Oscars: Can Edward Snowden Doc 'Citizenfour' Break the Best-Picture Curse?

oscars best picture curse illo - H 2014
Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

oscars best picture curse illo - H 2014

Conventional wisdom says foreign films, animation and documentaries are DOA when it comes to Oscar’s biggest nom, but The Weinstein Co.'s controversial documentary — and its all-star pedigree — could stand out in a very muddied field

This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Forget, for a moment, all the talk about Birdman, Boyhood and those two British biopics (The Imitation of Everything? The Theory Game? Which exactly is which?). Before the conversation narrows to a dozen or so films judged worthy of Academy Awards best-picture consideration, let's open up the conversation. Any movie that plays a one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles County is eligible for the top Oscar prize — and that includes foreign-language films, animated features and full-length documentaries.

Of course, those types of movies, each of which has its own Oscar category, almost never make it into the select circle of best-picture nominees. In the Academy's 87-year history, only nine non-English-language films have been nominated for best picture, the most recent being the 2012 French drama Amour. Only three animated features — Beauty and the Beast, Up and Toy Story 3 — have made the cut. And no documentary feature has received a best-picture nom. Although the Academy never would admit it, foreign flicks, toons and docs are left sitting at the kids' table.

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This year, there could be an opening to join the grown-ups, simply because only a few films among the emerging lineup of best-picture contenders appear to be locks for a nomination. But a potential opening or two doesn't necessarily mean a foreign film, animated movie or doc is ready to take advantage of the situation.

The biggest problem any foreign film faces is simply getting the attention of enough of the 6,000 Academy members who nominate for the best-picture category. Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, Poland's entry, is one of 2014's most successful foreign releases, having grossed $3.7 million in the U.S., but still that is a tiny sum. The black-and-white movie about a young nun who discovers dark secrets about her family's past has received enthusiastic reviews, but it's a safe bet it's not on most Academy members' must-see lists. Other films that have drawn praise on the festival circuit — the Dardenne brothers' Belgian submission Two Days, One Night (which has a high-profile star in Marion Cotillard) and Russia's entry, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, about corruption in a seaside town — won't hit theaters until Christmas. And though the Argentine comedy Wild Tales played a qualifying weeklong run in October, it won't return to theaters until Feb. 20.

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Animated movies face the opposite problem: The Lego Movie ($468.1 million worldwide), How to Train Your Dragon 2 ($618.9 million) and Big Hero 6 ($224.1 million) are hits, but success can work against a movie. Lego might have the cleverly self-conscious structure of a Spike Jonze film — it's aware of its own reality — but being built on a toy line doesn't help its cause.

That leaves the docs. Among this year's 134 Academy submissions, one — Laura Poitras' Citizenfour, a you-are-there account of how Edward Snowden handed over NSA secrets — stands out. It drew a thunderous standing ovation at the New York Film Festival in October ("Brilliant, damning," tweeted Michael Moore). And though its distributor, Radius-TWC, has placed it in the documentary feature race, some backseat drivers are insisting it deserves a best-picture nom.

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A case could be made: Citizenfour couldn't be more "of the moment" as Poitras' camera zooms in on Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013, just as his world-shaking revelations are hitting the media. If Hollywood wants to take a stand against the surveillance state, a nom for Citizenfour would send that message. But the film also could challenge liberal Hollywood (it failed to earn a Producers Guild nom, though it picked up a New York Film Critics Circle win) because it takes direct aim at the Obama administration, though Obama supporter Harvey Weinstein — who admittedly has a vested interest because his company is distributing — says seeing the movie "changed his mind" about Snowden, whose actions he'd criticized earlier.

Citizenfour faces more mundane obstacles. It's assumed that actors, who form the Academy's largest branch, aren't interested in docs because such films don't require their services. But Citizenfour could stitch together a coalition of supporters: Steven Soderbergh was an executive producer, Participant Media and HBO Documentary Films partnered on the project, and Poitras is admired by other doc makers including Moore and Alex Gibney.

Still, the priority of any Citizenfour campaign must be its best-documentary prospects. Consider what happened to Moore 10 years ago: Having won the doc Oscar for 2002's Bowling for Columbine, he decided not to submit Fahrenheit 9/11 for documentary consideration, aiming for a best-picture nom instead. But when the nominees for 2004's best picture were announced, Fahrenheit missed the cut. The Academy's tradition of keeping docs out of its top category remained intact.