What is the best documentary of the year?
It all depends on whom you ask.
At Monday night’s Gotham Awards, a jury of distinguished filmmakers, including Steve James and Rachel Grady, determined that The Act of Killing was the year’s best, beating out The Crash Reel, First Cousin Once Removed, Let the Fire Burn, and Our Nixon. At next month’s International Documentary Association’s awards, other contenders will emerge: Blackfish, The Square and Stories We Tell. At January’s Cinema Eye Honors, After Tiller, Cutie and the Boxer and Leviathan will be in the mix. For the Independent Spirit Awards on March 1, add 20 Feet From Stardom and Gideon’s Army. And this year’s 15-film Oscar shortlist swells the ranks to include The Armstrong Lie, Dirty Wars, God Loves Uganda, Life According to Sam, Pussy Riot, Tim’s Vermeer and Which is Way is the Frontline from Here?
Without a doubt, it’s an impressive collection of films. But to what degree are these awards merely popularity contests, subject to the whims of clever marketing and box-office performance? Do the best films really rise to the top, or just the ones with the most momentum and the most fans?
For many documentary awards races, promotion, popularity and strategy thankfully don’t play a huge role. How else to account for The Act of Killing’s Gotham victory, for instance? The film has been seen by far fewer people than many of its competitors; despite lots of critical support, it earned less than half a million dollars at the box office. Likewise, previous best doc winners at the juried Gotham Awards have been lower-profile titles: How to Survive a Plague (2012), Better This World (2011), and The Oath (2010).
At the Oscars, on the other hand, as we all know from award-season stories, particularly those involving Harvey Weinstein’s antics (Best Picture winner The Artist!?), vote tallying is rarely a useful way to objectively determine excellence. Even within the documentary category, ticket sales and gold statuettes often go hand in hand. Last year, Oscar winner Searching for Sugar Man was the highest-grossing doc among that year’s nominees, as was the case for the winners in 2010 (Inside Man), 2008 (Man on Wire), 2006 (An Inconvenient Truth) and 2005 (March of the Penguins). Box-office doesn’t always correlate to laurels, of course; films with even larger grosses—whether Bully, Buck or Waiting for ‘Superman’—were ultimately left out of the five nominations. And while it’s rare that box-office bombs win Oscars, The Weinstein Company pulled off an upset in 2011 with Undefeated’s Academy victory (domestic ticket sales: $562,218).
But this year’s new rules for the Academy Award for Best Documentary will drastically change the voting process, favoring more recognizable and popular titles. During the process of whittling down this year’s 149 eligible docs to the final five nominees, time-stressed documentary branch members may only watch and therefore nominate the most recognizable of titles. As HBO’s Sheila Nevins told Variety, “The underdog is not going to make any noise. Only the ones that are most known will be seen.”
Furthermore, for the first time ever, the winner of this year’s Best Documentary Oscar will be determined by the entire Academy, not the arguably more nonfiction-savvy doc branch. This new rule accomplishes some long-sought goals for doc-makers. For one, it places docs on the same playing field as the fiction categories, allowing all Academy members into the process of picking the year’s best doc rather than a small group. Opening up the category to the entire Academy helps eliminate the false dichotomy between narrative and documentary filmmaking. No longer relegated to a documentary ghetto, nonfiction is now part of the wider discussion.
However, the rule change also reduces the chances for more challenging docs in the Oscar contest. With more voters, this year’s Oscar race will undoubtedly honor consensus over quality. And with more voters who are unfamiliar with the history of and contemporary shifts in documentary filmmaking, safer titles are likely to win out. The Act of Killing may have won a Gotham, but two hours of Indonesian death squad reenactments doesn’t have a shot with older Academy voters when compared to this year’s inspirational audience favorite, 20 Feet from Stardom. You read it here first: 20 Feet has already won this year’s Best Documentary Oscar.
While that may not be fair to The Act of Killing, The Square, Dirty Wars or any number of lesser-seen nonfiction movies released this year, it is what the Academy Award for Best Documentary has ultimately become.
On the other side of the spectrum, juries comprised of respected members of the documentary community may give prizes to more exemplary docs, but these choices also reflect the tastes of a rarefied few rather than the many. Is the latter more valid than the former?
Sure, popular awards are usually given to more accessible films—such as previous Oscar winners Inside Job, The Cove, and Man on Wire—which tend to appeal to the widest possible audience. But juried awards are determined by a kind of elite groupthink, which can favor auteurs over outsiders. Juries may also be driven by political motivations, using their platform to forward a particular agenda—such as an important or timely subject—or a particular filmmaker that they believe deserves extra attention even if the latest work isn’t necessarily the auteur’s finest.
Maybe the way of out this quandary is to take all awards with a grain of salt. Or to look closely at how nominees and winners are selected. It’s unlikely that any of these awards will present us with a definitive best doc of the year. Inevitably, someone’s going to be disappointed. But looking at the context and conditions of voting does give us a sense of what films are most beloved by certain constituencies and why. This, at least, can offer some consolation to the aggrieved.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.