If the past is any prologue at all, the menu of first-rate documentaries at Toronto and the ongoing New York Film Festival – along with some bewilderingly cynical programming choices – has brought home what may seem like an obvious point: The quality of the individual movies is less relevant to their chances during the upcoming awards season than subject — and soundtrack.
Oh sure, the critics groups may recognize some of the more difficult titles over the months to come. But what’s become painfully clear during the balloting each year is that more and more critics see fewer and fewer nonfiction films. And what they do see are the ones with the widest distribution (which doesn’t correlate to substance. Quite the contrary). This is not necessarily their fault. There are only so many hours in a day. And too many editors to mollify.
It’s quite the different situation with the Oscars. This past February, Academy voters had the sense not to embarrass themselves by overlooking “Citizenfour,” which was a singular film as well as a political event. The year before, however, at least two films of artistic, moral and political greatness — “The Square” and “The Act of Killing” — lost out to “20 Feet from Stardom,” the most easily digestible doc in the mix, and one that boasted the all-important triumphalist tone of voice (and some great voices). The previous Oscar Night? “Searching for Sugar Man,” something of a cooked-up story, won the prize over “The Gatekeepers,” “How to Survive a Plague,” “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Invisible War” — none of which were easy, and all of which were better.
The year before that was even more dissatisfying: “If a Tree Falls,” “Pina,” “Paradise Lost: Purgatory” and “Hell and Back Again” all lost out to the insipid football story “Undefeated,” thanks to the Weinstein Company’s infernal machinery and the fact that the film was the racially reassuring tale of a benevolent white coach rescuing underprivileged black high schoolers. Think “The Help,” but nonfiction.
The lesson is twofold: Don’t confront Oscar doc voters with a tough subject; make them feel good about themselves; if possible, provide some good songs.
Which makes this year an absolute cluster fuck. A24’s “Amy” could be the film to beat, and not just because Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse bio is musical — it also happens to be brilliant. Nipping at its heels, however, are “Miss Sharon Jones!” Barbara Koppel’s portrait of the snake-bitten soul singer; “Mavis,” Jessica Edwards’ Mavis Staples movie; “What Happened, Miss Simone?” the Liz Garbus-Nina Simone doc; Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”; Amy Berg’s “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” and even Denny Tedesco’s “The Wrecking Crew,” about L.A.’s legendary studio musicians. The chances are slim to none that “Amazing Grace,” the 43-year-old Sydney Pollack concert film currently being sat on by Aretha Franklin’s lawyers, could squeak in. But there’s nothing that Oscar producers would have liked better than a big old Aretha love fest at next year’s ceremonies.
Nevertheless: It’s not entirely implausible that the five nominees for Best Documentary feature will be bios of great musicians, replete with heartwarming stories of diversity, nobility and triumph, with a solid back beat.
It’s not entirely implausible either, that some of the better docs to have surfaced during Toronto and New York will go begging for any recognition at all. There are a few that could sneak into the mix by virtue of simply being extraordinary – Josh Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence” for instance, or “Going Clear,” Alex Gibney’s Scientology doc (which, of course, has a built-in handicap in Hollywood). Davis Guggenheim’s box office hit “He Named Me Malala” (Fox Searchlight) would provide for a great Oscar moment, which is not irrelevant to anyone’s calculations.
And there are movies that could cultivate fans by being about Hollywood – “Everything Is Copy,” Jacob Bernstein’s movie about his mother, Nora Ephron, or Stevan Riley’s “Listen to Me Marlon.” And of course, there are movies whose virtues disqualify them as Oscar candidates: “The Hunting Ground,” for instance, Kirby Dick’s examination of rape on campus and the morally bankrupt response — or lack thereof — of most major colleges and universities in this country; or Frederick Wiseman’s “In Jackson Heights,” the venerable verite master’s more than three-hour immersion in the Queens melting pot. It’s hard to imagine Academy voters sitting through it, much less voting for it. But stranger things have happened, and will, especially in the documentary race.