For many years, I reveled in the thrill of making Oscar predictions. I was good at it. But in the past three years, I’ve been wrong twice.
In 2012, I came up with what I still think is the magic bullet for winning the Oscar in the documentary category: move audiences with an uplifting narrative. I came to that thanks to the win by Undefeated, a solid, but far from remarkable or deeply revealing documentary. The following year, Searching for Sugar Man won, which helped support the theory. And then came last year, when I got all worked up and didn’t listen to my head — and did not predict the obvious, heartwarming, uplifting narrative, 20 Feet from Stardom. Sure enough, Stardom won.
So, this year has me crazy. Everyone and their mother are saying that Citizenfour is going to win. Every Oscar prognosticating “expert” has picked it. And I would, too, except for one nagging fact: it contradicts my Undefeated theory of being the most uplifting tale in the bunch. I think that description best applies to Virunga, the thrilling story of the national park rangers who risk their lives for mother earth and the last wild population of mountain gorillas. Although the situation is dire, there are real heroes! Real hope for saving the earth!
The other nominees don’t seem likely (Last Days in Vietnam is a downer; Finding Vivian Maier is too thin; Salt of the Earth is too remote) so we are left with these two.
Could everyone be wrong? Could Virunga, which has also had the benefit of a strong marketing campaign backed by distributor Netflix and supported by everyone from Bill Clinton to Executive Producer Leonardo Dicaprio, win the gold?
Citizenfour is grim. It’s the story of a guy paying the price for going against the national surveillance complex and ending up in exile in Russia. It is complex and ends without easy answers. And it is the story of the loss of promise, and resonates with disappointment in President Barack Obama. Is that what Oscar voters are going to turn to? Are they that angry with Obama that they’d turn away from Virunga, which is such a well-told yarn?
Citizenfour won the Director’s Guild award, the BAFTA for best film, and Director Laura Poitras already has one Oscar nomination, so voters are familiar with her work, and may feel like she’s due. Plus, she crushed it at the Cinema Eye Honors, so she has advocates in many corners.
I do think that the North Korea-hacking leak incident that rocked Sony due to The Interview comes into play here. Hollywood types were riled up about information being disseminated. It might be intuitive to assume that they are upset and therefore may turn on a whistleblower like Edward Snowden, the subject of Citizenfour, but I think the contrary. I think, if anything, it’s gotten them more invested in the story — many must have enjoyed seeing Amy Pascal go down — and so they’ll care more about the film.
Am I really so foolish to, two-years-in-a-row, go against my theory? I hate to follow the crowd, and I wish I had the bravery to stand alone, but I think it’s the right move in this case. There are exceptions to every rule, and in this case, the more message-heavy film, Citizenfour — even without the Hollywood uplift — will win.