Hell and Back Again, directed by Danfung Dennis
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Movement, Marshall Curry
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Pina, Wim Wenders
Undefeated, T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay
Somebody should run a competing Salon des Refusés for this category; it would contain a far more impressive body of work than the Academy chose. In the year-end critics’ polls, the following movies were voted Best Non-Fiction Film (or Documentary): Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (8 wins) and James Marsh’s Project Nim (seven), plus Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Page One: Inside The New York Times, Senna and Errol Morris’s Tabloid (two wins each). Only one of these, Project Nim, was shortlisted for the Doc Academy Award, and that didn’t get niminated — I mean, nominated — though Marsh’s previous non-fiction film, Man on Wire, was the Oscar Doc winner three years ago. Nor did another acclaimed piece of movie journalism, The Interrupters, whose director, Steve James, was similarly stiffed back in 1995, when the Academy committee ignored his Hoop Dreams. It might seem that the highest praise a documentary can attain is to be left off the Oscar list.
None of this means to attack the bona fides of the five films that were nominated. They’re worthy, often inspirational entries, though one or two have the obligatory air of a collection plate passed around during Sunday services.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Movement virtually dares its audience to take sides, as the tree-hugging ELFs go radical and torch properties belonging to logging firms. Hell and Back Again details the post-Afghanistan life of Sgt. Nathan Harris; it might be a sequel to Restrepo, the war doc by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that was Oscar-nominated last year, and it covers some of the same post-traumatic-stress issues as Patricia Foulkrod’s searing 2006 doc The Ground Truth. Call Hell and Back Again the Academy’s equivalent of a modest, side-street parade for the troops returning from our West Asian engagements.
Berlinger and Sinofsky may deserve their own parade, and possibly a Pulitzer. Their three Paradise Lost films, spanning 18 years of crusading journalism, have investigated the crimes alleged of a trio of youths — the West Memphis Three — who had been convicted of murdering three other boys on what proved to be severely flawed evidence. The third film detailed the new DNA tests that last August allowed the three men to walk free, but as “rightfully convicted” felons. As Berlinger cogently observes, they are still in Purgatory. Made for HBO, the trilogy may be more suitable for an Emmy than an Oscar; but if the nomination attracts more viewers to the Paradise Lost docs, that will be one conspicuous good dead.
A few miles from West Memphis is North Memphis, home of the Manassas Tigers, a high-school football team with some troubled players and a charismatic volunteer coach, Bill Courtney. That the coach is white and the players black will cue viewers to similarities between Undefeated and the Hollywood tearjerker The Blind Side, in which Memphis mom Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) adopted a homeless black teen and propelled him to high-school, college and eventually NFL stardom. The feel-good, do-gooder Undefeated — not to be eve remotely confused with another eligible doc, the Sarah Palin hagiography The Undefeated — is being touted as a fast finisher in this category. A win for this doc would prove only that the committee was exhausted watching tales of death and injustice, and needed a quick fix of happy.
Or the voters could go for artistic ecstasy: that’s the mood on display in Wim Wenders’ Pina, a posthumous tribute to the German choreographer Pina Bausch. The Doc slot is so heavily weighted toward heavyweight political themes with underclass heroes that the rarefied Pina might seem a long shot. Historically, though, the Academy has been receptive to performer profiles, handing out Doc Oscars to films about musicians Arthur Rubinstein (1970), Isaac Stern (1981) and Artie Shaw (1987), dancer Jacques D’Amboise (He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, 1984), chorus members at the San Francisco Opera Company (In the Shadow of the Stars, 1992) and that consummate showman-athlete Muhammad Ali (When We Were Kings, 1997). In 1971 the members also honored Woodstock, one of the few Oscar-laureled music docs to become a popular hit.
Pina (which was also submitted but not nominated as Best Foreign Language Feature) isn’t close to the Woodstock box-office empyrean: it has yet to play in as many as 100 theaters or earn as much as $3 million. The film could easily lose the Oscar to Undefeated or Paradise Lost 3; this race is wide open. But it’s finely made and the most enchanting of the lot. Don’t trust us, but we pick Pina.