Sign up to receive our Essential Arts & Culture Newsletter

'Tim's Vermeer,' '20 Feet From Stardom' head Oscar doc shortlist

"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."

PHOTOS: Holiday movie sneaks 2013

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."

RELATED: Movie reviews by The Times

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


Telluride Film Festival: 'Tim's Vermeer' explores art, science

'The Armstrong Lie' smartly details Lance's scandalous cycle

'20 Feet From Stardom' moves the spotlight to the background

Follow @GlennWhipp

PHOTOS AND MORE PHOTOS: Faces to watch 2014 | Movies ENVELOPE: The latest awards buzz DOCUMENTARIES: 10 best of 2013, and a new crop in 2014  

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • N.Y. Film Critics name 'American Hustle' best film of the year

    N.Y. Film Critics name 'American Hustle' best film of the year

    David O. Russell's Abscam-inspired con story, "American Hustle," was named best film of 2013 on Tuesday by the New York Film Critics Circle. The film, which opens Dec. 13, also won awards for supporting actress Jennifer Lawrence and screenplay writers Russell and Eric Singer.

  • Gina Rodriguez staying grounded despite 'Jane's' success

    Gina Rodriguez staying grounded despite 'Jane's' success

    The night she won the Golden Globe for her warm, funny and versatile work as the kindhearted title character in the CW comedy "Jane the Virgin," Gina Rodriguez brought her whole family — Mom and Dad, her two older sisters and their husbands — to the celebrity-filled InStyle after-party at the Beverly...

  • A look at the new Emmy rules and what they might change

    A look at the new Emmy rules and what they might change

    Last year's Emmy season started off confusing ("Orange Is the New Black" is a comedy? Really?) and ended up wholly predictable, with no new winners in the drama and comedy series and acting categories, and "Modern Family" taking the comedy trophy for the fifth year running. And while television...

  • Unlike Oscars, 2015 Emmys have diverse shows, actors to recognize

    Unlike Oscars, 2015 Emmys have diverse shows, actors to recognize

    While the Oscars were largely a dry white straight male season, the Emmys are shaping up to be anything but, with acclaimed shows starring women, people of color and characters of various sexual and/or gender orientations. The list of newcomers breaking some rare ground is impressive: "Jane the...

  • 'Mad Men' stars remember biggest bombshells hurled at them on series

    'Mad Men' stars remember biggest bombshells hurled at them on series

    This month, "Mad Men" made its exit, to the dismay of fans everywhere. As the satirical Twitter account ‏@LosFelizDayCare put it in March, "A lot of the children are afraid and asking but the truth is we don't know what life looks like after 'Mad Men.'"

  • Dynamic duos on 'Downton Abbey,' 'Gotham' and 'Game of Thrones'

    Dynamic duos on 'Downton Abbey,' 'Gotham' and 'Game of Thrones'

    They've never been lovers. They're definitely not cop buddies. And they're not really related. But some TV twosomes are more than the sum of their parts. They may have been thrown together by writers unsure what else to do with their quirky characters, by circumstance of age or even worldview....