The mysterious body that chooses the pool of potential documentary feature nominees for the Oscars every year probably stepped in another flaming bag of poo yesterday with the release of this year’s short list.

The effusive praise heaped upon Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father by critics, bloggers and audiences alike has gone unrewarded.  I don’t know if Up the Yangtze met the obscure eligibility requirements (Young@Heart did not), but I can think of a few fans of that film who will be disappointed as well.

Here’s the list:

At the Death House Door
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
*Encounters at the End of the World
The Garden
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
In a Dream
Made in America
*Man on Wire
*Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Standard Operating Procedure
They Killed Sister Dorothy
*Trouble the Water

I’ve only seen the five films marked with stars, but if Zachary is as good as its reputation, I could easily see I.O.U.S.A and Pray the Devil Back to Hell getting bumped in its favor.

I also would’ve included Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, but I’m pretty sure I’m about the only one.

31 Responses to “Oscar Short List = ‘Zachary’ Lover Shit List”

  1. TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE didn’t make this list because it won the Oscar last year.

  2. (sound of crickets chirping)

    Um…can a whole sentence count as a typo?

  3. Not surprised. Every year the arcane and outdated rules of doc noms mean that at least one deserving film will be overlooked.

    There’s still some great stuff in the mix, but not all the great stuff.

  4. DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER is not only the best documentary of the year, it is also a very strong contender for film of the year in any category, and it may be the most emotionally moving documentary of them all.

    MAN ON WIRE and UP THE YANGTZE are also superlative, and there have been a few others that deserve to be on the short list. But these are definitely THE three in my view.

    The Oscar omission? We no longer care about that, as the category in recent years has become a laughingstock. A nomination is like the Kiss of death.

  5. I woulda included Gonzo too dude.

    Remember all the American Teen chatter? Absolutely disappeared now. And I still have not seen it.

    I will be seeing 4 of those 15 very, very soon.

  6. We are Team Gonzo, Nick.

  7. Haven’t seen Blessed is the Match but Hannah Senesh had a very interesting life. And she was a wonderful poet.

    I’m glad to see Man on Wire on there, and of course Trouble the Water, which I don’t consider the best doc of the year at all but it’s certainly a moving one. I’m glad it got recognition.

    I didn’t see Gonzo so I can’t judge whether it deserved to be here or not. :-)

  8. I would have to say that TROUBLE THE WATER, Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE FAR END OF THE WORLD, and THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANITA O’DAY would be the next three, with THE UNFORESEEN after that.

    I am not the fan of GONZO that Craig and Nick are, but I am in the minority, so it has to be me. Still, I found it fairly good.

  9. The only one of these I’ve seen is Man On Wire, which of course I liked a whole lot less than everybody on the planet. A good number of these I’ve never heard of, but of the rest, Man on Wire’s the only one I’ve heard almost universally praised. From what I’ve read, the others so far have had fairly mixed reviews, with Trouble the Water probably the next highest praised.

    Maybe despite its emotional resonance and compelling story, the more amateur filmmaking behind Zachary was its undoing? The Academy tends to like its docs nice and polished. Or maybe it just didn’t have time for buzz to build enough. So sad.

  10. Jenny Bee, I agree with everything you say (except that I loved MOW) but I must add that the Academy (as you know) is harfly the barometer of artistic excellence. The spectacular and overwhelming reviews from critics who saw DEAR ZACHARY (many of whom left teh theatre in complete tears) and audiences and bloggers have admitted their emotions have rarely if ever been jogged like this, is a far more telling barometer of measurement.

    Movie Zeal’s own Evan Derrick, who was the first in our group to promote this film profusely ,said publicly that he and his wife Kristina “hugged each other in tears” upon the film’s completion.

    After seeing the film myself, I know full well up front how Evan felt.

    But the proof will be in the pudding for you. I would love to hear what you say.

  11. It’s a ridiculous process to get nominated for Best Documentary Feature. There’s a variety of ways Dear Zachary or Young@Heart could have been overlooked, ignored, or disqualified.

  12. Yes, ‘mysterious’ is right, although this isn’t a new development – remember Hoop Dreams not making the cut back in 1994? Same story, different twists.

    I haven’t seen very many of these, but I highly recommend Standard Operating Procedure.

  13. The case for Young@Heart was simple and forordained – it premiered on the BBC last year thus disqualifying it. Not a good rule, but not a nonsensical one either.

    Jeff’s reminder there reinforces Sam’s assertion that the category is largely meaningless and has been for some time. I will say it has improved some since those dark days.

    Alison, you’re welcome to join Team Gonzo with Nick and me, the two coolest guys in the room.

    Jennybee, if you weren’t so darn agreeable and of such good taste, I’d be inclined to strap you down and make you watch MOW until you fall in love with it….but ya are, so I won’t. :)

  14. I’ll ride the pine for Gonzo, how’s that? It will likely make my doc list for the year, but probably not in the top 5 because, well, it was a really good year for docs.

    The Academy did simplify the rules slightly for the 2009 awards, but the process to be nominated remains somewhat arbitrary and complicated. I get why Young@Heart was disqualified for playing on the BBC, but honestly it’s a stupid rule. Just because a feature length film debuts on TV doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of being the Best Doc of the Year according to Oscar. It would still have to get nominated and a theatrical run would be the most obvious qualifier.

    The fact that they have that rule yet docs can literally play a handful of screens for one week in New York and Los Angeles and still be nominated is truly asinine. I’m guessing we’ll agree here, but tell me how the process described in this NYT story makes any more sense?

  15. Joel, if I may ask, which documentary would you say at this point is you top choice? You don’t have to answer, but I’m giving you the bait. I would love to know, as I know you have shown enormous gifts on these threads in analyzing them. You did a great job with the Polanski I do remember.

  16. You’re far, far too kind Sam. My opinion vacillates between Man on Wire, Up the Yangtze, and Young@Heart. Dear Zachary is in there and I’d rate Standard Operating Procedure pretty highly too.

    Of course, that leaves a lot of great contenders like Encounters at the End of the World, Gonzo, and Taxi to the Dark Side, not to mention Bigger, Stronger, Faster and Surfwise.

    And that’s not considering all the docs I missed. Tough year. I’m considering not even trying to number the list this year.

  17. I think Sam brought this up before (or maybe it was Joel), when it comes to year end top 10s, is anyone else considering a separate list for Docs? (maybe it was Daniel…)

  18. Great choices for sure there Joel, couldn’t argue one iota. I have to look again at YOUNG AT HEART, I think I was too hasty with that one; everybody loves it.

    Craig, Daniel did make that suggestion. I’m going to stick with the traditional method, it’s more challenging, if inviting chaos! LOL!

  19. Yep, that was me alright. Two things I became sure of this summer were that 1.) I would continue to separate documentaries and feature films in my year-end lists (this isn’t the first year it’s created problems), and 2.) Man On Wire would run away with the Oscar. Both of these have been confirmed.

    The three most prominent docs that I’ve missed this year so far have been Dear Zachary, Trouble the Water and The Unforeseen, all of which I’m still trying to get my hands on. Also still want to see Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Glass and Made in America were both here and gone for about a week, so I missed them.

    I’m definitely disappointed that Yangtze, American Teen, Bigger Stronger, and maybe most especially Surfwise didn’t get consideration here. I’d have been pissed about Young@Heart if I didn’t learn early on from Craig that it was ineligible. I think SOP and Encounters (and even Death House) made it mostly based on filmmaker reputation alone, which is a little sad. Although I guess that didn’t help Gibney, who’s been nominated twice before. Just goes to show that I’m always right and Gonzo wasn’t that good! Totally kidding. I would have been fine with it in here.

    Otherwise, I celebrate the inclusion of The Betrayal and question the inclusion of At the Death House Door.

  20. Thanks in part to you Daniel, this is the first documentary year I’ve really been able to have an opinion. I still missed a helluva lot though. Ah well, there will be some good DVD watching coming up in the future.

    I’m a little ambivalent about an MoW win even though it’s among my favorite movies of the year. I can’t get beyond the idea that issue oriented docs are more ‘important.’ I think MoW had a lot to say about the human spirit, but…

  21. I think a truly great documentary should stick with you long after its over, should inform you on a subject to a depth beyond just the surface issues, and it should make you question some of your own assumptions about the world or the subject in general.

    In those respects, I think all the documentaries I mentioned accomplished those tasks but for me, Man on Wire featured the best storytelling of them all, which is why its leading my list right now. In fact, I’d argue once again that it was one of the best films of the year, period.

    I’m looking forward to seeing it again on DVD next month, when I can test those assertions with a follow-up viewing.

  22. Great definition, Joel. I definitely agree and that’s why the omissions of those I already mentioned are particularly distasteful. Maybe with the exception of American Teen, which was the most “entertaining” of the bunch (though I still think it was unfairly misaligned with accusations that it was staged).

    For me, Man on Wire was more impressive than impressing, if that makes sense. I know it reached some people, Craig included, on a serious emotional level. But I was more floored IN the theater than I was when I left the theater, compared to Young@Heart, Surfwise, Yangtze and The Betrayal. Doesn’t mean I don’t think MoW is an excellent film, just that I don’t think it met the documentary definition you pose, Joel, BETTER than some other ones.

  23. Both of these submissions by Joel and Daniel were extraordinary in every sense.

  24. Yeah, Daniel, I wonder if MoW will WOW me on a second viewing, but it definitely stuck with me since I saw it. Part of that is simply from a creative view, where I found personal inspiration in Petit’s obsession and the effect it had on his life. Part of it is that I saw something transformative in what Petit actually did; he changed my perception of what the World Trade Center towers represent.

    Still, I could probably find similar points to make about the other docs on everyone’s short list. Did I mention it’s been a pretty good year for feature non-fiction?

  25. I still get caught up with MoW how the event still impacts the participants all these years later.

    And along the lines of what you’re saying Joel, the doc didn’t so much transform my perception of what the towers represent, but what Petit was sort of saying about their meaning and his playful (and peaceful) way of getting his point across really moved me. He didn’t just transform my perception, I think in a way he literally altered their meaning….if that makes any sense.

  26. You said it better than I.

  27. Interesting, Joel – where you and most others found inspiration in Petit’s obsession, I almost found desperation, as if he wouldn’t know what he was living for if not for the wire.

    Now of course you could say that’s the whole point of the movie – that he has discovered another level of existence “above” all of us, but for some reason that didn’t fully resonate with me, especially when I saw so many of his relationships fall off the wire (as it were) at the end.

    The towers themselves were certainly a masterful centerpiece of the film, though, both in the archival footage and reenactments. I never got the opportunity to enter them, but I remember looking up at them when they were standing and craning my neck to try to see the top. I can’t imagine what a sight it would have been to see someone up there. I think the loss of the towers really hit me when we see the inscription on the roof beams at the end of MoW. I thought how cool that that memory of the feat would…still be there. Gut punch.

  28. Daniel, I found inspiration in that Petit saw the towers and he just knew what he had to do, even though it was totally absurd. But he did it anyway even though it consumed his life, altering him forever afterwards. I didn’t necessarily see him as having discovered another level of existence or being above us (although literally he was for about 45 minutes), but I did see the act itself as being poetic and fleetingly beautiful.

    I found that inspiring too.

    There was definitely desperation in his quest, but I could sympathize with that to some extent. I think when one is inspired towards, or more accurately obsessed with, achieving a certain goal their passion for it can become desperate and self-destructive. But the path to getting there, successful or not, is usually the important part. I found Petit’s dedication and single-mindedness extraordinary.

    I was sad and disappointed to hear that accomplishing Petit’s goal had some negative effects but I found it interesting that those who helped and supported him on his quest held no malice toward him afterwards. They seemed to have drawn as much from it in their own way as Petit did, because they all shared in creating that moment. That was inspiring too.

    I never saw the towers in person, but Craig and I both visited the reconstruction site a year after their demise. Their absence, the physical space they left behind, made me appreciate the enormity of their loss to the city.

  29. “I think when one is inspired towards, or more accurately obsessed with, achieving a certain goal their passion for it can become desperate and self-destructive.”

    Kind of like blogging! Just kidding…

    No, I agree that both the beauty of the act and the dogged determination demonstrated by Petit made the heart leap. I think I just lost some of the luster of the inspiration with the aftermath of the celebration. His accomplices didn’t appear to hold any malice, but would you agree that they were disappointed in the path all of their relationships took? Call it longing for the good old days or just feeling used, but if I remember correctly, at least one of them was crying as he recalled his relationship with Petit. Maybe I’m misinterpreting that emotion. Either way, they’re all clearly proud to have been a part of it. I wonder how Petit’s book is – the one on which MoW is partly based. That probably sheds light on the man himself more than the movie did.

    I’ve made it a point to visit Ground Zero everytime I’ve gone to NYC in the years since 9/11. My first post-visit was May of ’02 (when the rubble was still smoking) and my last was May of ’05, I believe. It seemed like the site never changed during any of my visits during those three years. Almost as if the collective consciousness of the city couldn’t recover that space, or didn’t want to. By now I’m pretty sure it’s just become a construction/contractor fiasco. Just goes to show what a massive effect the loss had.

  30. I’m a movie reviewer for — the website of the NBC television affiliate — here in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been reviewing movies since 1971 for radio stations in Miami, Boston and also more recently, here in the Pacific Northwest.

    I happened to see “Dear Zachary” on MSNBC last night while my husband was repairing my computer. “Dear Zachary” is one of the most moving films I have ever seen in my decades-long career. It’s 93 minutes of heart racing, fear-inducing, sadness creating film. Kudos to Kurt K. for telling this amazing story.

    Wish I had something to say about the 2008 Oscar race. “Dear Zachary” would be the odds-on winner in the category.


    Ellen Kimball

  31. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts Ellen. There’s another very interesting Zachary conversation going on in the Watercooler here if you’re interested:

    It’s a movie that seems to have moved people emotionally like few have in recent years.

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