Oscar’s documentary lineup typically constitutes the black sheep-iest of the award show’s 24 races, but this year’s crop of nominees is less odd, less disreputable, than usual. Many have bemoaned the omission of Blackfish and Stories We Tell from this year’s race, but I applaud the Academy for having the guts to acknowledge both Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s The Square and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, two fervid activist visions that are unmistakably form-pushing. Of course, that they’re also the most esoteric of the category’s nominees makes this business of predicting a winner here a little easier. We also rule out the topical Dirty Wars for being, in its too-frequent foregrounding of Jeremy Scahill, as self-serving as Stories We Tell, only without exhibiting a smidgen of Sarah Polley’s cunning, if calculated, artistic ambition.
That leaves this as a showdown between two docs about artistic struggle and sacrifice: Cutie and the Boxer and Twenty Feet from Stardom. The former, while more successful, perhaps wrongly assumes the audience’s acquaintance with Ushio Shinohara’s life and work, and as such is easier to appreciate as a study of, to quote our own Chris Cabin, “the concurrent excitement and frustration of living with a praised artist’s ego.” Twenty Feet from Stardom may be more blasé in construction, but it exudes an overwhelming sense of familiarity whenever its subjects, back-up singers for headliner artists, sing songs you never knew they were responsible for. Director Morgan Neville may reveal a too-optimistic agenda in the way he skimps on tragedy, and may avoid considering the effects of certain sociocultural contexts on the music some of these artists produced, but the heartache, the longing, the humility felt by these women will no doubt resonate with every AMPAS member—actor, director, screenwriter, costume designer, and cinematographer alike—who’s ever struggled to rise from the depths of obscurity.
Will Win: Twenty Feet from Stardom
Could Win: Cutie and the Boxer
Should Win: The Act of Killing