Documentary Feature Oscar race: ‘Act of Killing’ leads; ‘Stories We Tell’ sorely missed

As far as I’m concerned, Joshua Oppenheimer‘s “The Act of Killing” is the class of the field in Oscar’s Best Documentary Feature race (and it’s the early favorite according to our racetrack odds.) It’s a scorching look at Indonesian gangsters who are nationally celebrated for the torture and slaughter of millions of suspected communists during the 1960s. The film chronicles their effort to recreate those killings for a film of their own.

But “Killing” is a heavy, heady experience, whose unflinching approach to its subject matter rivals “12 Years a Slave.” Will voters look away towards something more optimistic? (Be sure to cast your ballot in this race at the bottom of the post.)

Last year, the academy expanded voting for the winner of this race to any academy member who attested to viewing all the nominees; prior to that, only those members who attended special screenings could cast a vote in this category. Under this new system, the upbeat “Searching for Sugar Man,” which documented the quest by two fans to find folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, won last year.

In 2011, the last year of restrictive voting, the uplifting “Undefeated,” about a ragtag team of high school footballers, prevailed. Prior to that, academy voters had tended to reward darker fare here than with Best Picture. Several exposes about “Important” subjects have won: “Taxi to the Dark Side” about torture, “Born into Brothels” about the children of prostitutes, “Murder on a Sunday Morning” about a teen wrongly accused of murder, “One Day in September” about the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

If the academy is looking for a happy ending this year, they’ll be hard pressed to find one.

Dirty Wars” is a despairing look at America’s covert warfare. “The Square” ends with uncertainty about the future of Egyptian democracy. Even the two lightest nominees – “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Cutie and the Boxer” – don’t have the clear-cut triumphant payoffs Oscar voters might prefer.

But “20 Feet” and “Cutie” do have elements that make me believe they’re the likeliest spoilers to “Act of Killing.”

“20 Feet” is an underdog story about musicians (kind of like last year’s winner, “Sugar Man”), it’s about the passionate creation of art (filmmakers in the academy can relate), and of the five films it’s the most entertaining, full of music, humor, and personality.

“Cutie” is also about passionate artists – painter/sculptor Ushio Shinohara and his put-upon wife, Noriko Shinohara – and it has a couple more aces up its sleeve. The Shinoharas are elderly (right in the academy’s demographic wheelhouse), and their embattled marriage fits the mold of many Oscar-winning biopics. It’s a portrait of a strong-willed woman married to a self-destructive genius, which could as accurately describe “A Beautiful Mind,” “Walk the Line,” and “Pollock” – even in the film the title couple are compared to Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner.

The Square” and “Dirty Wars” shouldn’t be ruled out either, but I suspect if voters want to go the geopolitical route “The Act of Killing” is their logical choice.

When the nominees were announced I admit I approached this category primarily with outrage, since Sarah Polley‘s wonderful “Stories We Tell” wasn’t nominated. I’ve since caught up on the nominated titles I hadn’t seen and, well, I’m still a bit outraged – “Stories” is better than most of them, better than most of the Best Picture nominees, actually – but I can’t fault these particular choices. Though it would have been better with Polley, this will still be one of the best categories presented on Oscar nigt.

I suspect voters didn’t get “Stories,” with its re-created home movies and lofty conceit about the conflicting nature of memories – if you haven’t seen it yet, I promise it’s more personal and accessible than it sounds. So instead the academy picked the kinds of documentaries they usually gravitate to: the political (“Act of Killing,” “Dirty Wars,” “Square”), the sentimental (“Cutie”), and the uplifting (“20 Feet”).

Which film will win? And do you think the academy got it right with their five choices? Predict Best Documentary Feature and comment below:

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