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Why '20 Feet from Stardom' Leads the Oscar Doc Pack (UPDATED)

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 18, 2014 at 1:51PM

Now that the Oscar nominations have landed, where is the doc race? Under new rules as of last year, the doc contenders must grab the spotlight to win--as DVD screeners are now sent to every Academy voter. Many wonder if they will watch all five. Which gives the advantage to the ones they have already seen.
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"20 Feet From Stardom"
Radius-TWC "20 Feet From Stardom"

Now that the Oscar nominations have landed, where is the doc race? Under new rules as of last year, the doc contenders must grab the spotlight to win--as DVD screeners are now sent to every Academy voter. Many wonder if they will watch all five. Which gives the advantage to the ones they have already seen. They are all streaming, which should make seeing them easier.

Morgan Neville's "20 Feet from Stardom," which was scooped up by Weinstein label RADIUS-TWC on opening night at Sundance 2013, has a lot going for it. So far it's the highest-grossing doc of 2013 (followed by its two main Oscar rivals on the shortlist of 15, CNN Films' "Blackfish" and Roadside's "Stories We Tell," neither of which made the final five). And "20 Feet from Stardom" rises above the fray as more than a music movie--which, last year's winner "Searching for Sugar Man" aside, the Academy tends not to take as seriously as political social action films--by reminding us of all the extraordinary talent around us that we tend to overlook, and the role that often invisible women play in our music industry. Producer Gil Friesen, who dreamed up this movie, found out that "20 Feet from Stardom" got into Sundance 2013 soon before he died, presenter Tom Freston told a gaggle of Academy members at a holiday season Polo Lounge concert. The singers also played a rocking set at a recent House of Blues Celebration of Black Cinema. And "20 Feet from Stardom" shares DNA with the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" as a portrait of artists who for myriad reasons do not achieve the success they had in mind. The Academy voters can relate.

Among the awards kudos so far, "20 Feet from Stardom" earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination, placed in the top five documentaries at the National Board of Review, won the audience best doc award at the Provincetown International Film Festival, a Special Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the RiverRun International Film Festival, was nominated for Best Documentary by the San Diego Film Critics Society, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival and won the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival. 

Having landed an Oscar doc nomination the film now faces serious competition from "The Square," winner of the International Documentary Association's top prize, "Dirty Wars," "Cutie and the Boxer" and critics groups' darling "Act of Killing."

This article is related to: Oscars, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Oscars, Documentary, Documentaries, 20 Feet From Stardom, The Square , The Square, The Act of Killing , Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.