2014 Best Documentary Oscar Predictions: Digging Deep


Click on over to my 2014 Oscar Predictions page to see everything I’m forecasting in the major categories. And check out my 2014 Oscar Predictions: Technical Categories page for projections in Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and more.

Another year, another problem with the documentary branch of the Academy.

The Wrap’s Steve Pond reported a few weeks ago that the branch’s members have become overwhelmed with screeners. More than 150 documentaries are eligible for the 2014 Oscar according to the new rules that went into effect in last year, which state that a film must screen in both Los Angeles and New York for at least one week each during the calendar year of 2013. The films must also be reviewed by a professional movie critic in either The New York Times or Los Angeles Times. (Click here to view the full list, also reported by Pond.)

If my watching habits speak toward those of cinephiles more generally, most won’t start paying attention to the Best Documentary Feature race until early December, when the branch announces its 15 shortlisted titles. Today, I’m going to try to turn the conversation toward this massive list of 150. There’s a lot of great stuff (either that I’ve seen or that others are raving about) out there—stuff that isn’t Blackfish, Stories We Tell, Tim’s Vermeer, or 20 Feet From Stardom (or any other of the 2014 Best Documentary Feature contenders I wrote about here.)

Here’s a sampling of titles you might be surprised to find on the shortlist come December—titles you ought to seek out regardless of their success or lack thereof with Oscar:

Bridegroom (dir. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason)
Tells the story of a loving gay couple torn apart by tragedy and the horrible consequences of not being legally protected by the word “marriage.” If it’s half as moving as the few reviews out there seem to indicate, it’s hard to imagine it not striking a chord with a sizable sect of the voting body.

Call Me Kuchu (dir. Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall)
God Loves Uganda (dir. Roger Ross Williams)

Two films covering similar subject matter—Uganda’s anti-homosexuality legislation. Call Me Kuchu, which is available to rent or purchase on iTunes, follows activists who are fighting the legislation. God Loves Uganda, on the other hand, traces the source of this crusade back to America and the religious Right. (It’s also directed by a former Oscar winner.) Great reviews across the board for both films, there’s no reason they could each find themselves shortlisted come December.

The Crash Reel (dir. Lucy Walker)
You might not think a snowboarding doc featuring the sport’s most famous wunderkind, Shaun White, would be much of an Oscar player, but consider that it’s less about White’s X-Games gold than it is about former rival Kevin Pearce’s near fatal accident and struggle to return to the sport he loved. It’s worth noting, too, that The Crash Reel is directed by former nominee (for Waste Land and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom) Lucy Walker. It’s also worth noting that it’s among my most-anticipated movies of the rest of 2013.

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (dir. Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger)
The first film on the list that I have seen is this rather riotous look at one man’s meteoric rise and fall to the top of syndicated television circa the late 1980s. Don’t let Downey’s presence turn you off. Even the most bleeding-heart liberals (like myself) should enjoy this one. Not only is it energetic and consistently amusing, it’s also quite insightful regarding both Downey’s downfall and his influence within the industry. (Click here for my full Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie review.)

Herblock: The Black & the White (dir. Michael Stevens)
This year’s Bill Cunningham New York? I kind of thought so. Herblock was the pen name for Herbert Block, The Washington Post‘s political cartoonist for 55 years, and while he isn’t alive for director Michael Stevens to follow (the way Richard Press did with Cunningham in the terrific 2011 documentary), but the two films share a folksy, lighthearted, and laudatory tone that won my heart over. Herblock ups the ante as far as famous faces—Jon Stewart, Tom Brokaw, etc.—which could give it a boost.

The Missing Picture (dir. Rithy Panh)
One of the more intriguing, unusual, and acclaimed titles among the 150 is this Cambodian documentary that uses clay figures to tell stories about life under the horrific regime of Pol Pot. The winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard category at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Missing Picture is also Cambodia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Feature.

Muscle Shoals (dir. Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier)
A music doc won last year. If any film is going to make it two in a row for the subgenre, I’d bet on Muscle Shoals, which turns its eye toward a studio in Alabama that worked with artists and influential and diverse as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Etta James, Alicia Keys, and Bono.

A River Changes Course (dir. Kalyanee Mam)
Another doc that shines a light on life in Cambodia, this one (which premiered at Sundance) is more focused on the nation today as modernity and tradition lock heads and threaten to destroy lives and communities. Mam is a first-time filmmaker, but if her story resonates, I could easily see this one on the shortlist.

Running From Crazy (dir. Barbara Kopple)
The pedigree is outstanding, of course. Kopple has two Oscars to her name, and Mariel Hemingway comes from one of the most famous American families of the 20th century. This film opens next week, and I’ll have more to say before then, but it’s an extremely personal documentary that (fascinatingly) almost plays like a narrative feature. You feel decades of pain in Hemingway’s interviews. It’s a tad long, but quite a good film.

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