One of the most difficult Oscar categories for pundits (let alone regular folk) to predict is the one for feature documentary. And this year more than ever it’s going to be hard to pick the five nominees, because changes to the rules of qualification and voting have given the race an extra element of complication: there is no precedent for how things turn out with this particular selection process in place. In a way, it’s a wide-open field with no certainty that higher-grossing films or more issue-oriented titles or discernibly cinematic works have the greater chance at a nod.
Some expected the number of contenders to be cut in half as a result of the new rules; instead it grew, much to the chagrin of branch leader Michael Moore. And until the annual shortlist narrows them down to 15, we have 130 eligible films to choose from. But most of those docs aren’t plausible nominees. Many of the kind that Moore gets upset about for paying for a screen rental to qualify aren’t likely to go all the way. So they qualified. Now they have to be good and popular enough for people to notice.
The popularity factor is key and may be more effective for familiar titles with 130 choices than 65, because something known as being a success in theaters and at festivals is going to jump out to the voters more than a smaller, little-known work. And nothing that had to pay for play is that popular. Otherwise it should have had true theatrical distribution. This isn’t to say they aren’t good, but not all good is popular. Movie fans of all kinds have long known this is an issue with the Oscars.
And, of course, we know not everything that’s popular fits the Academy’s interests either. For documentary, too, that will apply to the highest-grossing nonfiction titles of the year, 2016: Obama’s America, Chimpanzee and Katy Perry: Part of Me. Next is Bully, which could have a very good shot since The Weinstein Co. distributed it. They’re always Oscar hungry and even garnered a surprise nomination — and win — with Undefeated last year. But now that voting is more open, the question that has plagued other categories in the past comes into play: did it come out too long ago for people to remember what’s good about it?
The factor could very well help Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a character study without a cause, a twist, a powerful story of something achieved or endowed or many of the other elements that has gotten through the system as it was in the past. It’s a simple film about a loveable old man, and it might pick up the nomination that others like it — last year’s Bill Cunningham New York for instance — could not beforehand. Not necessarily to make up for those, however. Jiro is genuinely deserving. As is the very successful character-driven youth ballet competition doc First Position.
As are some other films that could be nominated by a branch who believes certain peers should have an Oscar. Hoop Dreams director Steve James, whose previous film, The Interrupters, was shockingly denied last year, in part inspiring the rule changes, could get that “lifetime achievement” type honor through his recently released Head Games. Ross McElwee, helmer of the autobiographical classic Sherman’s March (one of my personal favorites), may likewise be recognized via his wonderful new doc, Photographic Memory (out this Friday).
Could some highly favored yet less lucrative cause docs still be strong contenders? There’s Oscar winner Jessica Yu’s water crisis film, Last Call at the Oasis (for which I’m blurbed in marketing materials as stating is a certain Oscar nominee), which is produced by constant Academy favorites, Participant Media. There’s Oscar nominee Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, which has already influenced changes in the U.S. military regarding cases of rape and sexual assault. Eugene Jarecki really ought to get his first nod for the War on Drugs doc The House I Live In. Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film is in fact not only a film but one of the best of the year.
Other possibilities are the phenomenal works How to Survive a Plague, Girl Model, Detropia and The Queen of Versailles, all of which are great stories with great characters that rise above their great causes. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the theatrically necessary doc Samsara, which has no story and no character but is amazing audiences with remarkable spectacle, visuals that could even be incredible on an Academy screener. Hopefully. The stunning true crime tale The Imposter will also hopefully be as appreciated by those who don’t see it with the gasps of an audience heightening the experience.
Another film from The Imposter’s producers Simon Chinn (also producer of Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire) and John Battsek has the greater chance, though: Searching for Sugar Man. The debut of Malik Bendjelloul, which tells a kind of musical fairy tale about singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who was a huge star in South Africa and never knew of his fame there for decades, is astonishingly popular. I’ve seen long standing ovations at film fests for this doc. I’ve interviewed multiple filmmakers, many of which are Academy members, who cite it as their favorite of the year (this is probably the best reason to trust this one). And with $1.4 million, it’s made even more money (theatrically anyway) than Marley, a biography of possibly the world’s biggest recording artist.
Searching for Sugar Man was also profiled this evening on 60 Minutes. Or, rather, Rodriguez was, in a way that actually kind of made seeing the film unnecessary afterward. But it will surely get people to see it and others to keep thinking about it. And him, because just as causes were factors in the past, favorite subjects will continue to drive voters. While it’s true that not every documentary that has had this sort of coverage on a network news show has garnered a nomination, the rules are different now and this sort of exposure and extension of notoriety will without a doubt contribute this year.
I can’t say I know what all five nominees will be any better than anyone else — and in the past I’ve admittedly been rather good at predicting the category — but I can assure you that money bet on Searching for Sugar Man is as safe as it is banked.
Here’s a video supplementary to the 60 Minutes piece that reveals one of the reasons the show gave attention to the film and its subject: