Not so long ago, the documentary feature category was among the snooziest at the Oscars, the target of jokes that said you couldn't lose by making a film about the Holocaust.
That backward-looking pattern began to morph when Michael Moore won the 2002 award with Bowling for Columbine, and it exploded with last year's win for Al Gore's one-man show, An Inconvenient Truth. Odd though it sounds, Michael Moore and Al Gore have made the image of documentaries - okay, maybe not sexy, but hot.
This year all five nominees are politically charged, four are about war, and amazingly, only one feels like homework. Spurred by global conflict and by technology that allows filmmakers to turn out movies in months rather than years, these works carry urgent messages. With their pointed arguments, though, the nominees also raise an inescapable question: Can they have any real political impact?
They try in extremely varied ways. Moore's Sicko is wildly comic while tearing apart the country's health care system. Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side, about American abuses of prisoners of war, is eloquent.
And even the less artistic films vividly present the faces and voices of people who have witnessed some of today's most anguishing conflicts. In Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's moving War/Dance, those faces and voices belong to Ugandan children who enter a music competition, even though their lives have been shattered by decades of civil war.
Charles Ferguson's gripping No End in Sight relies on former Bush administration officials to make the case that in its earliest stages the American military operation in Iraq was catastrophically mismanaged. Even Richard E. Robbins' straightforward Operation Homecoming has enlightening moments as it presents writing by American soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. (All the films except Taxi and War/Dance are available on DVD.)
Still, as Gibney said in a telephone interview, "I don't think Dick Cheney is going to watch this film and say, 'My God, I've been wrong!' " Gibney, who also directed the highly praised Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and was an executive producer of No End in Sight, added, "I think of these films as agents provocateurs that provoke people to think more deeply about the topics."
A documentary's greatest impact may come not from the number of people it lures to theaters but from the media attention it generates.
People who have never seen An Inconvenient Truth have heard its warnings about global warming. Without someone as famous as Al Gore to draw attention, though, most nonfiction films are likely to be not preaching to the converted so much as bolstering their arguments.
We'll never really know how much the list of nominees simply reflects the quirks of the committees, drawn from the Academy's documentary branch. But if the committees' choices weren't flawless, they do reflect the current landscape of politically engaged films.
As these films try to enter the political conversation, getting an Oscar nomination gives them a giant push at creating the snowball of media attention that may be the truest sign of a documentary's success. And the Oscars will, at least for the time it takes to announce the category's winner, be more than a glimpse at pop-culture glamor.
When I asked Ferguson if the nomination was having any effect on his film, he said he had no evidence that it had so far, but added: "If the film wins, there will be one effect. I will have about 60 seconds to say something about Iraq to 200-million people, and I will."
The awards show starts at 8 tonight on WFTS-Ch. 28. Times film critic Steve Persall made the following predictions in Thursday's Times.For more coverage, go to entertainment.tampabay.com.
Best picture: No Country for Old Men
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Actor:Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Actress:Julie Christie, Away From Her
Supporting actor:Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Supporting actress:Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Adapted screenplay: Coen brothers, No Country for Old Men
Original screenplay:Diablo Cody, Juno
Foreign language film:The Counterfeiters (Austria)
Film editing:The Bourne Ultimatum
Cinematography:There Will Be Blood
Original song:That's How You Know, from Enchanted
Original score:Dario Marianelli, Atonement
Art direction:There Will Be Blood
Documentary feature:No End in Sight
Documentary short:Sari's Mother
Makeup:La Vie En Rose
Animated short:I Met the Walrus
Live action short:Le Mozart des Pickpockets
Sound editing:No Country for Old Men