Will Oscars pick another feel-good film for Documentary Feature, or go dark again?

Will this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Feature be an uplifting underdog story or an expose of grave importance? The winner usually falls into one of those two categories, except for rare occasions when there’s a crossover hit in the running (“March of the Penguins,” “An Inconvenient Truth”). This year, voters have options on both sides of the subject-matter spectrum.

Last year’s winner was of the feel-good variety: “Searching for Sugar Man,” about two South African fans in search of American musician Sixto Rodriguez, whose work was obscure in the US until the film brought him into the limelight. The year before, “Undefeated,” about an underdog high school football team, took the prize. 2008 winner “Man on Wire,” about a daredevil tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center buildings, also delivered warm fuzzies.

Among this year’s 15 Oscar finalists, “20 Feet from Stardom” fits that bill, shining the spotlight on backup singers who have struggled and succeeded in relative anonymity behind the scenes of the music business. “Life According to Sam,” about parents’ struggle to save their son from a fatal disease, might also tug heartstrings.

But despite the more sentimental choices of the last two years, most winners tend to focus on “important” subjects like financial collapse (“Inside Job”), the torture of dolphins (“The Cove”) and humans (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), gun control (“Bowling for Columbine”), and of course the most reliable Oscar attention-grabber, the Holocaust (“Into the Arms of Strangers”).

Given that track record it’s no surprise that so many of this year’s shortlisted contenders are of the sociopolitical variety. The strongest contender among these is likely “The Act of Killing,” in which former Indonesian death squad leaders are invited to use cinematic styles to reenact their atrocities; it currently leads our prediction center odds.

Other possibilities include “The Square” (revolution in Egypt), “Dirty Wars” (America’s covert wars), “God Loves Uganda” (American Christians aim to convert the African nation), “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” (suppression of protestors in Russia), and “Which Way is the Front Line From Here?” (on the death of Oscar-nominated documentarian Tim Hetherington during Libyan uprising).

Where does that leave “Stories We Tell“? Sarah Polley‘s autobiographical film is one of my favorites of the year, documentary or otherwise, so I’m biased, but it doesn’t fit neatly into one of the above boxes, thanks to its more experimental approach: Polley re-creates home movies, questions the nature of memory, and though it packs an emotional wallop it generally avoids the touchy-feely stuff that often wins Oscars, so I’m trying not to get my hopes up. Nevertheless, it has done well at the critics’ awards, sweeping New York, Los Angeles, and the National Board of Review, and it’s tied with “The Act of Killing” on our racetrack: both get 3/1 odds.

Also a major factor is “Blackfish,” which like “The Cove” focuses on the treatment of animals, in this case a killer whale responsible for the deaths of three people. It ranks third on our combined predictions (4/1 odds), followed by “20 Feet” (6/1) and “The Square” (9/1).

Will the Documentary Feature category follow its usual patterns or go in a different direction? Make your predictions below:

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