Oscars 2014 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Short-Subject

This is a tradition for me. Every year, before the Oscars, I break down every single one of the 24 categories. I do this to familiarize everyone with each category, how it works, what its history is, how it usually turns out, and also as a precursor to my picks article, allowing me to get most of the heavy lifting out of the way beforehand.

How these work is — I go over each category’s history, give you all the previous winners and nominees, then list the current year’s nominees. And then I’ll go over how each of the guilds (if there is a corresponding guild) have went, and how that corresponds to the Oscars (some guilds mean a lot to how a category will play out. Others mean nothing). It’s basically everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision when you make your picks on Oscar night. And then I also rank the nominees at the end in terms of where I see them in terms of their likelihood to win.

Today is Best Documentary Short, the category we care the least about, yet a category that’s not as difficult to pick as Live-Action Short. So at least it has that going for it.

Year Best Documentary (Short Subject) Winners
1941 Churchill’s Island
1942 The Battle of Midway

Kokoda Front Line!

Moscow Strikes Back

Prelude to War

1943 December 7th
1944 With the Marines at Tarawa
1945 Hitler Lives
1946 Seeds of Destiny
1947 First Steps
1948 Toward Independence
1949 (tie) A Chance to Live

So Much for So Little

1950 Why Korea?
1951 Benjy
1952 Neighbours
1953 The Alaskan Eskimo
1954 Thursday’s Children
1955 Men against the Arctic
1956 The True Story of the Civil War
1957 No Award Given.
1958 Ama Girls
1959 Glass
1960 Giuseppina
1961 Project Hope
1962 Dylan Thomas
1963 Chagall
1964 Nine from Little Rock
1965 To Be Alive!
1966 A Year Toward Tomorrow
1967 The Redwoods
1968 Why Man Creates
1969 Czechoslovakia 1968
1970 Interviews with My Lai Veterans
1971 Sentinals of Silence
1972 This Tiny World
1973 Princeton: A Search for Answers
1974 Don’t
1975 The End of the Game
1976 Number Our days
1977 Gravity Is My Enemy
1978 The Flight of the Gossamer Condor
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
1980 Karl Hess: Toward Liberty
1981 Close Harmony
1982 If You Love This Planet
1983 Flamenco at 5:15
1984 The Stone Carvers
1985 Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements
1986 Women – for America, for the World
1987 Young at Heart
1988 You Don’t Have to Die
1989 The Johnstown Flood
1990 Days of Waiting
1991 Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment
1992 Educating Peter
1993 Defending Our Lives
1994 A Time for Justice
1995 One Survivor Remembers
1996 Breathing Lesosns: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien
1997 A Story of Healing
1998 The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years
1999 King Gimp
2000 Big Mama
2001 Thoth
2002 Twin Towers
2003 Chernobyl Heart
2004 Mighty Times: The Children’s March
2005 A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
2006 The Blood of Yingzhou District
2007 Freeheld
2008 Smile Pinki
2009 Music by Prudence
2010 Strangers No More
2011 Saving Face
2012 Inocente
2013 The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life

The great thing about this category is that they’re very open and obvious about what they go for. Kind of like Best Live-Action Short, but with a smaller margin of random decisions. This one is one where, with enough experience, you can immediately spot the one that’s for them.

Here are the last bunch of winners:

2013 — Holocaust survivor plays music every day and used music to overcome the horrors she’s encountered in her life

2012 — Homeless girl paints in order to overcome her situation and surroundings.

2011 — Doctor who performs surgeries on Iranian women who have had acid thrown in their faces

2010 — School in Israel has kids from 30 different countries and all different backgrounds coming together to learn

2009 — A girl with a deformity overcomes the prejudice against people with her condition (in her country, people with her deformity are usually left for dead or cast aside) to make music

2008 — A little girl in India is given surgery to fix a cleft palate.

2007 — A dying police officer wants her death benefits to go to her partner, but the state won’t allow it because they don’t consider same-sex relationships to be legitimate

2006 — Children in China lost their parents to AIDS

See what I mean? Just knowing that, see if you can figure out how this category should play out:

Best Documentary Short

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1


Our Curse

The Reaper

White Earth

Crisis Hotline — about Veterans’ Crisis Line workers who try to help veterans who have emotional, physical, and financial problems.

Joanna — about a blogger who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. She decides to try to live as long as she can, and provide her son as much information as she can give him about what he needs to learn as he grows up.

Our Curse — about the director and his wife, who learn their son has a rare condition that causes him to stop breathing while sleeping that there is no cure for.

The Reaper — about a slaughterhouse worker who has been there for 25 years.

White Earth — about an immigrant mother and her three children who have gone to get work in the oil fields of middle America.

See what I mean? You can pretty much float a couple of those to the top based on what the past results in the category are. Here’s how I see this category shaking out. I’m gonna rank them as I go, because it’s easier to just eliminate the easy ones first and make the decisions as I go.

I will also caution that this is a shorts category, which means nothing I say is fact. If I tell you something is gonna win a big category, then I have facts and precursors and straight up experience to prove it. This category — nobody knows. I’m just going by what I think is most likely gonna happen. If the #5 on my list wins, nobody should be surprised.


5. The Reaper (La Parka) — it doesn’t have a message. It’s about a dude that works in a slaughterhouse. I’m a bit surprised (though not really) that it got nominated. They like messages. Overcoming adversity. Foreign children with obstacles. Big issues. This is a guy who kills animals and says, “Oh, but sometimes you gotta do bad shit to get by.” I just can’t see the voters responding to this as much as they would the other four.

(Here’s where it gets tough. I can make cases for a lot of these.)

4. Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 — for a second there, I thought this was a favorite to win. But now when I look at it, I think, “What does this amount to?” It’s about people who are saying, “We treat our veterans really shitty in this country.” Which we do. But is that a big enough issue for them to actually vote for it as a winner? There has to be some really big moment in it (like, The Phone Call) where it tugs at their heartstrings and their, “Fuck this!” strings. (The “Fuck this!” strings being the ones that get pulled during Documentary Feature, where they get mad at the government for doing something bad. Think Inside Job.) It could win. I just… it doesn’t sound like a sexy choice to me. Think about previous winners: Holocaust/music/overcoming adversity; homeless/art/overcoming adversity; Middle East/violence against women/overcoming adversity; Israel-Palestine/children/cultures coming together; deformity/music/overcoming adversity; foreign child/deformity/overcoming adversity; Same sex marriage/death/overcoming adversity; children/AIDS. Veterans just doesn’t have that sex ring to it for me. Maybe it’ll win. Maybe I’ll change my mind. Right now… not feeling it.

3. White Earth — This one is a wild card. It could win if it’s emotional. Shown through the eyes of an immigrant and children, which are check marks. And it’s about the American Dream. But it seems to be about the boom and is just shown through the eyes of a child. I don’t know if that has enough emotional weight for them to vote for it. In a way, Crisis Hotline is more of a hot button issue than this is. But this has children. So I think both have factors working for them, but they don’t fill out enough of that Venn diagram (that clearly voters look for, based on past results) for me to consider them legit favorites.

2. Our Curse — To me, based on how this category usually goes, we’re between two choices. This is one of them. This is basically Lorenzo’s Oil. Infant has disease that causes him to stop breathing at night. There is no cure. They have to hook him up to a ventilator as he sleeps to keep him alive. It’s a documentary of the family dealing with the news and all of the new reality they now have to deal with. In a way, this is an overcoming adversity film, but it also could be a red herring, because they might be turned off by the guy making it about him and his wife. Since it seems like he talks about the first days at the hospital, their reactions, and their fears, and all of this stuff. And it apparently ends with them having taken precautions and now living their life, trying to be happy as best they can. So it’s clearly one of those where, it could really go over well with the parents in the audience, or it could fall completely flat. That’s why I put it second and not first.

1. Joanna — This one seems to have it all. Woman, overcoming adversity, dying, wanting to teach her son all she can before she dies. It’s like the movie My Life with Michael Keaton done today. Because the person would be a blogger. And they love it when things are tailor made to turn into a movie. That one from 2007, with the same sex marriage and the death benefits? Being turned into a movie now. Freeheld. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. Should be an indie Oscar contender next year. Especially for acting awards. This seems like a slam dunk choice for them. Though, it’s possible they look down on it being about a blogger. That’s my one concern about this. Otherwise, this seems to fit everything they’re looking for and check all the boxes. So I’m considering this the favorite. Not that I know much of anything when it comes to this category. I can get this far, but I can’t guarantee a winner. This is one of those categories where most bets are off.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow is Best Documentary Feature. Because we’re getting all the categories no one cares about out of the way first.


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