Werner Herzog gets the shaft again from the Academy

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If you were compiling a short list of the preeminent documentarians of our time who are still working at the top of their game, it would be hard to imagine the list not including the always adventuresome, always unpredictable Werner Herzog. But when it comes to the motion picture Academy’s just-announced short list of the 15 films eligible for this year’s Oscar for best documentary, Herzog’s remarkable 3-D documentary ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is nowhere to be found.

It’s not the first time Herzog has been snubbed. In fact, of all his recent documentary work, only ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ made the Academy short list. His other work, even the profoundly disturbing and critically beloved ‘Grizzly Man,’ has been roundly ignored.

I’m a big fan of a number of films that did make the Final 15, starting with Charles Ferguson’s ‘Inside Job,’ David Guggenheim’s ‘Waiting for Superman’ and Shlomi Eldar’s ‘Precious Life,’ a heartbreaking humanist portrait of the staggering gulf between Israelis and Palestinians that I wrote about recently. But it’s still a shock to see Herzog’s ‘Forgotten Dreams’ absent from the list, especially after the warm reception it received when it debuted this fall at the Toronto Film Festival. Also absent from the Final 15 is ‘Catfish,’ a strange, unsettling documentary about a Facebook romance that is not at all what it initially appears to be.

My suspicion is that both films didn’t make the cut for the same reason: They are too iconoclastic for the Academy’s all-too-conservative tastes. The Academy’s doc slate is full of straight-forward narrative films, many of them muckraking critiques about political and social issues. Herzog’s film is quirky and personal, not to mention technologically groundbreaking, since it is one of the first documentaries ever to be filmed in 3-D. That alone would make the Academy nervous, since 3-D smacks of commercialism and technological innovation, two things that always give the Academy the heebie-jeebies. Ditto for ‘Catfish,’ which has sparked criticism for its narrative leaps and raised concerns about whether its filmmakers were really as gullible as they portray themselves in the film.


Still, if the Oscars can’t make room for documentaries that push the medium in new directions, especially when a gifted old master like Herzog is at the helm, then the Oscars once again seem to be guilty of celebrating filmmakers who play it safe over the ones that embrace new ideas and artistic innovation.