In recent years the Oscars have switched back and forth between feel-good films and hard-hitting exposes for Best Documentary Feature. Neither of this year’s two frontrunners according to our racetrack odds feel especially good, but they do recall a familiar battle: a story about music (“Amy“) vs. a story of Indonesian genocide (“The Look of Silence“).
In 2013, “20 Feet from Stardom” prevailed for documenting the lives and careers of underappreciated background singers, defeating Joshua Oppenheimer‘s first film about the brutal Indonesian purge of suspected communists in the 1960s, “The Act of Killing.”
“Act of Killing” won Best Documentary from BAFTA, the European Film Awards and the National Society of Film Critics, among other honors, but it didn’t claim Oscar. Now Oppenheimer has made a companion film, “Look of Silence,” so the academy could take the opportunity to make it up to him, and they might if our predictions are any indication; it ranks a close second for the win with 7/2 odds.
It’s not the only dark, sociopolitical subject that could be in the running. There’s also “Cartel Land” (third place, 15/2 odds), about a citizen uprising against a Mexican drug cartel ,and the Emmy-winning “Going Clear” (fourth place, 9/1 odds), an expose of the Church of Scientology. It would be the first Oscar nom for “Cartel” director Matthew Heineman, but “Going Clear” is helmed by Alex Gibney, who won this race for “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007).
Also with strong potential are “The Hunting Ground” (sixth place, 16/1 odds), a film about the epidemic of rape on college campuses by two-time Oscar-nominee Kirby Dick; “3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets” (seventh place, 40/1 odds) whose documenting of a racially charged murder is especially timely; and “Best of Enemies” (ranked 10th, 100/1 odds) from directors Robert Gordon and “20 Feet” Oscar champ Morgan Neville about the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley that helped shape — and arguably deteriorate — the modern political discourse.
Despite that competition, “Amy” is the frontrunner to win with 2/1 odds. Recounting the rise and fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at age 27, it’s not exactly casual viewing, but like recent champs “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) and the aforementioned “20 Feet from Stardom,” it tells a story about the music business, and academy members have shown they can often relate to stories about showbiz folk like them (see also: “The Artist,” “Argo,” “Birdman“).
Two more films on the academy’s short list focus on real-life celebrities: “Listen to Me Marlon,” which uses hundreds of hours of Marlon Brando audio recordings to tell the legendary actor’s story, and Oscar-nominee Liz Garbus‘s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which tells the life story of singer Nina Simone.
But watch out for two films that have the benefit of being both political and feel-good. One is Michael Moore‘s comic “Where to Invade Next,” in which the Oscar-winning director travels the world looking for solutions to America’s problems. The other is “He Named Me Malala” by another Oscar-champ, Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), who profiles Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted by the Taliban for advocating the rights of girls.
Of those, “Malala” is predicted to earn a nomination (fifth place, 11/1 odds), but despite Moore’s high profile in the industry, “Where to Invade” is considered an underdog.
So who will win this year? Last year’s Oscar went to “Citizenfour,” about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. That was the first politically themed film in four years to prevail. You’d think the Oscars, which usually love socially and politically relevant films in top categories, would jump at the chance to award them here, but for three years in a row this prize went to feel-good underdog stories: “Undefeated” (2011), “Sugar Man” (2012) and “20 Feet” (2013). Will the academy’s populist streak resume this year, or will they pick politics again?
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