Oscars 2013: Richard Corliss’ Picks – Best Documentary Feature

TIME critic Richard Corliss reveals his pick for Best Documentary Feature. Share your pick!

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5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh
How to Survive a Plague, David France
The Invisible War, Kirby Dick
Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul

Who can stop the Sugar Man Express? Beginning with an Audience Award at last year’s Sundance, Searching for Sugar Man piled up prizes from Moscow to Durban, South Africa — the country where an obscure Detroit singer-songwriter named Rodriguez became a mysterious pop star in the 1970s. Recently the movie certified its Oscar éclat by amassing a fistful of guild citations: Producers, Writers, Editors, you name it.

The Academy’s doc voters may not care about a film’s popular success, but Sugar Man has also been a modest hit: its $3.3 million at the domestic box office was more than six times the total take of the other four nominees. For the record: The Gatekeepers, $228,428; How to Survive a Plague, $132,055; 5 Broken Cameras, $93,578; The Invisible War, $69,067. You see, real people usually don’t pay to see a documentary unless it’s a hate-the-other-side political screed. (The anti-Barack doc 2016 Obama’s America roused the Republican faithful to the tune of $33.5 million, or 10 times Sugar Man’s earnings.)

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It’s too bad the mass audience thinks of docs as sour medicine, since this group of nominees offers not only worthy subjects but, for the most part, compelling emotions. Though The Gatekeepers — Israeli spies spilling beans about their “anti-terror” jobs — has trouble transcending the dry series of talking heads, its partner film, 5 Broken Cameras, gives the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum a human face. Burnat is a West Bank resident who in 2005 was given a camera that he employed to record daily life in the encampment and the proliferation of Jewish settlers in this disputed territory. The cameras are not only a documenting device for his infant son but sometimes a shield from the occupying solders’ fire. (As one camera breaks, Burnat gets another.) Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker and professor, compiled Burnat’s footage into this film — a small but warming example of Mideast entente.

(Watch: Oscars 2013: Great Performances)
How to Survive a Plague, which won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best First Feature (over Beasts of the Southern Wild!), argues that the ’80s political antics of the ACT UP protesters were crucial in focusing the government’s attention on AIDS treatment. The Invisible War confronts a more lasting virulence: the sexual abuse of female military personnel in this man’s Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. The victims’ descriptions of their ordeals — both the assaults and the contemptuous resistance they faced when they reported their grievances — make the film a hard watch. But the women’s heroism make it a must-see. The Invisible War is the rare movie that has affected salutary change: Two days after seeing it last April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta “took the decision to prosecute away from commanders.”

Sugar Man brought change too: it revitalized Rodriguez’ long-dormant career in the U.S. Which is nice. So you have four issue films on vital subjects, and one feel-good movie you can sing to. Given that the Academy voters seem ready to choose Argo, the happy CIA drama, over Zero Dark Thirty, the merely trenchant one, we can guess that they will find Sugar Man to their sweet taste and name it Best Documentary Feature.