Weighty matters — wars, environmental degradation and nefarious dealings in the corridors of power — dominated this year's documentary nominees, much as they did last year's.
But there's at least one wild card (or joker) in this otherwise sobering deck: "Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film," which is either a meta-textual rumination on the struggle between hype and authenticity, or an ingeniously conceived and executed hoax by the British guerrilla-prankster artist Banksy, its director. Or maybe both.
Purporting to tell the real story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant artist in L.A., "Exit" spins off into more-or-less plausible sub-plots that converge around a chaotic art show opening. While Banksy has insisted that the film is entirely true, that may simply be part of its extended riff about what "keeping it real" possibly could mean in today's brand-name-driven, commercially calculating art world.
As to whether he planned to show up at the Kodak Theatre, the notoriously mysterious artist issued a statement: "I don't agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I'm prepared to make an exception for the ones I'm nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me."
Among the other four contenders, "Restrepo," made by British photographer Tim Hetherington and bestselling journalist-author Sebastian Junger, explores the Afghanistan war through the humanizing gaze of a U.S. Army platoon deployed in the remote Korengal Valley.
In a phone interview, Junger expressed hope that the film, by opening a channel of empathy for both the U.S. troops and the Afghanis, could help bring resolution to a conflict that has dragged on for more than nine years and left the nation in a state of what he called "war fatigue."
"We made a politically neutral film because we wanted all people across the political spectrum to appreciate it and be affected by it," he said.
Two films, Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley's "Waste Land" and Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic's "Gasland," address the perils of, and possible remedies to, the planetary ravages of landfills and natural gas drilling, respectively. Last year's documentary Oscar winner, "The Cove," chronicled another potential ecological catastrophe-in-the-making: the mass slaughter of dolphins to feed Japan's voracious appetite.
In a phone interview, Fox said what films like "Gasland" and "Waste Land" record is "an emerging battle between the future we want to create" and the one being forged by large-scale harvesters of the earth's natural resources. "What's happening right now is the fossil fuel industries are desperate, and they're invading our backyard," he said.
"Inside Job," directed by Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs and narrated by Matt Damon, lays out the complicated multiple connections between Wall Street and high-level Washington insiders that helped bring the world economy to its knees in 2008.
At least two documentaries could be considered conspicuously absent from the nominees: "Waiting for 'Superman,' " which probes the dismal state of U.S. public education, and "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," a look at the spectacular ascension and scandal-plagued descent of the former New York governor.
In the foreign-language film category, speculation already has turned on whether the chances of Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful" getting a trophy will be boosted by the star performance of Javier Bardem (a lead actor nominee), who generally received better notices than the movie itself.
The Danish film "In a Better World" is the category's front-runner, having won the Golden Globe award for best foreign film on Jan. 16. The dark horse is "Outside the Law" ("Hors-la-loi"), an Algerian drama about the African country's independence battles with its French colonizers.
Like those films, the Canadian entry "Incendies" deals with individuals trying to navigate tough moral choices and different cultures in worlds torn by violence and hatred. The fifth nominee, "Dogtooth," from Greece, suggests a contemporary spin on the ancient House of Atreus tragedy, portraying an isolated family locked in power games of sexual submission and control.