By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com December 17, 2013 at 6:07PM
Over the past weeks and months, we've used this space to take a close look at almost every Oscar category (bar the shorts: we'll focus on those once the nominations are out and we've seen the films), and making our rolling predictions in the process. Just in time for Christmas, we've reached the end, with just one category left: Documentary.
We made our picks of the best documentaries of 2013 last week, and there's a fair amount of crossover with the 15-strong shortlist announced by the Academy a few weeks ago. We included "The Act of Killing," "Blackfish," "Cutie and the Boxer," "God Loves Uganda," "Stories We Tell" and "20 Feet From Stardom," all put forward by the Oscar nominating committee, who also picked "The Armstrong Lie," "The Crash Reel," "Dirty Wars," "First Cousin Once Removed," "Life According To Sam," "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," "The Square," "Tim's Vermeer" and "Which Way Is The Front Line From Here; The Life And Times Of Tim Hetherington."
As for which will make the five-strong list of nominated films in January, that's a difficult question to answer: the branch has traditionally and controversially overlooked major movies, with crowning achievements like "Shoah," "The Thin Blue Line," "Roger & Me," "Touching The Void," "Grizzly Man," "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters" all going without a nomination, while more heart-stirring or issues-driven films picking up nods in their place. And there's already been controversy this year: we're smarting from the absence of "At Berkeley" and especially "After Tiller" from this year's shortlist, even if we're not particularly surprised.
What else will be left on the outside when the nominations are announced? The lower-profile films on the list are the most immediately vulnerable, and that probably means HBO's "First Cousin Once Removed," about Alzheimer's-inflicted poet Edwin Honig, and "Life According to Sam," about a kid with a premature-aging disease called progeria. Alan Berliner, director of the former, has never really cracked Academy recognition, and this is probably the longest-shot on the list, but 'Sam' is a more obvious tearjerker, and directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix were nominated in 2007 for "War Dance," and won the short documentary Oscar earlier this year for "Inocente," so they could be potential dark horses, even if we think they'll ultimately miss out.
On a more issues-driven level, there's "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," about the incarcerated Russian band, and "Which Way Is The Front Line?," a tribute to late war photographer Tim Hetherington (who was nominated for co-directing the excellent "Restrepo" in 2011, before his tragic death in Libya later that year). The former's probably a little too abrasive for Academy members, and suggestions that the band's members could be freed soon might dull the potential political impact of nomination, so odds are fairly slim there. The idea of nominating Sebastian Junger's tribute to his "Restrepo" co-director could be irresistible to some, but it'll probably be edged out by more widely acclaimed works, though shouldn't be totally discounted.
Meanwhile, films about U.S. foreign policy have had a fair amount of success in recent years, so "Dirty Wars" has some chance, but probably would have been more of a force to be reckoned with a few years back, when that sort of thing was more zeitgeisty—a look at the nomination line-up of the last few years suggests that voters have been keen to recognize other fare. Some have criticized the way director Richard Rowley focuses so heavily on journalist Jeremy Scahill, the author of the book on which the film is based, which might also hamper its chances a little.
Of a higher profile are "God Loves Uganda," about the influence of American mega-churches on the homophobic laws in the Ugandan country, and "Cutie and the Boxer," about painters Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. Both have strong reviews, and seem to tick some boxes, but are perhaps destined to be overshadowed by films that seem more significant. The same is probably true of "The Crash Reel": Lucy Walker has two prior nominations for "Waste Land" and "The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom," but sporting documentaries often have difficulty getting traction (though "Undefeated" won two years ago), and a film focusing on snowboarding may not appeal massively to Academy members. Alex Gibney's "The Armstrong Lie" might have a better chance with a more famous subject, but while reasonably compelling, it's not the director's best work, and never proves especially revelatory.
That leaves six movies that we would say are serious nomination contenders, but again, this category could see only a couple of them eventually making the grade. "Tim's Vermeer," directed by magician Teller, is an accessible and even shocking film that's getting a serious push from Sony Pictures Classics. It's serious and substantial, but deceptively so, and while it's a definite contender, the celeb-fronted image and "Mythbusters"-like tone might see voters looking for more obviously "important" work. "20 Feet From Stardom"' has been a crowd-pleasing hit—the biggest grossing doc of the year—and has a similar recognizing-the-unsung feel to last year's "Searching For Sugar Man." It doesn't have quite the same reviews, but with The Weinstein Company's backing, is certainly worth keeping an eye on.