"Blackfish," "20 Feet From Stardom" and "Tim's Vermeer" are among the 15 films that have made the Oscar shortlist for documentary features, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Tuesday.
Members of the documentary branch narrowed the field from a record 151 qualified entries, selecting an excellent group of films that also included Sarah Polley's acclaimed family investigation "Stories We Tell" (which took the nonfiction prize from the New York Film Critics Circle on Tuesday); Joshua Oppenheimer’s horrifying look at Indonesian death squads, “The Act of Killing”; and Jehane Noujaim’s thoughtful chronicle of the Egyptian revolution, “The Square."
"It's a formidable group," says Alex Gibney, whose documentary on cyclist Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, "The Armstrong Lie," also made the shortlist. "There was a tremendous amount of competition this year. You don't take anything for granted."
Gibney spent five years on "The Armstrong Lie," changing course after initially setting out to document Armstrong's comeback from retirement. That sort of investment of time isn't uncommon. "Tim's Vermeer," the entertaining look at inventor Tim Jenison's attempts to understand the painting techniques used by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer, took four years to make.
"With fiction, you can write the ending," said illusionist Teller, who directed the documentary. "In this case, halfway through this Everest climb, there was a serious doubt whether what he was doing would actually work."
Calling from his car, on the way back to Los Angeles from a morning show in Las Vegas, Teller described himself as "gobsmacked" to find out the film had made the shortlist.
"For me, it was just amazing to watch how genius works for four years," Teller said. "That alone was worth the trip."
Given the volume of qualified entries in play, omissions were inevitable. Among the more prominent: "Let the Fire Burn," an unsettling story of urban confrontation that won strong reviews on its October release, and "After Tiller," a look at the small group of doctors still performing third-trimester abortions in wake of the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas.
"There are so many really strong films," said Gibney, an Oscar winner for his 2007 documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side." "I've got the stacks in my office to prove it."
Here's the shortlist of 15:
“The Act of Killing,” Final Cut for Real
“The Armstrong Lie,” The Kennedy/Marshall Co.
“Blackfish,” Our Turn Productions
“The Crash Reel,” KP Rides Again
“Cutie and the Boxer,” Ex Lion Tamer and Cine Mosaic
“Dirty Wars,” Civic Bakery
“First Cousin Once Removed,” Experiments in Time, Light & Motion
“God Loves Uganda,” Full Credit Productions
“Life According to Sam,” Fine Films
“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” Roast Beef Productions
“The Square,” Noujaim Films and Maktube Productions
“Stories We Tell,” National Film Board of Canada
“Tim’s Vermeer,” High Delft Pictures
“20 Feet From Stardom,” Gil Friesen Productions and Tremolo Productions
“Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” Tripoli Street