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Sorting through the Oscar documentary nominees

Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas Images/Sony Pictures Classics

Sorry, Roger.

Last month in a fit of hubris I predicted the five Oscar nominees from the 15 on the short list announced on Dec. 2. Then I had the temerity to pick “Life Itself,” Steve James’s moving portrait of the late Roger Ebert, documenting his life and recording his courageous last days, as the final winner.

The nominees were announced Thursday.

“Life Itself” didn’t even get nominated. Neither did two of my other choices, “The Overnighters” and “Citizen Koch.”

I correctly chose “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s story about Edward Snowden, famed leaker of classified files. And “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s account of the efforts to save South Vietnamese allies as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975.


These films distinguish themselves for two reasons. Both involve controversial political topics and both are directed by women — two factors that have been liabilities when it comes to winning.

Though they have done better than their feature-film directorial colleagues (only one female winner – Kathryn Bigelow — ever), the documentary branch’s choices have reflected its two-thirds male membership.

As for films dealing with controversial topics, in the past few years several have been nominated, but the Oscar has usually gone to an upbeat film on a “soft” subject, films like “Undefeated” in 2011, “Searching for Sugar Man” in 2012, and “20 Feet From Stardom” in 2013.

Nonetheless, Poitras’s “Citizenfour” has swept almost every critics award and it would be unwise to bet against it. A couple of recent developments, however, suggest that its fortunes may be changing.

First, the terrorist attacks in Paris might make voters less amenable to a film that argues against methods purportedly intended to protect us, however secretive and intrusive to privacy. Second, the snubbing of Ava DuVernay in the best director category for “Selma” suggests that the Academy is not excited about political films by women.


What remains? Orlando von Einsiedel’s “Virunga,” about the plight of mountain gorillas facing extinction in the Congo. Perhaps if von Einsiedel had focused on the simians and scenery instead of delving into corporate exploitation and bloody civil war, the film would have a better chance.

Which leaves two films about pretty pictures. They are much more than that, but being photogenic won’t hurt the chances of Wim Wenders’s “The Salt of the Earth,” about the legendary photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, and John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivian Maier,” about the discovery of thousands of stunning photographs by the unknown artist of the title.

Wenders’s film loses points for straying into politics. And “Vivian Maier” might not be by a woman, but at least is about one — so there.

My pick for the best documentary Oscar, then, is “Finding Vivian Maier.”

All will be revealed on Oscar night, Feb. 22. Until then I will be preparing rationalizations for my folly.