Restrepo, Inside Job, Waste Land, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Gasland are up for Oscars. But some early favorites, like Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman, were left off the list.
Bob Mondello, NPR's arts critic, knows what members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences look for in the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. And it's not just a question of whether the film has been a commercial success.
Waiting For Superman was more widely released than any other documentary, and among the highest-grossing documentaries of 2010. But, Mondello tells NPR's Neal Conan, "documentaries especially are a rare breed of film, and they're voted on by a much smaller group of the academy than the other films."
The documentary category, explains Mondello, is voted on by documentarians themselves, not the general membership. "So, Best Documentary means a real respect from your peers." The group starts with a list of 15 documentaries to consider, then narrows the field to five.
Waiting For Superman made the first cut, but not the second. Some speculate that's because of controversy surrounding a staged scene in the film, which critics argue was misleading and presented out of context. But then, consider Exit Through the Gift Shop. It received a nomination, in spite of the fact that most people are still confused about whether it's a documentary, or a story dreamed up by its director, Banksy.
Mondello thinks documentaries need to take their audiences on a journey, that they should lead to remarkable revelations. "The pictures that were nominated all do that," Mondello says. "With Waiting For Superman, I felt less like that was true, and I think that's part of the reason that the documentarians probably put it aside."