2014 Oscar Prediction: Best Documentary – Short Subject

It’s a mediocre year for the Best Documentary – Short Subject category. It had been having a pretty good run, too. The Academy’s recent picks have included some remarkable little films, from simply told character profiles like Inocente and God Is the Bigger Elvis, to wise community portraits like Kings Point and Redemption, and formally intriguing works like The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom and Rabbit à la Berlin (a personal favorite). There’s a a bit of a stereotype that this category is always just an endless parade of blandly-directed films that exist only to tug at heartstrings, but it’s actually more complex than that. Unfortunately, the batch this time around has fallen short. The nominees for Best Documentary Short at the 86th Academy Awards include one decent film, two half-decent films, one mediocre film and one bad film.

With that whining out of the way, here are the films and where they stand. One of them will win, after all, no matter how much we like the overall quality of the batch.

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

Cavedigger

CAVEDIGGER-1

Why It Was Nominated

Cavedigger is a character study of an artist with a very specific skill set: he makes beautiful sandstone caves for wealthy clients. His name is Ra Paulette and he’s a worthy documentary subject, charismatic and committed to his artistic integrity but also a bit stubborn and oblivious to those around him. Director Jeffrey Karoff does a solid job introducing the man’s life and his work.

Why It Might Win

Documentaries about artists have won here before, including Inocente just last year, plus Music by Prudence in 2009 and A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin in 2005.

Why It Might Not Win

Inocente and Music by Prudence aren’t just about painting and songwriting, they’re about the struggles their subjects have had with poverty and disability. Paulette’s struggle is primarily with his own stubborn ambition, an entirely valid problem that probably won’t bring the Academy to tears.

dashes

Facing Fear

facing-fear-1

Why It Was Nominated

Much more so than CavediggerFacing Fear presumably rode to a nomination entirely due to its subject matter: a gay man and the former skinhead who brutally assaulted him in his youth, now working together at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Why It Might Win

Again, this is about the strength of the subject matter. The two men do a great job at telling their story, having had an awful lot of practice through their admirable work advocating for tolerance. Also, if the voters are primarily L.A. people they may be fans of the museum.

Why It Might Not Win

Formally speaking it’s the least interesting film on the list. A handful of archival material is used, but it’s basically just the interview with the two subjects and some footage of their work at the museum. It feels more like something that would be shown to a tour group than an Oscar-nominated film.

dashes

Karama Has No Walls

karama-1

Why It Was Nominated

The power and importance of the footage collected in this chronicle of the Yemeni Revolution is enough to merit the attention. And while director Sara Ishaq chose to tell perhaps one too many stories with this material, the nomination is quite viscerally understandable once you’ve seen these extraordinary images of Yemen’s capital city in flames.

Why It Might Win

Karama Has No Walls may very well ride to victory on the same wave of support that has taken The Square this far in the documentary feature race. The current international mood, with revolutionary unrest in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand may also have an influence.

Why It Might Not Win

Karama Has No Walls is both too much and not enough like The SquareBoth films restrict themselves to the influence of a single place of protest and the way it affects the lives of a very specific list of protesters. Yet Ishaq tries to fit too much into her 26-minute film, and the result is a resonant but cramped experience. It can’t achieve the same balance as Jehane Noujaim‘s feature because there simply isn’t enough time.

dashes

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

lady in number 6

Why It Was Nominated

Again, this is all about subject. Alice Herz-Sommer was the oldest living Holocaust survivor until her death just this past Sunday. She was 110 years old. She was funny, irrepressibly warm and immensely talented, having spent many years as a concert pianist.

Why It Might Win

Well, there’s the obvious fact that perhaps media coverage of her death will pull some heartstrings. Yet voting closed on Tuesday the 25th, and the documentary short category requires that a voter has seen all five nominees. That means Academy screenings, and we don’t know when they took place. If anything this has a better shot because of the good fortune of its director, Malcolm Clarke. He won this award back in 1988 for You Don’t Have to Die, a film about a young boy who beats cancer. He was also nominated in 2002 in the Best Documentary Feature category for Prisoner of Paradise, about a German-Jewish actor who was forced to direct a Nazi propaganda film from within Theresienstadt.

Why It Might Not Win

It’s really bad. It surrounds poor Alice with overconfident, weeping music and lots of insufferable soft lighting. Clarke overstates everything, as if he isn’t even confident that his audience has heard of the Holocaust before. Even this year, when none of the other films are particularly stunning, it stands out as the worst.

dashes

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall 

prison-terminal-jack-hall-01

Why It Was Nominated

Prison Terminal doesn’t break any rules or push the envelope formally, but it tells a good story and it gets its pace right. It is both about the prison system at large and the specific experience of one aging convict and World War II veteran, as he’s approaching death. When compared to other HBO documentaries made in the last year, it sits somewhere in the middle, very respectable.

Why It Might Win

The cynical answer is that it skews older, like the Academy. In particular, the segment of the Academy that can attend daytime shorts screenings skews older and retired. It’s also just a bit glossier than the other films nominated and feels more like the sort of high-quality journalistic style that often wins in the Best Documentary Feature category. It definitely hits the right emotional notes as well, and its central figure can be seen as a sort of metaphor for the last American century, from his World War II service through his struggle to overcome his own racial prejudices in prison.

Why It Might Not Win

It really depends on what the voters are moved by most. The Lady in Number 6 has a more personal emotional pull, Karama Has No Walls has the benefit of an international political zeitgeist. Prison Terminal needs the Academy audience to be in the mood for a more domestic sort of community feeling.

dashes

What Should Win: Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

While it’s not really anything to be excited about, Prison Terminal is the best work here. When compared with the other four, its biggest strength is that it knows exactly how much it wants to say given the limits of its short running time, a virtue that cannot be overstated in this case. Karama Has No WallsThe Lady in Number 6 and Cavedigger rush and try giving the audience too much information or context. Facing Fear, on the other hand, stretches itself too thin. Were this any of the last five years Prison Terminal would be toward the middle of the pack, but in this group it’s the clear champ.

oscar-2014-read-more

MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB


Leave a Reply