Meet the 15 Documentaries on Oscar Shortlist

A documentary begs to be made. There are months, maybe years of filming and editing, and what results is a visual incarnation of journalistic work that’s meant to inform and inspire. There’s no guarantee that a documentary will be well received beyond its niche audience, but when it is, there’s a certain magic that unites. Who knows what makes the stars align for often-underdog docs? It could be anything from storyline to controversy to something as simple as curiosity. There are always the big boys, a la Michael Moore or Ken Burns, but docs as a genre have that gritty DIY feel; it’s a guerilla medium for those with something to say.

After sifting through 89 films, The Academy has chosen 15 documentaries for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar short list. And this year, the aforementioned Michael Moore has to sit at the kiddie table.

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The Cove directed by Louie Psihoyos

The Cove follows former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, the man responsible for training television darling Flipper back in the ’60s.  He and the Oceanic Preservation Society shadow fishermen in Taiji, Japan who, driven by the multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry that he helped create, run a controversial business in mercury-tainted dolphin meat.

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Food, Inc. directed by Robert Kenner

If you have ever wondered what exactly it is that you’re buying when you go to the grocery store, Food, Inc. will not only answer your questions, but will leave you feeling queasy. The film, featuring interviews with Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto), exposes the perverted business that food in America has become under the consent of the USDA and FDA.

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Valentino: The Last Emperor directed by Matt Tyrnauer

Say the name “Valentino” and every girl in the room will begin to daydream of elegant gowns and masquerades. This delectable doc follows the legendary designer Valentino Garavani and his business partner/companion of 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti through the final years of his reign at the fashion house. Larger themes affecting the fashion business today are also explored.

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Every Little Step directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo.

From the inspired moment in 1974 when choreographer Michael Bennett recorded the musings of theater gypsies until the 2006 Broadway revival of the musical born from these tapes, A Chorus Line has captivated actors and theater-goers with its gritty content and charming songs. This doc follows the revival’s casting process while exploring the beloved musical’s history.

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The Beaches of Agnes directed by Agnès Varda

Varda, a feminist trailblazer since her days in the New-Wave film movement of the ’50s, is somebody to look up to. Now 81 years old, she reflects on her past in this autobiographical scrapbook, remembering fellow Left Bank directors Jacques Demy (her husband), Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker.

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Burma VJ directed by Anders Østergaard

Armed with small handy cams, the youth of Burma struggles to keep journalism alive in its stifled country. Østergaard follows these courageous individuals and gives us more than a glimpse into the world of high-risk journalism, all while documenting September 2007 — when the Buddhist monks marched for all to see.

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Facing Ali directed by Pete McCormack

So light on his feet, so pretty, so bad-ass. This documentary profiles ten of the bravest men to ever step into a boxing ring: Muhammad Ali’s opponents. McCormack delves into the hard-knock world of this classic sport, focusing on the men who literally came into contact with The Greatest.

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Garbage Dreams directed by Mai Iskander

Director-cinematographer Mai Iskander’s feature-length documentary debut tells the story of Adham, Osama, and Nabil — three teenagers from Mokattam, a garbage village on the outskirts of Cairo. They spend their days collecting and sorting trash and their nights sleeping in it. For generations, Cairo has depended on the villagers (Zaballeen) to serve as its peculiar sanitation system. Iskander sifts through the garbage and uncovers the soul of the people who sort it.

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Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders directed by Mark N. Hopkins

Hopkins travels to war-torn Liberia and Congo to tell the story of four volunteers with Doctors Without Borders who are grasping onto their idealism while coming face to face with a harsh reality. A compelling account of humanitarian aid work, Living in Emergency tells it like it is.

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The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

Dubbed “The most dangerous man in America” who “had to be stopped at all costs” by Henry Kissinger, Daniel Ellsburg was responsible for bringing the legendary Pentagon Papers to the public. The film tells his story with clips of Ellsberg, his colleagues, family and critics, Pentagon Papers authors, government officials, Vietnam veterans and anti-war activists, Watergate principals, attorneys and journalists, and of course- President Nixon’s scarlet-letter audiotapes.

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Mugabe and the White African directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson

The only documentary feature film to emerge in recent years from Zimbabwe, where a total press ban still exists, Mugabe and the White African was mostly shot covertly. Following 75-year-old Michael Campbell, one of a few hundred white farmers left in the violence-strewn country, Bailey and Thompson tell his brave story. Campbell challenged President Robert Mugabe, who began violently seizing land from white farmers in 2000, before the SADC (South African Development Community) international court, charging him and his government with racial discrimination and of violations of Human Rights.

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Sergio directed by Greg Barker

Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian United Nations diplomat who was killed in Iraq in August 2003 while working as the Secretary General’s Special Representative, was posthumously awarded a United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. The beloved diplomat, who is described as part Bobby Kennedy, part James Bond, has his story told in this doc based on Pulitzer Prize-winner Samantha Power’s biography, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.

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Soundtrack for a Revolution directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman

Guttentag and Sturman revisit the charged era of the American civil rights movement by channeling its music in this perfectly-scored doc. The spine-tingling freedom songs are performed by today’s musical giants, including John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, and The (legendary) Roots.

Under Our Skin (2008)

Under Our Skin directed by Andy Abrahams Wilson

Focusing on the largely untold story of Lyme Disease, Under Our Skin explores the controversies of the modern epidemic by following patients and physicians who must battle both the disease and the wearisome health care system that they must turn to for help.

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Which Way Home directed by Rebecca Cammisa

Which Way Home follows several solitary child migrants (ranging in age from nine to fourteen) as they journey from South and Central America towards the United States in search of their misplaced parents and the ever-elusive American dream.

The final five nominees will be announced on February 2nd. Who do you think deserves a spot?