In recent years, Academy members have repeatedly favored the most high-profile, buzzed-about doc in this category, from The Cove to Man on Wire to March of the Penguins. For a break in the trend, you’d have to go back to 2005, when Born Into Brothels bested Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s suffering-for-art experiment that had people thinking twice about McDonald’s, at least for a few months. With expected hopefuls like Project Nim left out of this season’s race, 2012 could prove the bookend of the category’s seven-year populist itch, as the most-discussed nominee is probably Wim Wenders’s Pina, an offbeat film that really only looks like a winner on paper.
In a year in which a silent homage is sharing top-contender status with a classy validation of 3D, it would certainly make sense that the documentary prize would go to something like Pina, a largely wordless performance piece whose 3D enhancements work to stretch the potential of the medium. Wenders’s movie offers a merger of bona-fide documentary hallmarks, paying tribute to a late and legendary artist (choreographer Pina Bausch) while also providing a doorway into the insular world of an outre vocation. But even if voters love all that, and even if they’re captivated by the nature-meets-industry shots and the dancers’ fierce and fearless movements, will they withstand the deliberate pace and the pretension of the most avant-garde numbers? Will they find the sight of a dancer being hit with shovelfuls of dirt as affected as a lost Huckabees promo? Will anyone even care that Wenders’s final scene seems to nod to that of Fellini’s 8 1/2?
The more accessible popular title, which many pundits are banking on, is Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the conclusion to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s West Memphis 3 trilogy, which kicked off in 1996 with its iconic first installment, a film the Academy infamously snubbed. There’s an attractive narrative here, wherein voters could right a supposed wrong and offer justice to a franchise that sees the same scenario play out in its closing episode. But, as at least two of us felt while watching the film, Berlinger and Sinofsky largely regurgitate material they’ve already shared, even opting for chapter titles like “Past Is Prologue” and “What Was Old Is New Again.” However necessary this may have been to account for the 11-year stretch since Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, it reads rather lusterless when measured against the other candidates’ novel lure, and this ultimately doesn’t seem like a series the AMPAS is desperate to crown. If Harry Potter can’t even score adequate love for eight straight black-magic hits, the odds for an emancipated trio of small-town goths aren’t looking swell.
Another resurrector of ’90s headlines is If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which charts the exploits and aftermath of the arson-heavy “eco-terrorist” movement that bitch-slapped loggers and the like across America. In the wake of the year of the protester, this decidedly liberal doc has an awful lot of relevance, complete with horrifying footage of pepper-spray victims that’s only too fresh. Why should it matter to a voting body of one-percenters? Because If a Tree Falls is also a militant look at the Dems’ impossible fight to make green thinking a high priority, and the hands-in-the-air defeat of lead firestarter Daniel McGowan, who faces centuries in prison at film’s start, is as stirring a testament as any to how far we haven’t come. Surely there’s a sizable faction of Oscar voters whose charity work—or friends’ charity work—will provide a chord this movie is plenty equipped to strike. The most consistently engrossing of the five, it makes champions out of radicals without slaying its rationale, and while it probably won’t win, it carries an unspoken, yet vehement assertion that it should.
The film with the greatest knee-jerk chances is Hell and Black Again, which features bracingly vivid you-are-there footage of a Marine unit in Afghanistan, intercut with scenes of the 25-year-old unit leader’s stateside, post-discharge experience (a hip-shattering bullet wound sent him home). What director and photojournalist Danfung Dennis captured while embedded with these troops creates a visceral immersion often reserved for the contrived grittiness of fictional war films, and it feels somewhat unprecedented, even in this age of documenting the soldier’s experience. The scenes with natives and wounded (or dead) Marines are dangerously real, and they augment the eerie, resolute desensitization of chief subject Nathan Harris, whose profound lack of PTSD cracks open the third-act events of The Hurt Locker, showing an upstanding war hero whose terribly good with words, but way too comfortable with his palm around a pistol, and clearly an active volcano in the uneasy eyes of his doting young wife. The film’s gimmick of presenting parallel chapters of war’s ravaging effect is bound to win over some, but there are a lot of overstated edits here that cripple author integrity, a wealth of which still couldn’t budge the folks who passed on last year’s Restrepo.
In the end, this may just be a year in which overt political statements are skirted, and bona fide heart-tugging, as presented in the Memphis-set football doc Undefeated, conquers all. Overly traditional, overlong, and inconsiderate of all who’d happily go to their graves without one more underdog sports cliché, this account of a ragtag high school team is nevertheless a powerhouse, introducing one of 2011’s best movie heroes in volunteer coach Bill Courtney, and serving up scads of tearful moments that feel genuinely earned. It’s possible that Courtney is simply an ace in front of the camera, but almost all of Undefeated rings surprisingly bullshit-free, with more truth in a sliver of its whitey-saves-the-black-players yarn than in the whole bleached-out mess of The Blind Side. Daddy issues, orphaned teens, and financial burdens abound, alongside poignant bits of teammate politics free of the stench of audition. There’s no use covering the banal-sounding details of the Manassus Tigers’ fateful senior-year struggle, but it’s worth noting that the team finally falters in the playoffs. With the ardent push of producer Harvey Weinstein to boot, you can expect that Academy members will trust their sniffles and give these guys their winning season.
Will Win: Undefeated
Could Win: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory