2014 Oscar Prediction: Best Documentary – Feature

Documentaries deserve their own category, not jut in order to spotlight nonfiction films additionally but also separately, because they aren’t easily pit against narrative works. Yet while it’s fair to say it’s too difficult to weigh something like 20 Feet From Stardom or The Act of Killing against Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, it’s just as difficult to weigh this year’s nominees for Best Documentary – Feature against one another. It’s one of the few years in which every contender is an exceptional and unique work in this area of filmmaking and not two of them is alike in any way.

One may be the most enjoyable of the five, another the most important. Another is the most creative with the art of documentary storytelling, and another is the most necessary at capturing history in the making, another the most moving in telling of a history already made. Let’s give them all an Oscar! Obviously that’s not possible, and so we’re left with a race that’s not easy to predict. To do so, we must look at not only how these nominees are doing with other honors and audiences leading up to the Academy Awards, but we have to consider how they might be campaigned for as well as how they’ll be voted on. I’ve tried to do my best in that regard.

Keep reading for a look at all five nominees for Best Documentary – Feature along with my predicted winner in red

The Act of Killing

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Why It Was Nominated

Since premiering at the Telluride Film Festival back in August 2012, Joshua Oppenheimer‘s crafty address of the anti-communist killings in Indonesia in the mid-1960s has been racking up award after award. This is the kind of film that opens eyes, changes lives and ultimately, hopefully, changes the world, and that kind of power merits nothing short of this sort of recognition.

Why It Might Win

This could be another honor for the pile, and its record so far is surely influential on voters. But the real reason it could win is because it is the nominee most unlike anything the Academy members have seen before, and it also has a better chance of making a difference than the rest. Putting Oppenheimer on the stage of the Dolby Theater puts him on the global stage as well.

Why It Might Not Win

There are some who will find the subject matter too tough to get behind, especially if they agree with criticisms that it’s an obscene exploitation fantasy that gives voice to some of the most evil men on the planet. Other problems some have had with the doc are that it doesn’t give enough of the historical context and background of the killings and that it should be more representative of the victims. Many voters may fail to see how such an original and challenging film will actually affect change while also failing to accept its stylistic freshness. It’s not often that such unconventional docs make it this far let alone to the winner’s circle.

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Cutie and the Boxer

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Why It Was Nominated

Zachary Heinzerling‘s debut is an outstanding portrait of artists, of a marriage, of a bond and conflict between two people and their respective creative outputs. The thing is, it’s only recently that we’ve seen character studies of this kind nominated for the documentary feature Oscar, and the best explanation for why it was nominated is that it’s simply a really great movie sharing a really great story. That said, it probably didn’t hurt that Harvey Weinstein distributed it via his Radius-TWC banner.

Why It Might Win

It’s an endearing effort with very little controversy or criticism against it, unlike most of the other nominees. And Weinstein, who managed a surprise win in this category two years ago with Undefeated.

Why It Might Not Win

The lack of real opposition against a movie like this can be a negative factor when it comes to this Oscar category. It’s not important enough or bold enough or direct enough in what it’s about beyond the captivating character study to have people passionately rallying on its behalf. It’s wonderful, but it’s neither as powerful or crowd-pleasing as the movies that win this award.

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Dirty Wars

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Why It Was Nominated

As a shocking expose of U.S. covert military operations, it shook up a lot of viewers in the Academy’s documentary branch, many of whom have a great appreciation for the investigative journalism side of nonfiction cinema. They also like when films of this sort are as much about the investigation and investigator as what they uncover. This may not be directed by its own protagonist, though it still follows a path set forth by past nominees like Michael Moore and Josh Fox, and the fact that it’s not a first-person film makes it particularly fresh in the way it presents its story like a Hollywood political thriller.

Why It Might Win

In the last ten years we have seen a lot of docs that play like narrative features take the Oscar, and what director Rick Rowley does here with Jeremy Scahill’s investigation is really gripping storytelling. And to many voters the subject matter here is a lot more important and critical than dolphin slaughter or a struggling high school football team or the rediscovery of a singer-songwriter. It’s had a slow ride up the hill of recognition, but the fact that it broke through alongside more noted docs is something. And it just continues wowing anyone who comes across it.

Why It Might Not Win

It is still somewhat less acclaimed than the other nominees, and we could assume that the Hollywood crowd isn’t as interested in docs critical of the Obama administration as they were those focused against the Bush presidency. It also — and this isn’t necessarily a reason it couldn’t win — shouldn’t be mistaken for a film firstly about drones and cover-ups and other issues with the American military when it ought to be celebrated more for how it’s about the man navigating through and reporting on those issues. I’d hate to see it get the award for the wrong reason.

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The Square

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Why It Was Nominated

There have been plenty films about and of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and Arab Spring overall, but director Jehane Noujaim offers the most compelling look at the events in Tahrir Square from the beginning through last summer. It is hardy an exhaustive work but it’s a striking chronicle as well as a complex character journey for a handful of individual subjects.

Why It Might Win

There are a lot of stunning images in this film that voters will find somewhat familiar and currently relevant yet also far from the ordinary pieces we get through the mainstream media. It is a document of history from within as well as from the outside of those moments it puts on display, a film made by people who are themselves a part of that history, and it’s hard to deny how incredible this all is and how remarkable the footage Noujaim and her crew captured is. For many viewers, this is exactly what a documentary feature should be.

Why It Might Not Win

There’s been increased criticism of the film being reported lately from overseas, particularly for its lack of showing everything relevant to the revolution, but none of this should carry over to Academy members. However, there is a chance that this subject matter won’t resonate as much with voters in Hollywood. There’s not as clear and easy a cause to get behind nor, on the other side of the documentary coin, an uplifting triumph for a primary subject. Sadly it just might not be entertaining enough to win under the current process.

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20 Feet From Stardom 

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Why It Was Nominated

Morgan Neville‘s film spotlighting backup singers is one of the most popular documentaries of the year, a truly joyful crowd-pleasing work. And yet it’s not just the entertainment value that likely earned it a nomination. There’s real substance here involving insight into race, gender, the struggle of artists and the problems with the pop music industry over the past half century. Oh, and it’s also a Weinstein Company release.

Why It Might Win

Aside from it having the Harvey Weinstein factor in its favor, it’s just a really good show. And now that the entire Academy is voting in this category, there’s more likelihood of the most enjoyable and accessible movie taking the Oscar. Plus, a lot of people in Hollywood can probably relate to this movie better than the rest, as it’s about performers who’ve spent most of their lives contributing nearly anonymously to something that’s very well known. Not just the actors who aren’t as well-known as a lot of today’s contenders but also numerous craftspeople are themselves 20 feet from stardom. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s both well-made and incredibly appealing.

Why It Might Not Win

We did just have a music doc win last year, so the voters might not want to repeat themselves. If a majority of Academy members feel it’ll be worthwhile this time to honor a film that matters more, particularly one in which some of the filmmakers are totally anonymous contributors (The Act of Killing), or even something with a deeper look at artists and gender and feminism (Cutie and the Boxer) or important views on foreign affairs, whether our own or another nation’s (Dirty Wars and The Square) then this will definitely be thought of as the slightest of the nominees.

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What Should Win: The Act of Killing

Even though I like Cutie and the Boxer more, Oppenheimer’s film is the most deserving and most in need of recognition on this scale. Winners in this Oscar category, maybe more than in any other, really need to be challenging and essential works, both in terms of their craft and artistry and with regards to how substantial they are as stories that matter for our world. That’s not to say it has to be a doc that sheds light on a whole country’s guilt but it should be about more than simply a fascinating story well told. The Act of Killing is the only one of the nominees that is really more than a movie, enough that it should get a Special Achievement Award even if it loses the Oscar for Best Documentary – Feature.

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