Features and Columns

Talking Heads: Nominating a Documentary For Best Picture

By  · Published on February 4th, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as THEFANFROMLONDON and DinoDNA007 in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the two tackle the fact that no documentary has ever been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Why all the hate, AMPAS? Sure, it has its own category, but that doesn’t deny it entry into the big game. Is there an internal bias against non-fiction? Should Jackass 3 been facing off against The Social Network?

Will we see a documentary nominated for Best Picture in our lifetime?

Landon: So 2009 was a banner year for really solid animated movies. From Fantastic Mr. Fox to Up, we saw a lot of really great movies in that form, and opening up the Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 created a place where animated films can be recognized for their greatness outside their own category. Now, where 2009 was the year of the great animated film I see 2010 as a year of great documentaries. So why haven’t we seen a non-fiction Best Picture nominee, and will we ever?

Answer in 5 words or less.

Cole: Old habits die hard. Maybe.

That’s two answers for two questions.

Landon: Good work! now the rest is multiple choice…

Cole: I choose A for all of them.

But to flesh out my first answer a little – Best Doc isn’t some newcomer like Best Animated Feature. The Best Doc Oscar has been around since the 1940s. Plus, it would take a monumentally popular, critically acclaimed documentary to end up on the list of ten.

Landon: It’s true, such a nomination would happen only because of commercial acclaim, critical acclaim, and a type of film that challenges the “line” between feature and doc. But opening the Best Picture field up to 10 has something of an intriguing result in that I fail to see a basis for comparison between all the nominees. On what basis does one compare The Kids Are All Right and Toy Story 3? The only similarity is the presence of actors.

This is a roundabout way of saying I think there’s an idea that a “best picture” is a best fiction picture and that the format and assumptions behind it won’t allow a breach for change.

Cole: But they might. There are major structural differences between animated and live-action films, but we’ve seen a few break the ranks (and probably will see one every year now that there are ten nominees).

I think, since they are tied together, the real question should be whether we’ll see a doc that has a major impact. Just by choosing documentaries as our subject, we’ve ensured that no one will be reading this.

But, if there had been ten nominees back in the 90s, it seems likely that Hoop Dreams might have broken through.

Landon: First off, I like the assumption that people read this when we don’t talk about docs. Secondly, while docs rarely break the audience mold, they have a much bigger role in filmgoing than they did…well, maybe not since the 40s where WWII docs were being honored, but at least since the war.

Cole: Oh yeah? Prove it.

Landon: Well first off, they’re making more money than they did in the 80s or 90s. But more importantly, the personalities of documentarians have become more prominent, raising them to an auteur level. Not just Michael Moore, but people like Eugene Jarecki, Amir Bar-Lev, Alex Gibney, and, of course, Errol Morris.

Cole: Who, I just learned, is not Zack Morris’s dad. Because Zack Morris is a television character.

Landon: I think it was a Being John Malkovich type-thing tho. It was a fictionalized Errol father character who wasn’t present because he had to film a Lou Diamond Philips movie.

Cole: Being John Malkovich – now there’s a documentary I can get behind for Best Picture.

So, they’re gaining in some ways, but Fast Cheap and Out of Control was miles away from being nominated.

Landon: That’s true, but Errol Morris did change the face of documentaries in a way that’s benefited them greatly, and I really do think docs are more cinematic in a way. Standard Operating Procedure and Inside Job, for instance, had a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. That’s the one used for Lawrence of Arabia. And if we’re going to argue dollars, there’s not much of a difference between the gross of Winter’s Bone and many docs released this year.

Cole: All salient points. So it might just be an ingrained separation in the minds of the voters. I wish we could see the ballots to check if any docs got a significant amount of nomination votes.

Landon: Heck, a few of the acting nominations (i.e., Rabbit Hole) were for movies that made less money than Inside Job or Exit Through the Gift Shop

Cole: (But we all know Exit Through the Gift Shop split its votes between Best Doc and Best Probably Fictional Movie.)

Well, it’s difficult to psycho-analyze thousands of voters, so I’ll do it anyway. Best Animated Feature was added to bring some more popular movies into the fold, but Best Doc has existed for more than half a century, and the idea of voting for a non-fiction film for Best Picture probably doesn’t even cross the mind of most voters.

Landon: It’s true, and while nobody is going to open the category to docs to bring in more viewers, and while it would have to be a transformative doc to even be considered, it seems the stigma is most prevalent because of a perceived distinction between a “documentary” and a “movie.”

This distinction, by the way, rarely exists amongst many critics who put fiction and non-fiction films in their Top 10 lists.

Cole: Well, that’s just bad branding. But I can’t disagree with you.

Here’s a radical question: do you think that there’s also a lack of knowledge about the process of documentary making even amongst those who make a living creating fictional films?

Landon: In psychoanalyzing a body of individuals that I don’t know, I’d say maybe. And I’d say a lot of people both inside and outside of filmmaking think it’s “easier” than the alternative – a point-and-shoot kind of thing

Cole: Except people who have been production assistants on documentary shoots.

Landon: True. As somebody who has been a PA, do you think this is the case?

Cole: I ran into a few production staff members that scoffed at the idea of hard work on a doc, but I can’t think it’s that prevalent. But you brought up a really good point that ties into my other unarguably great point:

Although the Best Doc category has been around for a long time, and there have been some fantastic docs, we are really only starting to see the potential that they have. People are just now beginning to see documentaries in a new light – especially with the level of creativity and showmanship and storytelling going on in them now.

Landon: Yes, and my/our complaint about a category with 10 entries not fitting in docs potentially overlooks the more important point that great docs are being made and that people are seeing them in theaters

I think the idea that a documentary should be “objective” and thus dry is going away as well. They’ve become forms of personal expression, and they’re very entertaining.

Cole: Exactly. While it’s pleasingly possible to see a Doc nominated for Best Movie No Matter Fictional or Not within the next ten years, it’s much, much cooler that we get to see so many high caliber documentaries.

Now if I can only figure out whether I’m secretly Banksy, I’ll be totally happy.

Landon: First of all, you do a very good fake American accent, and I love your work.

Cole: Thanks.

Landon: Secondly, while I really don’t care about the Oscars, one thing I think is valuable is the space allowed for smaller films to be recognized. For example, Gas Land, a movie some guy made about gas-infected water in his neighborhood and a movie that made only $30,000, got an Oscar nomination. That, I think, is cool and nearly redeems the Oscar’s otherwise meaningless spectacle.

Cole: Gas-infected water actually might explain some of their nominations and winners over the years.

Landon: To champion non-fiction filmmaking is often to champion independent filmmaking, so that’s why I think seeing a non-fiction Best Picture nominee would be really cool. That, and an openly atheist president. But I guess we can always dream.

That’s probably a weird note to attempt to end on, but…yeah

Cole: There goes our stellar track-record of ending non-awkwardly.

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