What I look for in a documentary is a combination of discovery (uncovering an interesting issue or a perfect character or characters to tell a story), access (the achievement of being in the right place at the right time and actually documenting people and events), and artistry (making life literary).
Solid film about the Earth Liberation Front. Well-made by a talented filmmaker, but, in the end, it's a traditional documentary that doesn't push the form in the way Hell & Back Again does (see below).
(NOT to be confused with "The Undefeated," about Sarah Palin.) An inspiring story about sports and the challenges facing Memphis youth. Seems like similar stories have been told before, and I think this film's chances will be hurt by the existence of so many other great films about high school kids or young athletes; the bar has been set high.
A dance, performance film. Striking visuals and amazing choreography. Normally I don't get into the debate of what is or is not a documentary, because the label can be limiting. But I do wonder with this film why it deserves to be in this category any more than a film documenting a stage play---so it ranks lower for me on discovery and access, everything exists here solely for the purpose of the camera, which usually doesn't make for a great story about life/reality. Still, wouldn't be surprised if this took home the award.
An award for Joe Berlinger here would be an award for his body of work: three films about the West Memphis 3. He was there at the original trial and his film was in large part responsible for keeping the spotlight on the injustice of locking up the WM3 for so many years. This film itself is well edited, juggling a complex set of facts and legal procedure. The achievement here is telling the story and documenting the effect the prior films had on the real world; the filmmaking on display is more traditional. [Also why is Peter Jackson producing a fourth film about this? Premiered at Sundance this year.]
Almost plays like a fiction film, beautifully observed, shot and structured. A veteran copes with reentry to civilian life. Filmmakers document his struggles and also were filming with him in the war zone prior to his life-altering injuries. Similar in some ways to the doc Restrepo, which I thought was outstanding and underappreciated last year. But I think this is more intimate, and a more complex, emotional story than that film, and deserves the award.
Will see them all this weekend up in NYC---but haven't seen any of them yet. Early favorite probably is The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, by Lucy Walker, who has made a few outstanding documentary features and is probably the most accomplished of the filmmakers in this category.
[ed.--none of these shorts, presumably, is nearly as good as Tom's 2011 short Two's a Crowd: see below.)