Updated 3/1/2014: Read Doc Soup Man’s new prediction at the end of this post.
You couldn’t have two documentaries any further apart. In one corner, we’ve got The Act of Killing, a complex, dark, controversial, political and international tale of Indonesian genocide in the 1960s. In the other, there’s 20 Feet from Stardom, an uplifting, conventionally told documentary about artistic underdogs — backup singers. The former makes you feel sick. The latter make you want to jump up and dance. Who’s going to win?
The Oscars are happening this Sunday, and it’s time to make my prediction about which film will win the Best Documentary Academy Award. Unlike last year , when Searching for Sugar Man was a clear favorite, this year we have a hot contest between two films. The last time the race was close, Undefeated won, and I guessed wrong for the first time, which prompted me to come up with a standard for what wins Oscars: The film needs to really move voters.
With that in mind, let’s consider the contest:
Cutie and the Boxer is a strong documentary about an artist couple, but it doesn’t knock you off your feet.
Dirty Wars is a powerful film about the U.S.’s covert wars. It will get votes from those enraged by the drone program, but that’s about it.
The Square is, in my opinion, the best overall documentary in the running. It’s the best storytelling with the most engaging characters, and the most vital in its depiction of the street battle to turn Egypt into a true democracy. I think many voters will agree. There’s also the fact that Holocaust and Israeli documentaries have such a strong history of being favored at the Oscars, it’s worth considering whether this film will be appealing to those who are looking for justice and a better future for the Middle East. All of which makes it this year’s dark horse.
That leaves two. Let’s start with Twenty Feet from Stardom. It did better at the box office than the rest here, so that is in its favor. And it’s about artists, and the Academy can appreciate that. Based on the Undefeated win, I’d say this is the frontrunner because it’s a film that makes the viewer feel good about him or herself. But, and I’m letting my own opinion color my judgment here, it’s just not that great a film. I found it repetitive and the characters were only so interesting. I can’t see it moving voters enough.
And then there’s The Act of Killing, a film that does something so unpleasant as asking its subjects to recreate the murders that they executed in the past. It’s sick! But it’s so powerful. And it’s raw. It shows the depths of human depravity, and the sad reality of the Third World. And it does so through unseemly B-movie recreations. It moved me, and everyone I know who saw it.
Still, how could anyone in their right mind suggest that a gritty, unpleasant downer about the Third World beat a heart-warming American tale that comes with music?
Here’s why: The Los Angeles Times did a study of the Academy voters last year. And it found that they are nearly 94% white, 77% male, and the median age is 62.
Will old white guys vote for a sweet film about (mostly) African-American women, or for a tough film about men committing genocide? I think it’ll be The Act of Killing, because they will honor the film that took them for an emotional ride.
The 86th Academy Awards air Sunday, March 2, 2014 on ABC.
Update 3/1/2014: Since making this prediction, I’ve had a dark night of the soul and I am going to recant this prediction because I don’t want to mess up anyone’s Oscar voting pool. The truth is, I think this contest is up for grabs between The Act of Killing, 20 Feet from Stardom and The Square. I have come to the conclusion that my personal experience of not being moved by 20 Feet was not shared by most other viewers. So that could put it to the front of this group. But it doesn’t entirely discount what I’ve written here about The Act of Killing winning. What does ultimately kill that film’s chances, as it were, is that the film is so unpleasant to watch, and I think voters (who often see the nominees on DVD) may just turn it off. For the above reasons, I see voters watching The Square, and ultimately saying, “Now, this is what a documentary should be!” And voting for it. My heart says The Act of Killing and my head says 20 Feet. But I’m going with my gut here. So, I am officially changing my vote to The Square.