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Best Documentary: The only Oscar race with any drama
While most Oscar categories seem like foregone conclusions, the documentary race is still generating suspense. Here's a quick guide to the contenders
 
A scene from the documentary "Inside Job," which has already won Writers Guild and Directors Guild awards.
A scene from the documentary "Inside Job," which has already won Writers Guild and Directors Guild awards.
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It's looking like the 2011 Oscars may be quite predictable. With most of the feature film and acting categories "apparently sewn up" — from The King's Speech for Best Picture to Natalie Portman for Best Actress — "the documentaries are one area where there is still some drama," says Melena Ryzik in The New York Times. The nominations themselves were full of surprises, with bigger documentaries like Waiting for Superman, The Tillman Story, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer getting snubbed in favor of "mostly smaller films from lesser-known filmmakers." The five docs that did get nods are an intriguing lot, and in some cases were dangerous to make. Here's what commentators are saying:

1. Inside Job
Charles Ferguson's "stunning" dissection of the financial meltdown is the "presumed front-runner" but a "laid-back" one at that, says Ryzik in another New York Times piece. Ferguson isn't really campaigning for the Oscar win, but his doc has already nabbed trophies from the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild.

2. Gasland
Josh Fox's look at "fracking," a controversial method of mining natural gas, is causing plenty of controversy. Since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, and won the Special Jury prize there, it's drawn the ire of natural gas companies, and now they're trying to ruin its Oscar chances by asking that it be removed from the documentary category. A coalition of the gas companies called Energy In Depth claims the film is "entirely fiction" and "clearly an opinion piece." Fox says the attacks on him and the film are "despicable...utterly irresponsible, and horrific."

3. Exit Through the Gift Shop
The documentary/possible hoax directed by the street artist known as Banksy is the "most popular movie of the bunch" and a "safe bet" for the win, says Moviefone. Yes, while "speculation is rampant" that the film, in which a French shopkeeper attempts to befriend Banksy, is actually a "faux documentary," that doesn't seem to matter to the members of the Academy's documentary branch who nominated it, says David Ng in the Los Angeles Times. And, of course, there's the question of whether Banksy, who is anonymous, would show up for the ceremony.

4. Restrepo
This documentary by war photographer Tim Hetherington and reporter Sebastian Junger chronicles a platoon of U.S. soldiers deployed in an especially dangerous valley in Afghanistan over the course of 14 months. It has a "chance" if voters want to go with something "more topical," says Moviefone. "Just to make this film in what were incredibly difficult conditions, to get it edited and released, that was success," says Hetherington.

5. Waste Land
Lucy Walker's doc takes place in the world's largest garbage dump — the 300-acre Jardim Gramacho, near Rio de Janeiro — and tells the stories of six people who live and work there and became unlikely muses for artist Vik Muniz. Despite the subject matter, the film is "remarkably moving and uplifting," says David Gritten in The Telegraph. It nabbed audience awards at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival, and it's been called the Slumdog Millionaire of this year's documentary race.

 

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