Best Documentary Feature

At first, it seems like this is an odd year for Best Documentary Feature. A lot of the early favorites weren’t nominated, and some of them didn’t even make the shortlist. I’m thinking of Central Park Five and Bully, and to an extent The House I Live InHowever, in spite of how unexpected it feels, that almost always happens.

If anything, this is a strange but predictable year for the category. We have a front-runner, even if the list appears to be diverse in content and full of impressively affecting films.

Incidentally, watch the winner. This year’s fiction nominees include two films based on prior documentary Oscar-winners. Kon-Tiki in Best Foreign Language Film is based on the journey of Thor Heyerdahl to Polynesia, the documentary of which won in 1952. The Sessions, meanwhile, is based on Jessica Yu’s short doc winner Breathing Lessons.

Could we see another Oscar-nominated adaptation from this list? I’m looking at you, Searching for Sugar Man.

Here are the nominees with my prediction in red:

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5 Broken Cameras

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Why It Was Nominated

It’s an extraordinary feat of independent filmmaking. Independent here doesn’t mean intrepid American director making a movie for under $10m, either. It means a lone man with his camera. Or, rather, five cameras. The difficulty of taking this footage in the face of violent assaults on both his community and his equipment makes its very existence pretty extraordinary, never mind how compelling it is.

Why It Might Win

The best thing 5 Broken Cameras has going for it in this race is its raw power. It’s affecting, personal, and deeply human without needing the graphics of a more expensive film or the context of interviews with experts. The Academy occasionally likes that stuff, nominating films like Burma VJ in the past.

Why It Might Not Win

Burma VJ didn’t win either. The Academy likes polished and affecting, but not necessarily only one of the two. Powerful human rights films have won in the past, but in recent years the winners have all been much more primped than 5 Broken Cameras. It’s also politically challenging and perhaps controversial, not necessarily due to its content but due to how it has been spun. It won’t be a consensus title.

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The Gatekeepers

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Why It Was Nominated

While 5 Broken Cameras takes something that we had all read about and gives it immediacy, The Gatekeepers is actually creating news. These interviews with the former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, are important and revelatory documents in the history of the occupation of the West Bank. The dedication and skill of Dror Moreh in getting these men to talk shines through and is certainly worthy of awards consideration.

Why It Might Win

The Academy has gone for this sort of film before, most notably giving the Oscar to Errol Morris for The Fog of War, the most obvious influence on The Gatekeepers. This is bold, high quality work and it’s much more polished than 5 Broken Cameras. It could swoop in and take the prize.

Why It Might Not Win

However, it might be too tough to take. It ends on a profoundly negative note, with rhetoric that might rub some Academy members the wrong way. It’s challenging to the entire way that many Americans have perceived the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and while it is occasionally timid in its handling of its interview subjects, it is nothing but direct and brutal regarding the failures of certain former Prime Ministers. It could easily be too much to take.

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How to Survive a Plague

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Why It Was Nominated

It’s heartbreaking, inspiring, and historic without even a second of exaggeration or condescension. David France’s work is a triumph of editing and assembling archival footage, a thoroughly told historical narrative and an ode to some of America’s most undervalued heroes. It’s among the best films nominated in any category.

Why It Might Win

The Academy loves all of those things, of course. How to Survive a Plague is both infuriating and life-affirming, depressing enough to win but not so depressing that it ruins the mood of some more easily bothered Academy members.

Why It Might Not Win

This may seem cynical, but in recent years when the Oscar has gone to issue films, it has gone to current issue films. How to Survive a Plague ends almost too optimistically about the end of the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Its single weakness might be its lack of urgency. The Cove, An Inconvenient Truth and Inside Job all end with immediate, present demands.

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The Invisible War

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Why It Was Nominated

Kirby Dick’s in-depth exposé on sexual harassment within the military is an extremely important American film, the necessity of which was even recognized by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. It’s both emotionally affecting and politically invigorating, anger-inducing without being an angry film.

Why It Might Win

It’s the issue film about the United States, giving it a home town urgency that 5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers don’t have. The endorsement of Panetta lends it an air of movement and change, perhaps enough to whisk it into victory.

Why It Might Not Win

I know I keep saying this, but it might be too much to take. Inside Job was about abuses of math and money, The Cove was about the faraway slaughter of animals, and An Inconvenient Truth was a PowerPoint presentation. The Invisible War takes one of America’s most essential institutions and essentially accuses it of silently abetting rape. It could come as too much of a shock.

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Searching for Sugar Man

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Why It Was Nominated

The music is great and it gives you the warm fuzzies. That’s the essence of its success. Sure, it makes claims as to the historical importance of Rodriguez in the fall of Apartheid and includes the context of declining Detroit, but both of those are mostly just there to support the emotional oomph. Neither of them are particularly well explored as political or economic stories in the film. Searching for Sugar Man is here because it puts people in a good mood.

Why It Might Win

Simply put, it’s been winning everything. It just picked up the BAFTA, it won the Critics’ Choice, it won the PGA. It’s practically unstoppable at this point.

Why It Might Not Win

The Academy is different. They like serious documentaries about important issues, or at least we think they do. That’s why Inside Job beat Exit Through the Gift Shop. I don’t know which of the four more serious films would win it, but if Sugar Man loses it will be for this reason.

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What Will Win: At this point it’s become almost painfully obvious. Searching for Sugar Man is poised to take the Oscar without much difficulty. The competition is stiff, but there isn’t one film that has rallied enough support to sneak up from behind. Everyone get ready for the inevitable Rodriguez biopic, starring Johnny Depp.

What Should Win: This one is more difficult. Personally, I think every other film on this list is more awards worthy than Searching for Sugar Man, but what do I know. Of the four, I think I would give a slight edge to How to Survive a Plague. It’s probably the one with the best chance of surprising Sugar Man, and it’s the best of the bunch. It’s stuck with me in the profoundest of ways, as I remember its moments of deep sadness, righteous anger and great relief.

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Read more about The Oscars


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