Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Documentary

It almost seems like AMPAS is trying to pull one over on us—or, at the very least, sneak one past us while we’re not looking.

Searching for Sugar Man
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

It almost seems like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying to pull one over on us—or, at the very least, sneak one past us while we’re not looking. After years of taking heat for the screwy nominations and screwier winners in categories such as this, all sorts of quality controls were initiated for face-saving purposes, from committees who’d govern over those wishing to vote in these categories to members needing to validate that they’ve seen all the nominees at screenings before casting their ballots. Then, one day after this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, while the world was still reeling from a litany of jaw-dropping snubs (Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, Jafar Panahi, etc.), AMPAS president Hawk Koch announces that all Oscar voters will be invited to pick the winners in the documentary feature and live-action and animated short categories after being sent screeners of all the nominated films, and all on the Academy’s dime. Which begs all sorts of questions: Why not the documentary short category as well? Hell, why not every Oscar category? Who gets to explain to Eli Wallach what a screener is? If 5 Broken Cameras lands first in Vanessa Redgrave’s DVD player, will she care to see any other nominated film in this category? If a tree falls…

The Invisible War, Kirby Dick’s documentary about sexual assaults in the U.S. military, certainly doesn’t lack for import, yet it’s almost soberingly objective to a fault—so insufficiently incensed that it even caused one of our own to check out while watching it. The finest film in this lot by a country mile, 5 Broken Cameras is an enraged, metaphoric, ballsily crafted document of Israeli aggression toward Palestinians—and yet, in a bizarre, almost perverse move, some might even say telling, the Israeli government and media over the past month has tried to co-opt the film as their own. If Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s film is insufficiently pro-Jewish to score a victory here, so, too, is Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, a disquieting overview of the Shin Bet’s activities since the Six-Day War featuring a few too many acknowledgements from former operatives of the security agency that Israel has gone too far over the years in its attempts to defend the state. If Bigelow’s snub in the director category even remotely signals that the Academy is suffering from torture fatigue, both documentaries may face an uphill battle.

David France’s How to Survive a Plague, one of our top 25 films of last year, is a stirring, poignant, intelligently edited document of AIDS activism in this country. This highly subjective film, which isn’t without its lapses in taste, still feels as if it’s been designed largely as a history lesson for those who aren’t intimately familiar with the nuances of ACT UP’s heroic struggle to raise AIDS awareness over the years while fighting political inaction in the halls of our American government. Of course, the film’s power is unmistakable, so powerful in fact that we don’t even think voters will care that France’s triumph was realized almost entirely inside the editing room, where he distilled over 700 hours of stock footage from the “plague years” down to two. But is it powerful enough to stave off one of the most crowd-pleasing documentaries, Malik Bendjellou’s Searching for Sugar Man, ever nominated in this category?

Confession: Two weeks ago we weren’t ready to call this just yet for Bendjellou’s irritatingly money-obsessed documentary about the search for musician Sixto Rodriguez following a long-ago rumored suicide. The film touches on a cornucopia of themes, such as fan worship, and does so in a way that, to quote our own Eric Henderson, “obfuscates so as to build to a heartening finale.” It’s a popular tactic, sometimes used for less enlivening purposes, that hasn’t done docs like Anvil! The Story of Anvil and The Imposter any favors when it’s come to getting the Academy’s attention. Also, it doesn’t seem to help that Rodriguez, unlike Philippe Petit or Argo, doesn’t exactly want for Hollywood validation. But the film, whose ostensible pleasures I continue to be immune to after two viewings, has been heralded far and wide as an intelligently crafted, audience-involving mystery, and one with an unmistakably happy ending—not to mention an irresistible soundtrack. Our hearts aren’t with the film, but given that Searching for Sugar Man has triumphed with awards groups with particularly Oscar-y instincts (namely the National Board of Review and the PGA), to bet against it wouldn’t make us very savvy betting men.

Will Win: Searching for Sugar Man

Could Win: How to Survive a Plague

Should Win: 5 Broken Cameras

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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