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Oscar documentaries on docket

Voters weigh films on dolphins, migrants, food

‘THE COVE’
Endangered dolphins in Japan find their savior
Why it’ll win: Eco-activist pic, about “Flipper” trainer-turned-marine crusader Richard O’Barry and his efforts to end dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, has already won nearly every critics’ prize leading up to the Oscars including the Los Angeles Film Critics, the National Board of Review and the Critics’ Choice kudos, not to mention the multiple audience awards it’s garnered at fests, including Sundance and Silverdocs.
Maybe not: A few critics complain that the film is too subjective and doesn’t give all the facts. Pic is helmer Louie Psihoyos’ first film, making him the greenest of the five nommed directors.

‘THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS’
How an insider revealed secrets of the Vietnam War
Why it’ll win: Though it hasn’t taken home much in the way of awards-season hardware, pic about Ellsberg — former Pentagon official and Vietnam War planner — and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971 is this year’s standout political doc. It successfully illuminates a period with many parallels to today’s war debate.
Maybe not: Not only are political activists less sympathetic than dolphins, there’s also no question whose side directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith take. Additionally, some crix think pic’s Errol Morris-style re-enactments ultimately distract from the story.

‘FOOD, INC’
Box office success is a look behind the scenes of huge American industry
Why it’ll win: Pic, an investigation into America’s food industry, is the most viewed of the nominees. Earning more than $4 million in domestic B.O., pic is one of the highest-grossing docs of the year alongside Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” and Disneynature’s “Earth.” Docu is also a favorite at industry kudofests — pic won a Gotham Award and was nominated for the IDA and Spirit awards.
Maybe not: Films tackling industrialized agriculture are nothing new. Deborah Koons’ “The Future of Food” (2004) and Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation” (2006) both explored the issue, which might be too controversial for the Academy.

‘WHICH WAY HOME’
Kids travel through Mexico for a better life in the U.S.
Why it’ll win: Though not as widely seen as some of the other pics in this category, this film about a child migrant’s journey through Mexico en route to the U.S. focuses on a subject that tends to pull at Academy members’ heartstrings — underprivileged kids trying to better their lives.
Maybe not: Overall subject matter and some footage might be a bit too downbeat and rough to provide the “uplifting” component that the Academy favors, especially in the doc category.

‘BURMA VJ’
Covert layman journos profile a military dictatorship
Why it’ll win: The pic profiles a group of underground citizen journalists, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), who secretly filmed the uprising against the military dictatorship in Burma in September 2007. Auds are offered insight into a troubled country and its repressive regime that has not been seen in the mainstream press.
Maybe not: Some scenes involving pic’s narrator, DVB member “Joshua,” talking on the phone to other reporters or getting video footage uploaded, were scripted and staged by helmer Anders Ostergaard, which might undermine doc’s status as a journalistic document of fact.

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