Roger Ebert Documentary ‘Life Itself’ Is the Film to Beat for the 2014 Academy Award

By  · Published on July 1st, 2014

Magnolia Pictures

We’re halfway through the year, which means there are still a few months left before any movies start looking like Best Picture contenders. But it also means that we’ve already heard about most of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature of 2014. Those nominees won’t be announced until January 15th. The shortlist won’t even arrive until November or December. Yet at this point in the year, with most of the relevant film festivals out of the way, there are titles that are easily seen as frontrunners. One of these, though, is racing way ahead of the competition. According to many in the doc community, a particular film opening this Friday is a definite lock for the Oscar: the Roger Ebert profile Life Itself.

It is indeed really great, surely one of the best works of nonfiction this year (see my five star review at Nonfics), but that’s not the only reason it has the race won already. It’s not really the main reason, either. Those I’ve heard from on this matter state the primary factor as being its appeal and connection to the Academy voters. “Every member who received a good review from Roger is going to pick Life Itself,” said Adam Benzine of Realscreen. I don’t know if that’s the safest bet, but there is the fact that Ebert was a huge supporter of documentary filmmakers, including some influential figures in the documentary branch of the Academy. Life Itself features a couple of them, as well as Martin Scorsese, who also served as executive producer alongside Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian.

I think all that inside Hollywood stuff can actually be an obstacle. What if voters aren’t able to see the film for how great it is due to how personally linked they are to the subject matter? And do enough of the old members care about Ebert the way Scorsese’s generation does? Might they view this as a nice tribute and little more? That should be fine for the nomination, akin to the short subject God is the Bigger Elvis, which is about an actual Academy member, but that didn’t take home the statuette.

Another big factor at play is that the Academy and its new style doc branch want to finally honor director Steve James. His Hoop Dreams is one of the most notorious snubs of all time (in the documentary feature category; James, Frederick Marx and William Haugse received Oscar nominations for the film’s editing), and the exclusion of his more recent The Interrupters from even the shortlist is part of the reason the nominating process received a major overhaul a few years ago. This category rarely goes the way of the IOU or lifetime achievement consideration route. James could just have to wait until his 80s for an honorary Oscar a la D.A. Pennebaker.

Don’t worry about Life Itself’s qualification for the award. The Academy not only permits its day-and-date theatrical/VOD release but I’ve also confirmed that the film violated no rules by playing in thousands of homes back in January, when fans taking part in the Indiegogo crowdfunding effort were able to stream the doc during its Sundance debut. In fact, the Academy gave the okay before the online screenings were set up. They may not have happened if they’d kept the film from Oscar eligibility.

I don’t like to throw my hat in so early on, so I’m not going agree just yet with the people predicting Life Itself to win. For all I know, with my mention of Oscar in my Interrupters review and other past films that weren’t even nominated, I know better than to do so anymore. But for the sake of the Oscar column I’m playing along with the consideration. For that, we have to also see what kind of competition or fellow contenders are likely to be announced next year. I think the biggest threat is Keep On Keepin’ On, an upcoming documentary about Jazz legend Clark Terry, who at 89 becomes mentor to a young blind piano prodigy. Not only is it from a producer of Oscar nominees The Cove and Chasing Ice, but it’ll be released by The Weinstein Company, who won this category twice in the past three years (Undefeated and 20 Feet From Stardom) and had two nominees last year.

The big argument against Keep On winning is that it’d be the third music film in a row to do so. I say never underestimate the Weinsteins. But there’s also the obesity epidemic issue film Fed Up, another potential nominee for the distributor that is also one of the top-grossing docs of the year so far. Just don’t count on their additional lighter titles, namely Mike Myers’s Supermensch and the LEGO fan doc Beyond the Brick, or Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, which opened this year yet qualified for last.

Fed Up’s fellow box office hit Finding Vivian Maier could also have a shot, especially given how many celebrities have been turned on to the title photographer’s works. Financial success doesn’t typically equate to Academy favor, though, so we mustn’t look at the chart toppers for nominations. Then again, Disneynature’s Bears is the best-reviewed of that brand’s features by a long shot, so perhaps it could be its first Oscar contender, too.

If James’s biggest rivals this year are fellow past nominees (and winners), there are new films by Sebastian Junger (Korengal), Joe Berlinger (Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger), Alex Gibney (Finding Fela! and Untitled James Brown Documentary), Leon Gast (Manny), Marshall Curry (Point and Shoot), Debra Granik (Stray Dog), Hubert Sauper (We Come as Friends), Ross Kaufman (E-Team) and producer Simon Chinn (The Green Prince). Oh, and that LEGO doc is co-directed by one winner, Daniel Junge, and one nominee, Kief Davidson, so maybe that’s not necessarily a lighter choice.

I’ve seen a lot of these and am not sure of many of them being too feasible. I haven’t yet seen The Green Prince, Stray Dog, We Comes as Friends, E-Team or Keep on Keepin’ On, and so they’re still the strongest given their buzz. Two films I haven’t mentioned yet that are among my picks for best of 2014 so far are The Overnighters, which I’m not alone in thinking has a great shot at a nomination, and The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which like Life Itself is a tremendous achievement in biography, and this one is so much about the times we live in that I’d love to see it recognized on as grand a level as the Oscars.

Nothing is as enjoyable as Life Itself, and in recent years the most crowdpleasing contender has won. Don’t be surprised if a film about a film critic is a big winner at the Oscars on February 22nd. And don’t be surprised if the four it beats are Keep On Keepin’ On, The Overnighters, Finding Vivien Maier and The Green Prince.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.