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Why 'Searching for Sugar Man' is a Slam Dunk for the Documentary Oscar

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood February 21, 2013 at 3:38PM

There are few reasons to envy the membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but there have probably been times when the Academy hierarchy has turned an envious eye upon the HFPA’s policy regarding the Golden Globe for Best Documentary: Namely, that there isn’t one. If one thinks of Oscar as the Titanic, and documentaries as an iceberg, the Academy membership – or some derivation of same – has managed to punch a hole in their own hull more often than not.
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Searching for Sugar Man

There are few reasons to envy the membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but there have probably been times when the Academy hierarchy has turned an envious eye upon the HFPA’s policy regarding the Golden Globe for Best Documentary: Namely, that there isn’t one. If one thinks of Oscar as the Titanic, and documentaries as an iceberg, the Academy membership – or some derivation of same – has managed to punch a hole in their own hull more often than not.

There certainly have been good choices, especially in recent years (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “The Fog of War,” “Born Into Brothels”), and the changes wrought over the last couple of seasons have avoided any repeat of the documentary Dark Ages (the ‘90s), during which such masterpieces as “Hoop Dreams,” “Crumb,” “Brothers Keeper” and “ The Thin Blue Line” weren’t even nominated.

And yet… and yet… last year, the choice of the amateurish high school football film “Undefeated” was a Harvey Weinstein-orchestrated joke, and this year, it looks as if anyone betting in an Oscar pool would be well served to go with “Searching for Sugar Man,” which is the one feel-good film in the bunch. A fine film. And as any Oscar watcher knows, picking the most life-affirming, soul-stirring, humanity-validating movie in a given category is never a bad policy when it comes to illegal wagering on the outcome of the Academy Awards.

The situation is made more predictable this year – that’s right, Michael Moore – by the fact that the entire membership will be voting on the category. No more signing in at screenings, and proving you watched all five nominees. No required familiarity with the form. Doc branch members got all the eligible films – and, we have no doubt, watched all 120-plus. The general membership got the five nominees on DVD, and would there be any reason in the world to imagine why they wouldn’t have all knuckled down and watched – right to the end credits -- a relentlessly grim picture about sexual abuse in the military (“The Invisible War”), or the story of AIDS activism (“How to Survive a Plague”), or two films that stick a finger in the eye of the current regime in Israel (“The Gatekeepers,” “5 Broken Cameras”)?

Right. But you know they watched “Searching for Sugar Man,” which is about music, redemption and crowds going crazy for a guy they’d thought was dead. And who, apparently, single-handedly ended apartheid. No one goes wrong going soft on their Oscar choices. “Sugar” is the sweetest in the group, which is why it will win.

This article is related to: Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, Undefeated, Documentary, Documentaries, Awards, Awards, Oscars


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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.