Will Oscars go political (‘Citizenfour,’ ‘Virunga’) or populist (‘Life Itself’) for Best Documentary?

The last three Oscar winners in a row for Best Documentary Feature have been feel-good stories, even though they faced the kinds of “important” topics awards voters often gravitate towards. Will the academy’s populist streak continue this year, or will they pick something political for the first time in years?

Documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel: ‘Virunga’ was a ‘dangerous film to make’ [Video]

20 Feet from Stardom” was last year’s winner. Documenting the lives and careers of underappreciated background singers, it defeated films about genocide (“The Act of Killing“), revolution (“The Square“), and covert warfare (“Dirty Wars“).

The year before, another music-themed doc prevailed: “Searching for Sugar Man” swept the awards season with its story of two South African fans’ search for obscure American musician Sixto Rodriguez. Falling short were nominees about AIDS (“How to Survive a Plague“), military rape (“The Invisible War“), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras“).

The win for “Sugar Man” was expected, but in 2011, the aptly titled underdog sports story “Undefeated” pulled off an upset against “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” the third in the famous series of documentaries that helped free three men wrongly convicted of murder.

But despite the more sentimental choices of the last three years, most winners have tended to focus on weighty 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”).

This year, our Oscarologists are expecting politics to rise to the top again. The current Oscar frontrunner with 9/5 odds is “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras‘s film about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who leaked details about widespread government surveillance.

15 films make Oscar’s Best Documentary shortlist: ‘Life Itself,’ ‘Citizenfour’ …

The strongest feel-good contender this year is “Life Itself,” which celebrates the life and career of film critic Roger Ebert. It’s directed by Steve James, whom Ebert had championed for his notoriously Oscar-snubbed documentary landmark “Hoop Dreams.” It ranks second in our predictions with 3/1 odds.

Three politically themed contenders round out the top five: “Last Days in Vietnam,” which chronicles the end of the Vietnam War is at 15/2; “Virunga,” about the fight to save the title region of the Congo from rebels and oil companies is at 9/1; and “The Case Against 8,” about California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state comes in at 12/1.

If voters want to recognize another film about artists, “Keep on Keepin’ On” profiles jazz legend Clark Terry and is sixth at 25/1. 

Among the other films that focus on culture are “Finding Vivian Maier,” which profiles a nanny who became famous for her photography after she died; “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” which chronicles director Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert‘s sci-fi novel “Dune” in the 1970s; and “Art and Craft,” which tells the story of Mark Landis, one of the most prolific forgers in American history. All are longshots at 100/1. 

Two other political films are likewise such longshots: “Citizen Koch,” about the political power of the Koch brothers and the rise of the Tea Party and “The Kill Team,” about a murder committed by US soldiers during the war in Afghanistan.

What film do you think will win the Best Documentary Oscar? Use our drag-and-drop menu to make your predictions, or click here to enter your picks in all Oscar categories, as well as Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, Independent Spirit Awards, and more.

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