New rules rock Oscar doc race

Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview

AMPAS’ documentary rule change has caused many to ponder if it will alter how the race is won. How will campaigning be affected now that the entire academy can vote for the winner? Will this prove to be a disadvantage for either smaller, self-released pics or big crowd-pleasers? Nobody knows, but one thing is certain: This year’s releases feature an eclectic array of nonfiction films, pics that explore a variety of subjects including politics in the Middle East, a French conman, the U.S economy, an 85-year-old sushi chef and American policy.

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (“The Law in These Parts”) Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi (“5 Broken Cameras”), Dan Setton (“State 194”) and Dror Moreh (“The Gatekeepers”) each brought their own distinct approach to the politics of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

“Clearly, there is a growing dialogue and urgency around the issues in the Middle East that reflects its looming importance in world affairs,” says Thom Powers, Toronto Intl. Film Festival doc programmer.

Both “Law,” a dissection of Israel’s 43-year military legal system in the Palestinian Territories, and “5 Broken Cameras,” about a Palestinian village’s opposition to the building of Israeli settlements, made their international premieres at Sundance in January. Nine months later, TIFF screened “State 194,” about Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad’s efforts to have the territories recognized by the United Nations as an independent state, and “The Gatekeepers,” a series of candid interviews with six former heads of Israel’s domestic secret service agency, the Shin Bet.

Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy, Michael Barker says acquiring North American rights to “Gatekeepers” back in July was a no-brainer.

Distrib also picked up music doc “Searching for Sugar Man,” about singer-guitarist Rodriguez, who became an inspiration in the anti-apartheid movement, and Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis,” which chronicles the new investigation surrounding the notorious West Memphis Three murder case.

Berg and “Memphis” producer Peter Jackson weren’t the only filmmakers who took a hard-edged look at the American justice system. Ken Burns along with his co-directors, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, analyze the 1989 Central Park Jogger case and the five minority teens convicted and eventually exonerated in “The Central Park Five.”

Numerous topical docs captivated festival audiences throughout the year including Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s examination of Detroit and the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing base, in “Detropia”; Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” about the abuse of power in the Catholic Church; Lee Hirsch’s look at the lives of five victims of bullying and their families, in “Bully”; David France’s “How to Survive a Plague,” about Act Up and other AIDS activists; Peter Nicks’ investigation into health care and emergency room suffering in “The Waiting Room”; Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War,” an exploration of rape and sexual assault in the American military; and Eugene Jarecki’s doc about America’s war on drugs, in “The House I Live In.”

“In recent years documentaries have gained such distinction in quality,” Barker says. “One of the reasons for that has to do with global turmoil. Whether it’s domestic issues, the global economy, etc., filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to delve really deeply into those volatile issues that seem to be in the news everyday.”

While social issue films were abundant this year, Magnolia Pictures’ and Indomina Releasing were responsible for exposing auds to character-driven crowd-pleasers such as David Gelb’s “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles,” along with Bart Layton’s “The Imposter.”

Not your standard-doc fare, “Jiro,” “Versailles,” “Imposter” as well as SPC’s “Sugar Man” have captured mass aud attention and significant word-of-mouth. (In October CBS’ “60 Minutes” ran a segment on “Sugar Man.”) With the entire doc branch now allowed to vote for this year’s shortlist and the whole Academy voting for the winning documentary , it is anybody’s guess what will happen to the category that normally eschews commercially appealing docus in favor of niche fare.

Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview
New rules rock Oscar doc race | Women are the gatekeepers to doc world | Academy’s doc rules keep changing

Popular on Variety

More Scene

  • Debra-Messing-Donald-Trump

    Debra Messing Lampoons Donald Trump in Play Based on Mueller Report

    Debra Messing portrayed President Donald Trump in an all-star play based on the Mueller report on Monday at Beverly Hills’ Saban Theatre. Wearing a light pant suit and sitting with legs spread confidently, Messing nailed Trump’s mannerisms in the one-night-only play, “You Can’t Make This Sh*t Up,” which raised funds for a Barbara Boxer-led PAC [...]

  • Kathryn Hahn Mrs. Fletcher

    Kathryn Hahn Talks Working With an Intimacy Coordinator on 'Mrs. Fletcher'

    HBO’s new comedy “Mrs. Fletcher” follows the journey of an empty-nester divorcee who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and sexual exploration following her son’s departure for college. At the series premiere on Monday night at the Avalon Hollywood in Los Angeles, Kathryn Hahn discussed playing the titular role of Eve Fletcher, a middle-aged woman [...]

  • Taika Waititi Natalie Portman SDCC 2019

    Natalie Portman Weighs in on 'Thor: Love and Thunder's' Possible Breast Cancer Storyline

    Natalie Portman doesn’t know if “Thor: Love and Thunder” will include a breast cancer storyline for her character Jane Foster, but she’s definitely intrigued by the possibility. “It’s just very rare that these kinds of big entertainment films look at more serious, real-life issues,” she told Variety at L.A. Dance Project’s 8th annual fundraising gala [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Recalls Husband Blake Edwards' Battle With Depression

    The line to see Julie Andrews at the 92nd Street Y wrapped around the square of a sprawling New York City block. Seventy years since the start of her career, 60 since she asked “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” as Lerner and Loewe’s first Eliza and 50 since she sang “The Sound of Music” before the [...]

  • Bombshell Charlize Theron Megyn Kelly

    'Bombshell': Why Charlize Theron Was Terrified of Playing Megyn Kelly

    Charlize Theron is getting some of the best buzz of her career for channeling Megyn Kelly in “Bombshell,” but the Oscar-winning actress admits she almost turned down the role. “I was shit scared,” Theron said during a question-and-answer session following a Manhattan screening of “Bombshell” on Sunday. Partly, she was worried about portraying someone who [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content