Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Documentary Feature – ’20 Feet from Stardom’ lightens up a dark bunch

02.26.14 3 years ago 6 Comments

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

Long gone are the days when members of the Academy interested in voting for categories like Best Foreign Language Film, Best Documentary Feature and the shorts had to prove they had seen all the nominees by attending sanctioned screenings. In this brave new world, all of the nominees make it right to their doorsteps as screeners are provided and an honor system of sorts is in place. That will likely lead to some blind and bloc voting in these categories and general popularity will reign more than ever. Good idea? Bad idea? Who can say, really, but this is where we are, and you can bet it will have an affect on the doc features going forward.

The nominees are…

“The Act of Killing” (Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen)
You'd be hard pressed to find another documentary in recent years that has been nominated for an Oscar, a Spirit Award, an International Documentary Association award, a Cinema Eye Honors award and a Gotham Award, but “The Act of Killing” fits that bill. It's also the most critically acclaimed of the year's Oscar nominees in the category and absolutely has a certain popularity on its side. I, for one, have felt all this to be a touch overdone, and while I appreciate the art on display, I have issues with the decisions made in the making of this film. But my feelings don't matter. Nevertheless, it's dark subject matter – the Indonesian anti-Communist purge of 1965 and 1966 – and that will make it a difficult sit for many viewers. (Check out our interview with Oppenheimer here.)

“Cutie and the Boxer” (Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher)
If I had a vote, honestly, I'd spring for “Cutie and the Boxer.” Focused on the tumultuous 40-year marriage of boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko, it's a truly unique document against the rest of this fray and does a wonderful job finding human touches throughout. The added animation elements are interesting and help convey what, ultimately, just resonates as a more interesting personal study to me. It surprised by even landing the nomination, so a win is a tall order, but it came on strong at the Cinema Eye Honors. So it definitely has its fans in the world of documentary filmmaking.

“Dirty Wars” (Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill)
Jeremy Scahill's work is beyond reproach and he tells a very important story with “Dirty Wars.” The investigative journalist takes you inside US cover-ups of military indiscretion and digs in on the assassination of American citizen Anwar al-Awlkai among other things, painting a portrait of a superpower run amok. It would have been a killer study had Scahill not conceived and edited it like a celebration of that work, however, as he's so front and center throughout and it plays like some sort of Bond movie with him as the star. It seems an unlikely winner, particularly with so much going for the other nominees.

“The Square” (Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer)
One film to watch for a potential spoiler is “The Square,” which, like four of its fellow nominees, began this journey way back at Sundance over a year ago. The film won the IDA prize and the DGA award and is obviously a vital document, depicting the on-going Egyptian Revolution of 2011 from its beginnings in Tahrir Square. It's also an Arab Spring companion piece of sorts to documentary short nominee “Karama Has No Walls.” Additionally, it has had a lot of exposure as a result of being available on Netflix for a number of weeks. If anything can upset the most popular player of this bunch, it's probably this one.

“20 Feet from Stardom” (Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers)
But “20 Feet from Stardom” has so, so much going for it. It's lighter amid the dark, serious subject matter of the other nominees. It also has the benefit of a significant campaign that kept the film and its subjects – backup singers young and old – in the spotlight. Remember, with everyone voting, the most visible nominee is likely to get a lot of passing votes from those who may not have seen all the nominees. But all of that isn't to knock this film as a trifle, either. It's actually an exceptional piece of work and would make for a handsome victor. The story it has to tell is absolutely worth telling, as much as any of the socio-political stuff flying around the other nominees.

Will win: “20 Feet from Stardom”
Could win: “The Square”
Should win: “Cutie and the Boxer”
Should have been here: “God Loves Uganda”

I didn't see as many documentaries this past year as I typically do, but I also wasn't as high on Sarah Polley's “Stories We Tell” as most others were. It's a lovely document, and probably should have been in the mix, but given where the world finds itself, this very day a despicable bill being vetoed in Arizona that was essentially a call to discrimination against the LGBT community, something like “God Loves Uganda” being in the mix would have been nice.

What do you think deserves to win Best Documentary Feature this year? Vote in our poll below.

Who should have been here instead? Have your say in the comments section.

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