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Oscars: This Year, Docs Rock the Voters

Amid rules changes, the resonance of non-fiction rallies Academy interest

With only two weeks left to go, the 2013 awards derby continues to provide us with a string of anomalies.

For example: While the majors still talk about belt-tightening, they have spent roughly the same amount of money in 2013 as they did last year on their campaigns (no one keeps an official tally). Further, while the top stars have faithfully shown up as presenters at kudo events, this year’s awards derby lacked the sizzle provided by the Clooney-Pitt-Streep axis of 2012.

Hollywood still venerates its stars, but this year’s Oscar nominations seem to be more about building new careers (Jessica Chastain and Bradley Cooper) than reinforcing established ones (apologies to Sally Fields and Helen Hunt).

The bets on best picture are also all over the place, but the apparent favorite, “Argo,” could emerge as the first Oscar hit that parodies Hollywood hitmakers.

But here’s the other anomaly: Some of the top docs adorning the Oscar contenders list seem to have wielded more emotional clout with voters than did the glossier theatrical releases. The vivid characters who peopled “The Gatekeepers” and “Searching for Sugar Man,” for example, struck a chord with audiences while, to many voters, the top features failed to resonate on that level.

One key reason the docs are gaining more attention this year is that all Oscar voters, for the first time, are entitled to vote in this category, and hence have been sent DVDs of the contenders. In the past, the selection process has been tightly controlled by the 160 members of the documentary fraternity, who famously ignored such widely praised films as “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” as well as some of Michael Moore’s political fusillades (“Sicko,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”).

In democratizing the selection process, the doc branch inevitably ran into some bumps.

This year individual members were overwhelmed with packages of as many as 126 videos for viewing as potential nominees. The idea was to whittle them down to a favored 15, but more than a few members (including Michael Moore) squealed in protest. The laborious task was somehow completed and now, for the first time, Academy members as a whole will vote for best doc.

The list had some worthy contenders — “Bully,” which earned a lot of publicity earlier this year, and “Ethel,” the touching portrait of the Kennedy matriarch directed by her granddaughter, Rory Kennedy. Curiously, “The Central Park Five,” the Ken Burns doc that won the New York Film Critics Circle Award, did not make the cut.

But the two most moving and widely debated films to emerge from this blizzard of product are “The Gatekeepers” and “Searching for Sugar Man.”

In “The Gatekeepers,” a circle of Israeli elder statesmen — all former heads of the Shin Bet intelligence service (the Israeli equivalent of the FBI) — essentially critique and condemn their country’s policies toward their Palestinian neighbors. Having enacted their nation’s aggressive tactical initiatives, they now pause to reflect on the moral and strategic consequences of their actions. Much of their dialogue is vastly more memorable and moving than the lines that any screenwriter could have created.

The far less ambitious “Sugar Man” also relates a story that would defy credibility if it were part of a fictional film. It traces the rigorous journey of filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul to find an obscure singer named Sixto Rodriguez who leads a double life: A humble artisan in Detroit, he is considered a rock superstar in South Africa but doesn’t know it. Indeed, the vision of Rodriguez walking into a stadium of adoring fans is not easily forgotten.

Encountering the leading characters in these and other docs may prompt the voter to ask some questions about the theatrical contenders: Though “Lincoln” was erudite and historically accurate, was it too intellectually chilly for its own good? And, while razor sharp in its dialogue and structure, was “Argo” almost too slick in its execution?

The good news, of course, is that the docs and the features are in different categories and this year, for the first time, Academy members will have a say in both.

And in a couple of weeks it will all be over and even Michael Moore can stop complaining.

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