Oscars 2014 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Feature

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 Feature, a category that is about a half-step away from being dead to me.

Year Best Documentary Winners
1942 The Battle of Midway

Kokoda Front Line!

Moscow Strikes Back

Prelude to War

1943 Desert Victory
1944 The Fighting Lady
1945 The True Glory
1946 No Award Given.
1947 Design for Death
1948 The Secret Land
1949 Daybreak in Udi
1950 The Titan: Story of Michelangelo
1951 Kon-Tiki
1952 The Sea Around Us
1953 The Living Desert
1954 The Vanishing Prairie
1955 Helen Keller in Her Story (aka The Unconquered)
1956 The Silent World
1957 Albert Schweitzer
1958 White Wilderness
1959 Serengeti Shall Not Die
1960 The Horse with the Flying Tail
1961 Sky Above and Mud Beneath
1962 Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler
1963 Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World
1964 World Without Sun
1965 The Eleanor Roosevelt Story
1966 The War Game
1967 The Anderson Platoon
1968 Journey Into Self
1969 Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life
1970 Woodstock
1971 The Hellstorm Chronicle
1972 Marjoe
1973 The Great American Cowboy
1974 Hearts and Minds
1975 The Man Who Skied Down Everest
1976 Harlan County, USA
1977 Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?
1978 Scared Straight!
1979 Best Boy
1980 From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China
1981 Genocide
1982 Just Another Missing Kid
1983 He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing
1984 The Times of Harvey Milk
1985 Broken Rainbow
1986 (tie) Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got

Down and Out in America

1987 The Ten-Year Lunch
1988 Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie
1989 Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
1990 American Dream
1991 In the Shadow of the Stars
1992 The Panama Deception
1993 I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School
1994 Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
1995 Anne Frank Remembered
1996 When We Were Kings
1997 The Long Way Home
1998 The Last Days
1999 One Day in September
2000 Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport
2001 Murder on a Sunday Morning
2002 Bowling for Columbine
2003 The Fog of War
2004 Born into Brothels
2005 March of the Penguins
2006 An Inconvenient Truth
2007 Taxi to the Dark Side
2008 Man on Wire
2009 The Cove
2010 Inside Job
2011 Undefeated
2012 Searching for Sugar Man
2013 20 Feet from Stardom

The interesting takeaway from that list is, five of the past six years, a “populist” choice won. I say populist and mean — a documentary that’s more for everyone, and more entertaining than about a particular issue. Man on Wire is about a dude that walked on a wire because he wanted to. The Cove is about dolphin killing, but also really entertaining. Inside Job is straight up an issue film, and beat the populist film that year (Exit Through the Gift Shop). Undefeated is about a football team that didn’t lose a game one season. Searching for Sugar Man is about a guy that released two great albums and disappeared, but was really popular in South Africa and was rediscovered and it’s about his life in between. 20 Feet from Stardom is about backup singers. Only two of those really are about any “issue.” Most of them are just fun watches that can be movies. And now, given the open voting, where you don’t have to have seen all five to vote, the category is lending itself to those winning.

However… the film that would have won that hands down this year… Life Itself… WASN’T NOMINATED!!

That’s insane. But, we won’t get into that. Because we’re only here to talk about what is here. You know how football coaches are asked about players holding out and they go, “I’m only gonna talk about the players that are here”? That’s what this is. Can’t do anything about it. “I can only control what I can control.”

And I can’t begin to discuss how this category turned out, since this is the most bizarre branch left. They fixed the Music branch. This is the one that’s the most broken right now. (It’s not Animation. I know people are upset with them, but that’s just them making a statement. One that I ultimately agree with.) Nobody understands how they manage to come up with a shortlist, leaving what a lot of people would consider the best documentaries off, and they understand even less how they can come up with a category. So we’re just gonna deal with what’s nominated.

Here’s your category:

Best Documentary

CitizenFour

Finding Vivian Maier

Last Days in Vietnam

The Salt of the Earth

Virunga

You know what’s funny? This year, I made a conscious effort to watch every documentary screener we got at the office (mostly to pad my total). I ended up watching four of these nominees. (Which is interesting in itself, that just about every documentary that went out as a screener got nominated. I wonder if that has something to do with it. Not that they were seen by more people, since these went out to the Academy at large, and not the specific branch… though I’m sure it helps. But more so… maybe these are just the ones that have more money behind them and are the ones that can campaign actively and sway people. Maybe that’s why the branch is broken.)

Anyway, I saw four of these. So I can actually speak relatively informed about this one.

Rankings:

5. The Salt of the Earth — I watched this movie and was bored out of my mind. Dude just takes a lot of pictures. That’s it. No message, no real anything. Wim Wenders co-directed, and I guess that’s just what it takes. He got nominated for Pina in 2011. I guess they just voted for it because of him. Or because they like to have one “beauty” nomination. Either way. I was bored out of my mind with this movie and can’t fathom this actually winning the category. And think of it this way — if you’re an Oscar voter, and you can vote on every category… have you heard of this movie? Have people told you that you need to watch this? No. This is a complete blank and won’t get enough votes to win.

4. Last Days in Vietnam — This is the only movie we didn’t get as a screener. I can’t speak that confidently about it. But consider this — it’s about Vietnam. Sure, it’s a story that people didn’t know before and might be heroic and/or tailor-made to be a movie (I’m just guessing based on a synopsis I half-remember), but it’s about Vietnam. It’s certainly not the entertaining/populist entry on the ballot. And Vietnam isn’t exactly a timely issue for them. When’s the last time the Documentary branch actually gave their Oscar to something stretching back this far that wasn’t about the Holocaust? Maybe The Fog of War, if you want to call it that. There was a Munich Olympics movie in 1990 that won. That’s the other time. So they don’t go back that far, and typically if they do, it’s about Jews. So, sight unseen, I’m saying this won’t win. It might, because this isn’t one of those categories I can confidently make proclamations about, but it kind of is. Does anyone think this will win in an open category? (And before we get there, is that decision not based on a bias of having seen and loved the movie?) I can’t see this doing it. It would buck a lot of history and shock me that enough people saw this to actually vote for it, especially since… if there hasn’t been a screener for it yet, it ain’t getting watched. They can send this over the next month… won’t matter. The ship has sailed. This isn’t winning.

3. Finding Vivian Maier — I kind of saw this one getting on. I think I may have had it. (I don’t remember, though, because I keep my brain space away from thinking about documentaries.) It just felt like something they’d nominate. It’s a simple story. Man goes to auction house (or something like that), and buys a lot of undeveloped film. And he finds out that it was all done by this woman who used to be a nanny, who went around and took hundreds of thousands of photographs all around the country (though I think it’s mostly based in New York), and never showed them to anyone. And the film goes into who she was and this strange life she led. How she was a hoarder, how she seemingly made up her past for employers, how she had these really weird habits. And yet the kids all loved her as a nanny. So it’s got that “discovering an artist” kind of vibe to it. I can see them maybe going for it, but ultimately, I don’t think it packs enough of a punch for them to care. Plus a lot of the negatives about this have to do with how present the director is in the film. He makes it about himself. How he found the film and he did this. It’s not just about this woman. That’s what separates this from a Searching for Sugar Man, which is about him, and the director finding him is just part of the film. It’s not about the director. This is. And I think that holds it back from being a real contender. I just think they have other things to vote for.

2. Virunga — This one, I think, will get some votes. I think Vivian Maier can catch votes by the people who saw it. But this one will catch votes just because people know what this is. “Oh, the gorilla movie.” It’s about people trying to save gorillas in the middle of South African conflict, with all the guerilla groups and such. Ultimately, I didn’t care for it very much, but I think it’s still a major contender, and would not be shocked if I saw this win. It’s got almost everything they want in a film. Except it mostly focuses on the gorillas and not the guerillas. If that makes sense. It’s not about the issue. It’s more “save the gorillas.” And about the people’s fight to keep the sanctuary open. So I think it could win, and has a strong chance to catch votes on campaign, but I can’t consider it the favorite. Simply because…

1. CitizenFour — This movie is the total package for them. The second Life Itself wasn’t nominated, and this was, this looked like your winner. Why? It has it all. What is it about? Edward Snowden. What is the how button issue of these past three years? This exact thing. This movie is also presented in that pseudo-movie style. Journalists get tips about some shit going down, then they start putting out articles. They say they were chosen to put them out because they’ve fought these kinds of battles before against the government and aren’t afraid of pressure. The stuff goes out and blows up. Snowden is revealed. They go to Russia (or China. Maybe it’s both. Pretty sure most of this movie takes place in China, if I remember correctly) to meet with Snowden and he gives them interviews. From a hotel room. As all of the media swarm happens around him. It gets tense for a moment. He’s paranoid as shit. There’s a great moment where the fire alarm goes off and he’s wondering if it’s a routine thing or if someone’s listening to them. It gets really good then. It’s definitely got the watchable factor, and talks about this entire situation — is it all right for the government to do this stuff unchecked? What is going to happen to privacy? I think this is exactly the type of thing they go for, and now that Roger Ebert isn’t there (leaving subjectivity out of this), this seems like it became the de facto winner. I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe Vivian Maier or Virunga won this category, but at this point in time, how can you consider anything else the favorite here?

Oh, also, I would like you all to know… I don’t care what happens in this category, because the branch is basically dead to me, and I honestly couldn’t care less what they want to win or what they vote for, until they fix this train wreck of a category they have.

I don’t even want you to take away what I said about this. I want you to take away what Michael Moore said about this branch almost three years ago now:

For far too long, the nominees had been selected by committees, and sometimes just one or two people could block a film from even being considered for the short list. And in a branch of a hundred and sixty members, it didn’t seem fair that two people could or should have the say over whether “Hoop Dreams,” “Shoah,” any of the Michael Apted “Up” series, or any Errol Morris film, before just a few years ago, when he finally won, finally got nominated.

Nothing by the Maysles brothers was ever nominated, nothing by Fred Wiseman—its equivalent in fiction film would be as if Spielberg, Scorsese, and Kubrick had never been nominated for an Oscar. It seems like you’d have some explaining to do. And every year, right, it’s the same story when they are announced—I mean, usually when they are announced, there is always like, “How come this actor wasn’t nominated” or, “How come this movie didn’t make it,” there is always a surprise or two. With our branch there’s like seven or eight surprises.

The Documentary branch is broken, and needs to be fixed.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow is Best Foreign Language Film. And I know we’re all so fucking stoked for that.

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