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The Power of Documentaries on the Oscar Trail

It’s way too easy to feel jaded about Oscar season. The forced pomp, the moneyed campaigns, the boggling repetition of dozens of awards fetes could jaundice any eye. But it’s tougher to be cynical about the documentary category, where an Oscar nomination, let alone a win, can have mighty ripple effects.

For years, the Academy’s documentary choices had been denounced for what the critic Owen Gleiberman described as a “self-defeating aesthetic of granola documentary correctness.

But is there a chance that things have since swung too far the other way? In 2012, the Academy changed its rules and began requiring that only documentaries that had been reviewed in The Los Angeles Times or The New York Times would be eligible for Oscar nominations, a decision that kept more obscure films out of the race. And in 2013, the documentary race was broadened to allow every member of theAcademy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — not just those in the documentary branch — to vote for the final winner. Michael Lumpkin, director of the American Film Institute’s documentary festival, said the shifts underscored the more prominent role that documentaries play in our culture’s media consumption. Michael Moore, who led the move for the changes, says they also democratized the process.

The new rules also might have affected what makes the shortlist and what, in the end, wins.

Still, the Academy is known to favor show business movies and, lo, two of the last three winners of the documentary prize, along with one of this year’s front-runners, “Amy,” the story of Amy Winehouse, are about just that.

This year, three of the 15 shortlisted films are about show-business personalities. Compare that with the shortlists from the five years before the initial rule change: Out of the 75 selected documentaries, there were just six about showbiz.

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