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Grimace and nod

SPACE Gallery highlights 2007’s overlooked documentaries
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  January 9, 2008


The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. No End in Sight. In the Shadow of the Moon. Lake of Fire. The Devil Came on Horseback. Deep Water. Peet Seeger: The Power of Song. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. For the Bible Tells Me So. My Kid Could Paint That.

The ten documentaries listed above are, according to review-aggregation Web sites Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, the best documentaries of 2007. Nine of them were popular enough to land screenings in the greater Portland area. But only three of them have a chance to be nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar this year.

This year’s “shortlist” for the Academy Awards in that category — twelve films determined worthy of one of five nominations by an Academy committee — was another disappointment for documentary filmmakers and fans who suffer growing frustration with the group’s selections.

The process is convoluted, expensive, and biased. Under newly relaxed rules (which change frequently, as complaints increase), a film must screen a certain number of times in both Los Angeles and Manhattan in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. This has democratized the process, but has also made it more expensive; it can cost more than $10,000 to secure a one-week run in either city.

The Academy’s greatest failure, though, lies in its selection committee. This is a volunteer organization of about 100 people, assigned to watch a designated number of qualifying documentaries. Given that the average Academy member is retiree-aged and resistant to progressive filmmaking (as evidenced by the nominees in every other category, every year), the few people asked to view an inventive, cinematic documentary are likely to ignore it in favor of traditional docs.

Though a few of this year’s shortlisted features are stylistic feats, they can all be labeled “educational” films. Most of 2007’s most engaging documentaries will join Roger & Me (1989), Hoop Dreams (1994), Crumb (1994), and Grizzly Man (2005) in the pantheon of great Academy snubs.

A four-film series at SPACE Gallery, beginning January 12 (all screening at 7:30 pm; single-show tickets $7), highlights just the sort of cinematic and stylistically ambitious documentaries the Oscars annually ignore. Among them are a repeat Portland screening of the best-reviewed doc of the year (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters) and three that have yet to see broad theatrical release (hence their exclusion from the ten-best list above). Each film offers sound evidence that this ever-advancing form can be as informative as a PBS documentary and as entertaining as a multi-plex blockbuster:

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS | SCREENING JANUARY 12 | A hilarious portrait of an underdog’s attempt to achieve the world-record score in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong. As prelude and postlude will be music from Computer at Sea, Galen Richmond’s one-man band using handmade electronics and reappropriated video game systems.

MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) | JANUARY 23 | Banned in Brazil, a thorough examination of the country’s kidnapping and corruption epidemic, propelled by an exhilarating indigenous soundtrack and inventive stylistic technique.

KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON | FEBRUARY 9 | The dead Nirvana singer relates his own story in this film, patched together from 25 hours of never-before-broadcast interviews. (Coincidentally, director AJ Schnack is one of the loudest voices criticizing the Academy’s inadequate nomination progress; his blog, All these wonderful things, is at

BILLY THE KID | FEBRUARY 21 | Nationally acclaimed verité portrait of a candid, self-aware misfit from Lisbon Falls and his coming-of-age travails, quirky hopes (of becoming a rock star and a superhero), and dreams of getting the girl.

Christopher Gray can be reached at

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