Oscar Breakdown: Best Documentary Feature

By  · Published on February 25th, 2011

While we may not see a non-fiction film nominated for Best Picture anytime soon, the Best Documentary Feature has for many risen from a minor category rarely given its due attention to a battleground for some of the most important movies in a given year. 2010 was no exception, and in this year and in this category there are an impressive collection of docs addressing a variety of subjects in unique ways that truly exemplify the personalities of the filmmakers behind them. If no other year has convinced you the documentary is a great art form, this one should.

But perhaps more significantly, this year exhibits such a variety of films that it throws the simplistic notion that a documentary should occupy one single mode of address out the window: here we have ambitious and stylish massive doc about a very complex subject, an intimate biographical advocacy piece, some on-the-ground investigative journalism, some trash art, and that film everyone’s been talking about all year that puts the entire notion of artistic truth into question. Only one of these films will take home the gold at the end of the night, but I’ll be damned if they’re not all impressive pieces of non-fiction filmmaking.

And the nominees (with my prediction in red) are…

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Probably the most buzzed about non-fiction film of the year, at least in this corner of the blogosphere, Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz’s “guerrilla art” film was one of the most entertaining and intelligently intriguing films of the year. There have been many interesting documentaries to emerge in the past few years dealing with the subject of truth in art (like My Kid Could Paint That, but Gift Shop’s legacy really owes itself to Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1972)), but Gift Shop is different in that it actually playfully performs its ideas about art and authenticity, mirroring form with content and blurring the lines of authorship and intent throughout.

Is it real? Is it fake? Was Mr. Brainwash a device used by Banksy and other street artists to comment on their own inevitable “sell-outs,” or is he simply an inevitable but autonomous post-post-modern appropriator of their aesthetics? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I do know that Gift Shop is one of the most interesting and entertaining docs to come out in a long time.

Why It Might Win

In 1988, Errol Morris’s film The Thin Blue Line didn’t receive a nomination because Academy voters didn’t think it’s heavy style and deliberate uncovering of information qualified it as a documentary. That Gift Shop got a nomination is evidence of how far we’ve come in understanding that sometimes more interesting ideas can be revealed by not exploring subjects with a dry “objective” eye. This film has a ton of support behind it, and a win here would not only celebrate great documentary filmmaking that is simultaneously very entertaining, but also provide a chance to own up to the fact that a documentary is an art form with many possibilities of approach (like any art form).

Why It Might Not Win

Despite the love for this film elsewhere, the fact that it was even nominated is a surprise exactly because it doesn’t follow the Academy’s historical standard for the category. Older, more traditional voters might opt for a more topical political documentary (like Inside Job) and might be turned off by the unconventionality of this film. In this case, a nomination might have to suffice as a victory all its own.


Known typically in shorthand as the film about the people whose water catches on fire, Gasland not only represents good investigative journalism but also great independent filmmaking. A film in which the experience of the filmmaker is inseparable from the topic covered (director Josh Fox was inspired to make the film seemingly out of curiosity alone after receiving a monetary offer by an oil company to get permission to dig into the ground of his family’s land), Gasland is an intimate study about injustice done toward everyday Americans who don’t have a voice against corrupt and irresponsible but impenetrable big business.

A truly earnest and heartfelt piece of filmmaking, Gasland almost entirely avoids the point-and-shoot interview technique in favor of simply letting the people who have been most affected by these companies have a voice. Without pretense, it shows a global problem on an intimate local scale.

Why It Might Win

Gasland is certainly the most modest of the bunch, and because Fox is a first-time filmmaker you get a sense of an urgent desire for justice that emanates throughout the work. This film exists for Fox because it has to. This tiny doc that could really exemplifies the importance of the medium as giving a means for activism and to represent the underrepresented.

Why It Might Not Win

Gasland is one of the smaller entries on this list in terms of its relationship to audiences. While it did get a screening on cable, it made far less in theaters than any of these other films. There simply might be a sense that this isn’t the most important of the five. Also, Fox’s filmmaking style is occasionally rough around the edges here as he is a first-time filmmaker.

Inside Job

Charles Ferguson’s nearly comprehensive look at the recent financial crisis is a huge accomplishment if for no other reason that he manages to distill a situation so complex that even many economists don’t understand it and make it presentable and accessible to a layman audience in a 2-hour running time (and Matt Damon narrates – national treasure alert!).

This documentary should by all means feel overstuffed and chaotic, but instead it’s a well-organized, engaging, straightforward, and balanced (the Obama administration is implicated for the same special interests of previous administrations) look at what caused the crash. There’s a wonderful appeal to justice behind the camera as Ferguson himself isn’t afraid to ask his subject difficult questions, and at least that provides some catharsis. Perhaps my favorite moments of the film are when it engages in arguments you don’t find elsewhere, like the Ivy League’s role rooted firmly in the pocket of Wall Street as academic economists refuse to be transparent over conflicts of interest.

Why It Might Win

Ferguson was nominated in 2007 for No End in Sight and many feel like it should have gone to him that year, so the feeling that he deserves an award is emboldened. Inside Job is the highest-grossing doc on this list, one of the most celebrated films of the year, and its subject matter makes it come across as the topically “most important” five in the category, which is typically where this award goes. Also, it’s a damn good movie and deserves to be the frontrunner. And this is coming from somebody who ranked Gift Shop as his #1 movie of the year.

Why It Might Not Win

Restrepo or Gift Shop do have a chance at the win, and it’s a difficult call because they’re all strong, rightfully celebrated films. But my money goes to Inside Job.


Directed by American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, Restrepo is, you guessed it, a work of on-the-ground journalism. The film is a record of their assignment with a platoon in one of the most war-torn parts of Afghanistan. It’s a refreshingly stripped-down documentary that focuses exclusively on footage of the soldiers in the shit and subsequent interviews where they candidly speak about the experience.

There’s no guiding hand here: no news footage, not even narration. The stories of fighting on the ground in a dangerous war compose the film’s only interests, and as such Restrepo is a humble and refreshingly straightforward take on the situation, simply allowing those fighting the war to speak on behalf of themselves.

Why It Might Win

While there have been a lot of documentaries in the last few years covering issues and stories surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, admittedly few have been as candid as this. Not only is this great journalism, but it’s a kind of in-the-moment documentary filmmaking we haven’t seen since the heyday of Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. The subject here truly speaks for itself, and it’s a profoundly affecting experience that shows better than any documentary made the day-to-day of being an American soldier in Afghanistan.

Why It Might Not Win

There have been so many documentaries about this subject, some of which have won this award in years past. While there are many stories left to explore about these wars in the non-fiction format, it’s likely that the Academy will lean towards a subject of topical currency that hasn’t had such a degree of exposure in this category (i.e., Inside Job).

Waste Land

Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley’s Waste Land is something of a perfect combo pack for this category as it encapsulates two recent trends addressed through recent documentary filmmaking at large: environmental advocacy and art. Focusing on a two-year art project in Rio de Janeiro, the film covers artist Vik Muniz’s use of junk materials from the Jardim Gramacho landfills to make large-scale works of art. The film gives particular focus on the lives of the full-time garbage pickers at the landfill. As if combining Gasland’s advocacy and intent to represent the underrepresented and Gift Shop’s focus on a particular area of the art world, Waste Land is an interesting film about a unique form of recycling.

Why It Might Win

Waste Land is a combination of two documentary subgenres that are popular right now, and between the directing by Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground) and the producing by Fernando Meirelles, the film certainly has some credibility behind the camera that suggests it’s a serious competitor.

Why It Might Not Win

Waste Land was probably the biggest genuine surprise of the category, taking the expected “place” of a variety of more front-and-center docs that one would typically expect to make it into this category (Waiting for “Superman”, The Tillman Story, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, or even Catfish). Most of the other nominees in this category simply overshadow Waste Land, and the film’s buzz isn’t being helped by some recent rumors questioning the extent of Walker’s actual involvement in the film.

Who do you want to win?

Check out our predictions for:

Best Director

Best Adapted Screenplay

Cole’s $100,000 Oscar Predictions

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actor

Best Original Score

Best Animated Feature

Best Lead Actor

Best Lead Actress

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