Werner Herzog on location shooting Into the Abyss

The shortlist of 15 feature-length documentaries that will be considered to join the final five nominees for an Academy Award was released Friday to the usual chorus of objections — not about which movies were named for the honor, but which movies were overlooked. As usual, some of the most popular and/or critically acclaimed nonfiction titles of the year were passed over by the Academy in favor of more obscure selections.

You can read the Academy’s press release listing the nominated films here. Some of them are quite obscure — that doesn’t make them unworthy, of course, but vaulting past films by directors like Werner Herzog (pictured above), Errol Morris, and Steve James must be a heady accomplishment for lesser-known filmmakers.

Here’s a rundown — based on critical consensus and box-office success — of 10 of the most notable movies that didn’t make the list. I’ve included box-office grosses from Box Office Mojo not as any measure of quality, but simply to demonstrate how hard it is for documentaries to make money in theaters. Combine this list with the one the Academy put out, and you’ve got yourself a line-up of 25 must-see docs. Get cracking — the Oscar nominations come out January 24.

Top 10 Documentaries Snubbed by the Academy

The Arbor
Directed by Clio Barnard
Domestic box-office gross: $21,620

Evidence, perhaps, that the tastes of the Academy don’t synchronize with those of movie critics, this unconventional doc on playwright Andrew Dunbar earned great reviews — a 95 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes — by using actors lip-synced to audio recordings of real people.

Being Elmo
Directed by Constance Marks
Domestic box-office gross: $101,418 (still in release)

This portrait of muppeteer Kevin Clash has been such a big crowd-pleaser, especially when Clash makes an appearance at festival screenings, that many expected it to gain favor inside the Academy, as well.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Directed by Werner Herzog
Domestic box-office gross: $5,256,974

All about ancient paintings in the Chauvet caves of Southern France, and shot in 3D to boot, this was but a minor film for Werner Herzog, one of the most enduring directors on the international film scene. Still, can you believe that Herzog has never won an Oscar? (He was nominated just once, in 2009, for Encounters at the End of the World.)

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
Domestic box-office gross: $638,476

Few documentarians are more savvy self-promoters than Morgan Spurlock (Super-Size Me), who financed this documentary about product placement through product placement, then leveraged that high concept into a ton of publicity — but no Oscar notice — for the film.

The Interrupters
Directed by Steve James
Domestic box-office gross: $252,548

“The Interrupters” work for Chiago’s CeaseFire, an organization working to intervene and reduce violence in urban neighborhoods. James’ Hoop Dreams is one of the most highly regarded documentaries ever made; it was nominated for a film editing Oscar but not Best Documentary.

Into the Abyss
Directed by Werner Herzog
Domestic box-office gross: $68,374 (still in release)

This time, Herzog turned his camera on the use of the death penalty, investigating the events leading up to a triple homicide, and the punishment dealt out afterward. Into the Abyss really was considered a serious Oscar contender — did it split the Herzog vote with Cave of Forgotten Dreams?

Nostalgia for the Light
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Domestic box-office gross: $152,994

Political documentarian Guzmán shot Nostalgia for the Light in the Atacama Desert, where mountain-top space telescopes observe the cosmos, and where a wide variety of human remains, including political prisoners “disappeared” from Chili in 1973, are interred and scattered.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
Directed by Andrew Rossi
Domestic box-office gross: $1,067,028

The reputation of this newspaper documentary was probably amplified by the fact that the media likes to see itself in the spotlight. Still, it was one of the most talked-about docs of the year, and made a minor celebrity out of Times writer David Carr.

Position Among the Stars
Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich
Domestic box-office gross: ??

This is the third part of an award-winning documentary trilogy that uses the experiences of one family from Jakarta to demonstrate larger realities about life in Indonesia. It is one of the most-nominated films in this year’s documentary focused Cinema Eye Honors and one of three best-documentary nominees in the European FIlm Awards.

Directed by Asif Kapadia
Domestic box-office gross: $1,602,460

Garnering broad critical enthusiasm (92 percent at Rotten Tomatoes), this filmed biography looks at the life and death of legendary and controversial three-time Formula One world champion racer Ayrton Senna da Silva through efficient and dramatic use of archival footage and interviews.

Directed by Errol Morris
Domestic box-office gross: $686,288

Joyce McKinney tells her stranger-than-fiction story in this Errol Morris documentary about a former Miss Wyoming’s role in the scandalous affair that became known as “the Mormon sex-in-chains case.” McKinney called the film a “celluloid catastrophe”; critics called it lightweight (by Errol Morris standards) but highly entertaining.

To be eligible for consideration this year, documentaries had to complete seven-day commercial runs in Los Angeles County and Manhattan between September 1, 2010, and December 31, 2011. (The extra three months were tacked on this year only to bring the eligibility period into alignment with the calendar year going forward.) The Academy says its Documentary Branch Screening Committee watched all 124 eligible documentaries.