Famer, who became a national hero despite the anti-Semitism of his era.
Spike Lee’s “The Original Kings of Comedy” captures the raucous acts of funny men Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac. Although standup films are traditionally overlooked by the Academy, it’s hard to ignore the film’s $38 million box office take.
Other Sundance honorees in line for the short list include Marc Singer’s “Dark Days,” a film five years in the making that is an unforgettable chronicle of Manhattan’s homeless living in train tunnels; Aiyana Elliott’s “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack”; and Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s “Paragraph 175.”
Also in the running are Fernando Trueba’s Latin jazz valentine “Calle 54” and “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story,” which chronicles the story of a resistor to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, from director Eric Paul Fournier and producer Dorka Keehn.