Oscars put doccie power in critics' hands

Should film critics decide who gets an Oscar? The new rule that, from next year, a review in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times will be necessary to qualify for the best documentary Oscar has put unprecedented power in the hands of two heavyweight United States media organs and their chief critics: AO Scott and Manohla Dargis in New York, and Kenneth Turan in Los Angeles.

The battle lines are clear. On one side is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its governor responsible for documentaries, Michael Moore (yes, him), lining up behind the two venerable newspapers that are asserting, in Scott’s description, that “print criticism and the theatrical release of movies remain important in a media environment that has rapidly expanded”.

On the other is a host of independent filmmakers whose films will not have a chance of getting a notice from the big-shot critics, let alone a cinematic release, and who rely on festivals to make their mark.

Part of the academy’s concern appears to be that significant numbers of high-profile documentaries may be falling foul of the Oscar qualifying rules.

Standing up for the little guy

This year the Formula One documentary Senna, Werner Herzog’s film about the death row in Texas, Into the Abyss, the social-issue plea The Interrupters and Errol Morris’s manacled Mormon study Tabloid have all failed to make the cut—and that is just for the 15-strong long list. Two of Moore’s own films, Capitalism: A Love Story and Fahrenheit 9/11, were not nominated for Oscars in the recent past, so perhaps there is a personal issue involved.

But those on the other side of the fence are livid, especially because Moore is someone who has made a career out of standing up for the little guy.

A film called Semper Fi: Always Faithful has been cited as the one on this year’s list that would have been disqualified by the new rule. Will tough-watch work such as this account of a contaminated-water scandal at a marine corps camp get a fair shake in the future?

More crucially, why has the ­academy simply given up? “What a cop-out!” said veteran American critic Roger Ebert. “The documentary branch has essentially turned its power and freedom to choose over to the critics of two newspapers. It’s pure laziness.”

Worse, these are papers that, although highly respectable, are not exactly renowned for being on the cutting edge. And confining the endorsement to American papers will not increase the Oscars’ global reach—

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