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Posted at 3:05 PM ET, 11/19/2010

Oscar-doc snub, er, short list announced

By Ann Hornaday
Eliot Spitzer in "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer." (Magnolia Pictures)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the 15 documentaries that will be eligible for an Oscar nomination next year, and there were some doozies on the list. No surprise that first-rate nonfiction films such as Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job" and Amir Bar-Lev's outstanding film "The Tillman Story" made the cut; ditto Alex Gibney's stellar "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," which beat out Gibney's own "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" for a shot at the little gold man.

But the best news yesterday, at least to this critic, was the inclusion on the list of two little movies that made a big impact this past year: "GasLand," in which first-time filmmaker Josh Fox tackles the environmental and health implications of natural gas drilling, was a hit at DC's Environmental Film Festival when it screened there. Fox has since taken his movie on the road, showing it to communities where the gas industry is trying to acquire natural gas leases, and in some cases dissuading people from signing their rights away. "Exit Through the Gift Shop," by the enigmatic graffiti artist Bansky, took viewers through the darkened alleys of street artists and cultural monkeywrenchers, finally delivering a provocative meditation on the entire notion of artistic authenticity.

A scene from "Gasland."

That's the good news. But as always AMPAS delivered some curious snubs. At a time when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is in the news, Lucy Walker's "Countdown to Zero" seems even more well-crafted and relevant than when it first hit theaters (Walker's "Waste Land," about the artist Vik Muniz, made the cut instead). One of my favorite docs of the year, "Budrus," was inexplicably left off the list; the story of a Palestinian village's nonviolent campaign to stop the Israeli separation barrier from destroying their olive groves was presumably bested by "Precious Life," about a Gaza family's attempt to save their infant son's life at an Israeli hospital. A fine film, but if there was an Arab-Israeli "slot" in the noms, my nod would have gone to "Budrus."

The Schulberg brothers -- Stuart at left, Budd at right -- worked in the same OSS film unit throughout the war and during preparation for the Nuremberg trial. (Schulberg Family Archive/Schulberg Productions)

If we're talking slots, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" may well have taken the place of "Catfish," a sly little portrait of Facebook-era romance that raised similar issues of identity and authenticity. Perhaps most surprising, the Academy's documentary branch--known to favor movies having to do with World War II and the Holocaust--ignored two compelling films of and from that era: "Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today," Sandra Schulberg's restored version of Pare Lorentz's 1946 record of the Nazi trials, and "A Film Unfinished," Yael Hersonski's mesmerizing film composed of a newly retrieved Nazi propaganda film made in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Five nominees will be selected from the short list, and will be announced on Jan. 25, 2011. The Oscars ceremony takes place Feb. 27, 2011.

By Ann Hornaday  | November 19, 2010; 3:05 PM ET
Categories:  Ann Hornaday  
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