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Truth as Strange as Fiction for Oscar’s Documentary Nominees

Documentary hopefuls cover much of the same ground as 2013's box office winners

Looking at this year’s quintet of nominees for documentary feature, it’s not hard to see them falling into one of two camps: art or war.

Both “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Cutie and the Boxer” are portraits of artists struggling for widespread recognition. The other three — “The Act of Killing,” “The Square” and “Dirty Wars” — deal with political violence, and the often nebulous role that the media plays in exposing, elucidating, covering up and fictionalizing that violence.

What’s intriguing is that so many of 2013’s features — both fiction and nonfiction — delved into those exact waters.

Though the Academy showed little love to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers’ titular folkie would have felt right at home among the backing-singer subjects of “20 Feet,” like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, who graced enormous stages and studios without ever managing to mount lasting careers as solo artists. Likewise, Davis’ barely sublimated jealousy of his far more successful friend (played by Justin Timberlake) finds something of a real-life counterpart in Zachary Heinzerling’s “Cutie and the Boxer,” about the frequently bickering modern artist couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara.

The difficult journeys of unusual artists — also the subject of last year’s winner, “Searching for Sugar Man” — were tackled by two Oscar-nominated short subject docus as well. Jeffrey Karoff’s “CaveDigger” spotlights environmental sculptor Ra Paulette, a New Mexico sandstone cave artist whose work is underground in the most literal way. While Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed’s “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” spends time with 106-year-old Alice Herz-Sommer, who is both the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor and oldest practicing pianist, and likely the only woman on earth who can offer first-person anecdotes about Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler.

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In a year when one of the biggest box office blockbusters, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” zeroed in on the intoxicating, and counter-revolutionary, effects of media-propagated violence, and docus like “We Steal Secrets” and “The Unknown Known” explored the media’s wartime failures and lapses, the remaining docu nominees feel especially vital.

The Act of Killing” was perhaps 2013’s most audacious documentary, in which director Joshua Oppenheimer interviewed former leaders of 1960s Indonesian death squads and enticed some to cheerfully reenact executions they had performed, providing unsettlingly surreal visual aides to help auds picture a massacre that went largely ignored by Western media.

In stark contrast to the purges of ’60s Indonesia, the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo constituted perhaps the most widely documented popular uprising in history, with thousands of protesters armed with cameraphones forcing the world to take notice. “The Square” director Jehane Noujaim helped fill in the revolution’s deeper stories, both political and personal, that threatened to get lost in the slurry of shaky YouTube clips and wide-angle crowd shots on CNN. (Yemeni director Sara Ishaq’s “Karama Has No Walls,” nominated in the short-subject docu category, also provides a firsthand account of Arab Spring tumult.)

Yet none of the year’s nominated docus took more pages out of Hollywood’s playbook than “Dirty Wars,” Rick Rowley’s study of journalist Jeremy Scahill’s investigations into shadowy Joint Special Operations Command ventures. Casting Scahill as something of a rugged crusader, Rowley fills his film with “Bourne Identity”-style graphics and stylistic quirks, even employing screenwriter David Riker to punch up his voiceovers.

Yet the docu categories aren’t all squandered genius and bracing combat imagery, with two of the short-subject nominees finding redemptive power in the most hostile of circumstances. Jason Cohen’s “Facing Fear” finds the director confronting, and then reconciling, with a former skinhead who nearly beat him to death in a Hollywood back alley two decades ago, when the director was a homeless 13-year-old. Edgar Barens’ “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall,” meanwhile, captures the dying days of an elderly life-sentenced prisoner, assisted by volunteer hospice workers comprising his fellow inmates.

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