Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One Category at a Time: Documentary

Last year's decision to send out screeners of the nominated docs and allow the entire Academy to vote on them made it a pretty easy category to predict. The dominance of Searching for Sugar Man with the guilds was further bolstered by the fact that it was clearly the nominee with the widest appeal, and would obviously do better with a larger voting pool. This year's race, however, is more up in the air. No one documentary has dominated industry precursors, and the presumed popular favourite might suffer from similarities to last year's winner.
That presumed popular favourite is Morgan Neville's 20 Feet from Stardom, which takes a look at the lives and work of back-up singers who never made it big despite having more than enough talent to do so. Personally, I felt the film was less remarkable than its incredibly gifted subjects, but its strong box office performance this summer indicates that it's a crowd favourite. I do, however, predict it with reservations, because last year's winning doc was also about a brilliant but overlooked musical artist, and of this year's nominated five, 20 Feet from Stardom is the one with the least "important" subject matter. But will capital-I Importance really be that big a factor when tabulating the votes of 6000 Academy members as opposed to the few hundred who used to vote in this category?

It is possible, if there are enough lazy voters who vote without seeing all (or any) of the nominees, that a buzzier doc with more critical clout could take the win on perceived prestige alone. That could well be the case with Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, which took the lion's share of critics awards and the BAFTA for its unusual account of the 1960s genocide of supposed communists in Indonesia. It probably has the highest profile of the five nominees, which automatically gives it an edge with a broader voting group, but I wonder how many members of the older Academy will truly respond to its unique approach. It's actually been criticized as much as celebrated for giving voice to the executioners who murdered hundreds of innocents during this dark passage of Indonesian history, and may alienate conservative viewers who prefer their docs to be more straightforward.
A happy medium, then, between socially relevant content and broad accessibility would likely be Jehane Noujaim's The Square, which stolidly observs the youth revolution in Egypt from the ground and in the streets. The topicality of its current-events subject may strike a chord with many a viewer, as it clearly did with the DGA who handed Noujaim their prize for Documentary Direction. I would be in no way surprised to see it win, and really can't think of any justification not to predict it other than the theory that the appeal of 20 Feet from Stardom might be a bit wider, having won Best Documentary honours from the BFCA's large organization.

Another nominee with the whiff of sociopolitical significance about it his Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars, which digs for government conspiracies in America's seemingly perpetual military involvement in the Middle East. It's certainly an elaborate piece of investigative journalism, but I wonder if some voters might be put off by how much limelight Scahill shines upon himself in the film. No question he's a determined reporter, but purists who feel that documentarians should be objective and invisible may not approve. Also, the subject matter can't help but feel stale at this point. Several Iraq/Afghanistan-based docs have been nominated in recent years but none have won since Taxi to the Dark Side did it six years ago.
Rounding out the category is a film that was seemingly off most awards-watchers' radar, but I am sooo glad the documentary branch took notice and directed my attention to it! Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer is a wonderful, intimate portrait of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, whose differences in art and in life make them a truly fascinating married couple. This topic may seem slight to some, but I bet it'll earn more than a few votes from a group of people who are themselves artists. However, its low profile and lack of precursor attention hurts its chances. It's hard to earn the blind support from someone who hasn't seen your film unless your film is the defacto critical favourite of the year. This film may be darling, but unfortunately it wasn't the critics' darling.

Will win: 20 Feet from Stardom
Runner-up: The Square

Should win: The Square
Should've been nominated: Stories We Tell

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