Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Best Documentary Feature

Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy and Jaimie D'Cruz
GasLand, Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic
Inside Job, Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs (WINNER)
Restrepo, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Waste Land, Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

This Oscar won't be waiting for Waiting for "Superman". The public-schools doc got plenty of press attention (including a TIME cover) and lavish praise for its director, Davis Guggenheim, whose An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar and, for Al Gore, a Nobel Prize. "Superman" seemed certain to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature and to then duke it out with the year's other favorite doc, Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's even-tempered takedown of the government's sorry role in overseeing the banking sector before its 2008 collapse. The big issue of the past few years vs. the big issue of our children's lives. Exciting, eh?

That faceoff was not to be. Though Inside Job was nominated and remains a slim favorite, Waiting for "Superman" didn't make the cut. One guess why: If you want Academy members to embrace your political documentary, the approach had better be left-wing — and "Superman", which in its populist zeal finds fault with the teachers' unions and praises nonunion charter schools, was seen by many as a takedown of organized labor. Indeed, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposed stripping of bargaining rights for teachers and other government workers simply gives a Tea Party twist to Guggenheim's argument that private-sector teachers are more reliable, not to mention cheaper.

The anti-big-business politics of GasLand are, for the Academy's Doc-Feature voters, comfortingly leftie. The movie looks at energy conglomerates like Halliburton, which, to satisfy their dream of making America the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas," are buying up miles of property for a hazardous form of hydraulic drilling called fracking. Fox finds startling special effects to illuminate his argument: homeowners hold a lighter next to the kitchen spigot and watch their sink burst into blue flame. But the director's on-camera tone of arrogance and finally helplessness sabotages his subject. In a way he didn't mean it to be, GasLand is noxious.

To make Restrepo, filmmaker Hetherington and journalist-adventurer Junger (he wrote The Perfect Storm) spent a year with an Army unit in Afghanistan to record life on the front lines. The old Army slogan "Hurry up and wait" is replaced by "Wait and shoot," as the GIs at Restrepo (the site is named for one of the Army's first comrades to die there) pass the time talking about their mission and the folks back home, then return fire from the neighboring Taliban. Filmed without narration or ostensible politics, Restrepo should win commendation medals from soldiers and filmmakers alike. But its you-are-there immediacy doesn't necessarily translate into a you-must-vote impulse.

If there's a feel-good political film on the list, it's Walker's Waste Land. (A Walker doc from last year — Countdown to Zero, about nuclear proliferation — was not nominated.) The film details New York artist Vik Muniz's plan to collaborate with Rio de Janeiro garbage pickers on a giant art project; the Brazilian artisans, flinty and charming, steal the show. Waste Land would have a decent shot at upsetting Inside Job ... if it weren't for another nominated film about urban artists. Of course, that's Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, with its improbable star: Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman who videotaped graffiti painters in Los Angeles and then became an art celebrity on his own.

Banksy is famously reclusive, never seen unless covered in a hood. To forestall some fraudulent man in a monkey mask from purloining the Oscar, Academy president Tom Sherak at first said that, in the event of an Exit win, only d'Cruz, the film's producer, would be allowed on stage. But after Banksy's purported presence in Los Angeles filled many column inches, Sherak demurred, telling the Hollywood Reporter, "I'm not gonna stand up to stop him. Nobody is. That's not what we do." The artist also adjusted his view of the Oscars. "I don't agree with the concept of award ceremonies," Banksy said, "but I'm prepared to make an exception for the ones I'm nominated for." The artist added, "The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me."

Seeing a masked man, or a gold-plated naked one, onstage receiving an Oscar would be a highlight of Sunday night's show; TV watchers will be rooting for Exit Through the Gift Shop. But Inside Job is our story, and we're sticking to it.