Oscars: Documentary Race a Battle of Hard Truths vs. Heart Tuggers

Citizenfour Still - H 2014
L. Poitras

Citizenfour Still - H 2014

This year’s contenders run the gamut from the political dynamite of 'Citizenfour' to the emotional uplift of the Roger Ebert portrait 'Life Itself,' but which direction will win with voters?

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it comes to picking the year’s best documentary feature, the Academy often faces a dilemma: Should it endorse a pointed, politically- charged doc and make a statement, or embrace an uplifting feel-good narrative and have a good time?

Over the past decade and a half, voters have opted to hand the Oscar to such topical films as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Errol MorrisThe Fog of War and Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, which tackled everything from gun control to government-sanctioned torture. But in recent years, as the Academy has encouraged more of its members to screen all of the documentary nominees, top honors have gone more often to upbeat movies, especially with a musical beat, such as Undefeated, Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom.


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“The final vote is open to the entire Academy, which does tilt toward more mainstream, more easily watchable films like 20 Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man,” says Rory Kennedy, who has submitted her latest film, Last Days in Vietnam, this year. However, she adds, “Because the five nominees are generated by the documentary branch, I think there continues to be a healthy diversity for the Oscar nomination.”

Certainly, among the 134 documentaries all jockeying for a place on this year’s docket, there are plenty of choices in both broad categories. Arguably, the movie that packs the biggest political punch is Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ portrait of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which earned a standing ovation at its New York Film Festival premiere. It’s already been nominated by the International Documentary Association for its IDA Awards, along with John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier, which champions the work of an unknown photographer; Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot, a first-person look at the Libyan revolution; Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s The Salt of the Earth, which follows a photographer who focuses on capturing shots of nature; and Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which unearths the story of a serial killer who terrorized South Central L.A in the 1980s.

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Other docs with a political agenda include Kennedy’s Vietnam, which recounts heroic rescues during the fall of Saigon; Freida Lee Mock’s Anita, in which Anita Hill revisits her testimony against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s The Case Against 8, an inside look at the successful legal battle to overturn Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban; Jose Antonio Vargas and Ann Raffaela Lupo’s Documented, in which Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, recounts his own journey as an undocumented immigrant; Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt, which lifts the curtain on pundits-for-hire who confuse such issues as climate change rather than illuminate them; Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible, which explores the fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and America: Imagine the World Without Her, a conservative attack on American progressives, directed by Dinesh D’Souza, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions. In documenting a world in upheaval, some of the docs paint unsettling pictures.

Orlando von Einsiedel’s Virunga presents efforts to save mountain gorillas in eastern Congo in the face of poachers and armed rebels; Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny follow in the footsteps of human rights workers attempting to document the worst sort of abuses in E-Team; Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley takes an unflinching look at Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse charges; Jesse MossThe Overnighters examines the tensions in a North Dakota oil boom town; and Robert May’s Kids for Cash takes aim at a Pennsylvania judge who imprisoned about 3,000 juveniles for petty offenses while taking $2.2 million from the private juvenile detention centers where the kids were to be incarcerated.

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Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger studies the Boston gangster who inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed and Johnny Depp’s in the upcoming Black Mass. On the more uplifting side of the ledger are dozens of other choices looking to warm Academy viewers’ hearts. Director Steve James trained his camera on Roger Ebert during the influential critic’s final days in Life Itself, which Ebert’s widow, Chaz, describes as “one of the most life-affirming, optimistic films around.”

Mike Myers, making his directorial debut, offers a tribute to manager Shep Gordon, portraying him as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood in Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. Alan Hick’s Keep On Keepin’ On takes an inspirational route as it tells of the friendship between jazz legend Clark Terry, 93, and his blind musical prodigy pal Justin Kauflin, 23. James Keach’s Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me celebrates musical stardom and family togetherness in the face of approaching Alzheimer’s. Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me gives the indomitable performer Stritch, who died in July, the chance to make one last curtain call. And Gabe Polsky’s Red Army takes the Soviet view of the so-called Miracle on Ice, the U.S. hockey team’s victory over its Russian rival at the 1980 Winter Olympics. In addition, there are a number of films that celebrate the creative process: Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune provides an account of cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune for the big screen. Doug Pray’s Levitated Mass concerns Michael Heizer’s monumental artwork: a big boulder that was installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012. As always, there are films that can’t be easily assigned to any category, including Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s The Dog, which revisits the late John Wojtowicz, a colorful New Yorker who was the basis for Al Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon.