The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling
Dirty Wars, Rick Rowley
The Square, Jehane Noujaim
Twenty Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville
We could construct an equally appealing and revealing quintet from films that were on the Academy’ list of 15 semifinals but didn’t make the cut: God Loves Uganda, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Stories We Tell, Tim’s Vermeer and Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. These films neatly embrace the two recurring subjects of doc features: reports on political turmoil (the Michael Moore movies) and portraits of artists in action (Woodstock). In TV terms, it’s like PBS’s Frontline and VH1’s Behind the Music. It’s a formula that’s followed by the five pictures the Academy committee chose as its Doc finalists.
The three political docs span unrest in the Islamic crescent. In The Square, filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (who directed the excellent Control Room, about Al Jazeera during the 2003 invasion of Iraq) documented the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Tahrir Square, then returned this year for new demonstrations and updated her movie. Dirty Wars follows Jeremy Scahill, an admirably resourceful and relentless journalist, through Afghanistan as he investigates the impact of U.S. drone strikes. Most inventive is The Act of Killing, in which American director Oppenheimer contacted the paramilitary thugs who in the 1960s killed thousands of Indonesian civilians under the aegis of an anticommunist government and, nearly 50 years later, persuaded them to reenact their own crimes, in the form of the Hollywood movies they loved.
(FIND: The Act of Killing on TIME’s 2013 list of “Top 10 Best Movies”)
Sum up those three films as worthy, dirty and super-weird/super-cool. But none of them will take the Doc prize. Neither will Cutie and the Boxer, which details the uneasy 40-year marriage of two New York City painters, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. For the second year in a row, the Oscar will go to a tale of obscure musicians from the 1960s. Last year’s winner, Searching for Sugar Man, plumbed the mystery of Rodriguez, a little-heard Detroit singer-songwriter who became a pop sensation in South Africa. The movie connected with audiences, at least in art houses: it earned a melodic $3.7 million.
(READ: Tony Karon on Sixto Rodriguez, the Secret Behind Sugar Man)
Twenty Feet from Stardom has done even better: $4.9 million, which for a documentary is like Marvel money. It’s a breezy view of backup singers — the “girls” who did the doo-wahs behind Elvis, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder — from the ’60s and beyond, and through today, when the vocalists are still vibrant, sweet and swingin’. The star of Twenty Feet is Darlene Love, the signature voice of producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound: she sang lead on “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” though both songs were credited to The Crystals. No bucks, no glory — until the last few years. In 2011 she became a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; and last New Year’s Day, she and her fellow Twenty Feet from Stardom backups — Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill — performed the National Anthem at the 100th Rose Bowl game.
(READ: Our review of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector)
That’s another thing about pop-music docs: its subjects can campaign by performing on TV. This week Love visited The Colbert Report for a righteous rendition of “He’s a Rebel.” She got an ovation; notably, though, Stephen Colbert never identified her backup singers.