One of the only benefits to come out of the Academy’s draconian rules regarding what films can be considered for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar is that savvy cinephiles in Los Angeles can catch many of the festival circuit’s most acclaimed nonfiction films either way earlier than their official theatrical runs or perhaps the only time they’ll see the inside of a theater before making their way to television or DVD.
In previous years, documentaries would need to have their films play for a week theatrically before mid-September, though this year’s rules have been changed so only the paperwork must be submitted by that time, extending the period in which these films can play their one-week run through the end of the year. The rules birthed DocuWeeks, the International Documentary Association’s annual event that makes the best out of a bad situation by publicizing the runs and putting the films in one place — this year's DocuWeeks brought such gems as "Better This World," "The Carrier," "Unifinished Spaces,""Semper Fi" and Being Elmo." But many more open under the radar and are well worth your time.
This year, these include Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss” and “Paul Williams Still Alive” fresh off their runs at the Toronto Film Festival, the eagerly anticipated “Paradise Lost 3” with its new ending, Cameron Crowe’s doc “The Union” about Leon Russell and Elton John, SXSW faves “Elevate” and “Incendiary” and L.A. Film Fest winner “Wish Me Away.” A full list is below, but it'll be likely updated as more titles are added.
"Jose & Pilar" (Fallbrook 7) – Produced by Fernando Meirelles and Pedro Almodovar’s production companies and Portugal’s official selection for the Oscars, Miguel Gonçalves Mendes’ doc followed author José Saramago and his wife Pilar Del Rio while Saramago worked on his 2010’s novel “The Elephant’s Journey.”
"The Union" (Fallbrook 7) – This year’s pick for the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, Cameron Crowe’s documentary about the collaboration between Elton John and one of his key influences Leon Russell will air on HBO in January 2012, but you can see it early.
"Addiction Incorporated" (Fallbrook 7) – Before getting a proper theatrical release in December, Charles Evans Jr.’s doc about Victor DeNoble, a scientist who became a whistleblower against the tobacco industry.
"Vito" (Fallbrook 7) – Simultaneous to its premiere at the New York Film Festival, this doc from Jeffrey Schwarz (and exec produced by Bryan Singer) profiles the groundbreaking gay activist Vito Russo.
"Nicky’s Family" (Claremont 5) – The Audience Award winner at Karlovy Vary, this doc details the “Schindler’s List”-esque story of Nicholas Winton, a Brit credited with saving the lives of 669 Czech and Slovak children who were slated to go to concentration camps.
"The Greater Good" – (Fallbrook 7) – A winner at the Sidewalk Moving Film Festival, Leslie Manookian, Kendall Nelson and Chris Pilaro’s film takes a look at the history of childhood vaccinations and the controversy that’s long surrounded them as well as the good they’ve done.
"An African Election" (Sunset 5) – A Sundance premiere and a winner at this year’s Atlanta Film Fest, Jarreth Metz chronicles the wild 2008 presidential elections in Ghana in this doc.
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" (Fallbrook 7) – Given the West Memphis Three’s recent release after close to two decades in prison for a murder they didn’t commit, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky didn’t have the time to add new footage in time for the premiere of the third installment of their “Paradise Lost” series at the Toronto Film Festival, but this film’s Oscar run will begin only slightly after an extra 12 minutes is added on for its premiere at the New York Film Festival and well before its debut on HBO in January.
"Elevate" (Sunset 5) – Winner of this year’s best documentary prize at SXSW, Anne Buford’s documentary is about a quartet of Senegalese teens who follow their dream of becoming basketball stars in America and come up against cultural barriers once they make it to the U.S.
"Paul Williams Still Alive" (Sunset 5) – “The Independent” and “Vegas Vacation” director Stephen Kessler wondered what happened to the once ubiquitous singer/songwriter and it led to this charming doc about Williams’ life after he conquered addiction and reconnected with his fans. My review from Toronto, where it premiered, is here.
"TT3D: Closer to the Edge" (Fallbrook 7) – Jared Leto narrates this doc about the legendary motorcycle race on the Isle of Man where all the bumps and the 200 mph speed will be felt in the immersive 3D experience.
"Grandma, A Thousand Times" – (Fallbrook 7) Couldn’t make it to Qatar for last year’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival or New York for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Mahmoud Kaabour’s personal film about his grandmother in Beirut is finally coming west.
"Buried Prayers" (Fallbrook 7) – The best documentary winner at Cinequest Film Festival in 2010, Steven Meyer’s film takes an unusual look at the Holocaust through the personal items left behind by those families in the Maidanek death camp, where the survivors of the Warsaw ghetto buried their possessions below the surface before they were resigned to their fates.
"Dzi Croquettes" (Sunset 5) – Raphael Alvarez and Tatiana Issa’s film has won a bevy of audience awards for its depiction of the titular Brazilian dance and theater group that became a crusading force for the gay movement and against the dictatorship of their native country.
"A Journey in My Mother’s Footsteps" (Sunset 5) – Dina Rosenmeier looks back at her mother’s activism in India in support of street orphans that sometimes came at the cost of spending time with her own children.
"Under Fire: Journalists in Combat" (Sunset 5) – Martyn Burke examines the psychological toll war reportage takes on journalists in this doc that includes interviews with reporters from the New York Times, the BBC, Reuters and more.
"Into the Abyss" (Playhouse 7) – The latest from Werner Herzog turns a skeptical eye towards the death penalty through a triple murder case in Texas where one of the convicted is sentenced to die while the other receives life in prison. Sundance Selects acquired the film for a likely 2012 release. My review from the film’s recent premiere in Toronto is here.
"Incendiary" (Fallbrook 7) – A winner at SXSW and Silverdocs, Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims’ doc is also suspicious of the death penalty, based on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of the arson-related murder of his three daughters, though advances in forensic evidence could’ve potentially cleared his name. The film will actually play Los Angeles after playing dates already in Austin at Violet Crown Cinema on September 23rd and the IFC Center in New York on October 7th.
"Wish Me Away" (Theater TBD) – Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf’s documentary about the coming out of country singer Chely Wright won best documentary awards at both the Los Angeles Film Festival and San Francisco’s Frameline earlier this year and will be returning once more to L.A. for its Oscar run.