In Contention‘s Kris Tapley is wondering if we’ve gotten “carried away” with the idea that Man on Wire will take the documentary feature Oscar. Well, that’s what truly exceptional films that deliver an exceptional mood and metaphor do, Kris — they carry you away. Tapley, however, feels “it might be the weakest of the five” and “may be the least likely to win an Oscar in two weeks’ time.”

I haven’t seen two of Man on Wire‘s competitors — Ellen Kuras‘s The Betrayal and Scott Hamilton Kennedy‘s The Garden — but I don’t see how Werner Herzog‘s Encounters at the End of the World and Carl Deal and Tia Lessin‘s Trouble The Water can or should win.

They both began as shoot-and-let’s-see-what-happens docs, and feel somewhat removed for that. Because what emerged in both films, finally, is a collection of affecting moments more than a sense of a single unified thrust. They’re studies of particular locales and situations (i.e., New Orleans and Antarctica) — movies with emotional components and personalities, obviously, and yet fundamentally focused on ecological, meteorological and political disturbances. They both basically say “look at this, what a terrible shame, feel the pain.”

Man on Wire, clearly, is a much broader and a deeper piece about the enormous spiritual endeavor that goes into meeting and mastering any daunting challenge — a movie about art, obsession, determination and the beauty of ballet and balance and self-confidence. It’s a metaphor for what every artist faces as he/she starts out on a project. Art isn’t easy. It can be scary, terrifying. You don’t know what you’re doing half the time, and the feeling of “this is it, do or die” at the final moment of truth can be exhilarating or not, depending on your vision and your mettle. Man on Wire is about all this and more.

On a purely populist level, Man on Wire also has, obviously, an undercurrent of unspoken tragedy running all through it — never once referenced, not even anecdotally — and on some level people are going to vote for it because of this.

Encounters is very fine, yes, as well as Herzog’s first ever Oscar nomination, as Tapley points out. But just because Herzog’s masterful Grizzly Man was screwed out of a nomination before doesn’t mean that a payback situation is necessary or appropriate now. Encounters doesn’t have half the thematic heft of Grizzly, and it lacks a fascinating dysfunctional personality figure like Timothy Treadwell. Encounters is “personal” as far as Herzog’s observations are concerned, but it’s mainly a piece about travel and experience — nicely captured as far as it goes, but no Havana cigar.

Trouble the Water, for me, is not “the best film of the lot,” as Tapley maintains, but the most irritating because of that godawful hand-held video footage. I’ve been calling it “the King Kong of hand-held nausea jiggle movies” not because of the parts that were shot by Lessin and Deal in the usual fashion, but the footage of Katrina’s devastation captured by one of the film’s main subjects, Kimberly Rivers, with a little video camera. It’s so infuriating in its sloppy whip-pan frenzy that I was thinking about bolting less than ten minutes in when I first saw it at Sundance ’08. There is a universal law that says when you drive people crazy with this kind of thing that you can compete for and perhaps win some minor second-tier awards, but you can’t win an Oscar. And I didn’t write this law, God did, so don’t blame me.

Put this together with my other judgments about Trouble the Water and you have a decent, respectable effort but that’s all.