Oscar Guide 2013: Best Documentary Feature

(Welcome to the Oscar Guide, your chaperone through the Academy”s 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 24, with the Best Picture finale on Friday, February 22.)

The staggering number of quality documentary features this year has been well-covered here and elsewhere. When the Academy made its inevitable cuts in the finalists stage, as usual, a great many gems were left off. But one couldn’t argue with that slate of 15, a truly monumental set of contenders for the most part. And yet, one film has stood out as the frontrunner since it bowed at Sundance over a year ago.

The documentary features were sent to the entire voting membership of the Academy this year, along with the live action and animated shorts. That wider pool could change how one typically picks this race, but it really just means that popularity will reign supreme. And the film leading the charge this year is nothing if not popular.

The nominees are…

“5 Broken Cameras” (Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi)
“The Gatekeepers” (Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky and Estelle Fialon)
“How to Survive a Plague” (David France and Howard Gertler)
“The Invisible War” (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering)
“Searching for Sugar Man” (Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn)

I found it unfortunate that brilliant studies like “The Central Park Five” and “West of Memphis” couldn’t even get to the finalists stage. And of those that did make the cut, I think a place absolutely should have been made for Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” kicking up a fuss on HBO as of late (and surely having a hand in recent news regarding The Pope). To say nothing of my personal top 10 entry, “The Queen of Versailles.” Nevertheless, again, it was a strong overall slate, and it yielded a dynamic group of nominees.

If you’re asking me, far and away the most amazing, gripping, meaningful film on the list is Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Cinema Eye Honor-winning “5 Broken Cameras.” The film’s mere existence is a bit of a miracle, as the eponymous cameras were shot at, tossed on the ground, etc. They pretty much succumbed to every death the filmmaker, Burnat, fortunately dodged as he documented peaceful Palestinian protests in a West Bank village that repeatedly gave way to violent outlash from Israeli security forces. That very pre-Palestine bias (which was nevertheless edited together and sculpted by Israeli Davidi) could hold it back, or it could rise above that and resonate.

Interestingly enough, there is another argument of nuance in this debate nominated, in the form of Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers.” The film is less concerned with formalism, a talking head study of the Israeli Shin Bet from the mouths of six of its former heads. But it is no less explosive for what those former heads have to say about mistakes made in the on-going struggle in the Middle East and, indeed, notions of futility in the overall conflict that has waged from the Six-Day War to the present. It says some things that supporters of Israel might flinch at, but it can’t be dismissed and ought to be seen as a threat to the frontrunner, in fact.

David France’s “How to Survive a Plague,” which won the Best First Feature prize from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Gotham Award for Best Documentary, is as much a feat of editing as anything else. Pieced together from archival footage and audio of the period, the film tells the story of the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the efforts of advocacy groups to put it on a central stage in socio-political awareness. It’s a tale of heroes, nothing less, and is quite affecting particularly considering it’s hardly about ancient history. Yet it’s mounted in such monumental way, a testament, really.

If voters want to spring for a film that could bring about real change, they should look no further than Kirby Dick’s incendiary, infuriating “The Invisible War.” The film first hit at Sundance in January 2012 and has found its way into the political dialogue both among pundits and Congressmen and women ever since. A dissection of rape in the military and the institutional structure that allows it to go on largely unpunished, to say nothing of the post-trauma benefits that system denies countless victims, it made me want to burn down everything in sight when I saw it. And, like “The Gatekeepers,” it should be seen as a potential threat, because that kind of a strong reaction could go a long way this year.

Nevertheless, it’s Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” that has dominated the space since it also bowed at Sundance last year. It’s a delightful film, a compelling story well told with an eye to craft and a charismatic subject to detail. But it’s been confusing to see it so embraced as “the one” in a year as meaningful as this has been on the non-fiction filmmaking front. It is immensely popular, though, and that will only benefit in a voting structure such as this. The film has won awards from the International Documentary Association, the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America, so there’s no reason to think it’s going to suddenly derail now. Though never say never.

Will Win: “Searching for Sugar Man”
Could Win: “The Invisible War”
Should Win: “5 Broken Cameras”
Should Have Been Here: “The Queen of Versailles”

Do you think there’s any chance of a surprise in the Best Documentary Feature category? Can anyone upset “Searching for Sugar Man?” Tell us in the comments section!