Last year, the final five included “The Act of Killing” and “The Square,” two films that deserve to be on anyone’s must-see list of recent nonfiction; the film that won was the feel-good “20 Feet from Stardom,” a film with plenty of musical distractions but which wasn’t even sure what it wanted to be. (A celebration of backup singers? Or a whine about why they weren’t stars?)
The year before, doc voters got to to choose between “5 Broken Cameras,” the essential “How to Survive a Plague,” “The Gatekeepers” and “The Invisible War.” And they gave it to the feel-good “Searching for Sugarman,” a movie whose big reveal wasn’t a reveal at all and which was the limpest entry in the field.
This year? “It’s CITIZENFOUR, right?” people have said. “How can it lose?” Don’t make us laugh.
Laura Poitras’ movie about Edward Snowden and domestic spying has the disadvantage of being unpleasant – about U.S. surveillance of U.S. citizens, about the corruption of the Bush and Obama administrations, about the apparent abdication of rights by a huge percentage of Americans and their so-called representatives. (The Senate just rejected an overhaul of the NSA). What will Oscar voters go for?
Solidly in the running is Chiemi Karasawa’s “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” (now on VOD) which has the advantage of being highly entertaining, tart, spunky, life-affirming and as tough-minded as its subject, who died July 17. This is no small matter (especially to Stritch): The “in memoriam” tendencies of the Academy are notorious and Stritch’s departure will only enhance Karasawa’s chances. So will the presence in the films of Alec Baldwin, Hal Prince, George C. Wolfe, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, Tina Fey, James Gandolfini and John Turturro.
“Shoot Me” is a very deserving movie. And as it chronicles Stritch’s wrestling match with age, alcohol and the peculiarities of the performing life – offered up via Stritch’s warts-and-all honesty about her fears and struggles — it will inevitably appeal to a great number of Oscar voters who will see themselves mirrored in her fabulousness and her life in the arts.
And like Steve James’ “Life Itself” — his Roger Ebert movie and one of the more blatant gambits for Oscar consideration (by the guy who deserves the title “Most Often Screwed by the Documentary Branch”) — it offers an opportunity not to vote, or even watch, some of the better nonfiction of the year, including “CITIZENFOUR,” “Merchants of Doubt,” “The Great Invisible,” “Code Black,” “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” “Virunga,” “Happy Valley” or several other excellent candidates guaranteed to intrude on one’s comfort zone.
By the way, in 2012, voters could have picked one of the following:
Marshall Curry’s “If a Tree Falls” A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.”
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s conclusion to their epic and literally life-saving West Memphis 3 trilogy.
“Hell and Back Again,” the brilliantly photographed film about a post-Afghanistan vet.
“Pina,” Wim Wenders story of Pina Bausch, and a better use of 3D than Peter Jackson has ever come close to.
The winner? “Undefeated,” the “inspiring,” vaguely racist high school football film promoted by Harvey Weinstein and whose directors didn’t even manage to thank their subjects when they got up to get their statuettes.