The Uncanny Connections Between This Year’s Best Picture and Best Documentary Oscar Contenders

By  · Published on November 21st, 2014

Paramount Pictures/Bond 360

A lot of Best Picture hopefuls each year have documentary counterparts. It makes sense, because biopics and other true stories are great fodder for Oscar bait. Some are as easy as Monster and Milk being linked to Nick Broomfield’s Aileen Wuornos films and The Times of Harvey Milk, respectively, in part because the dramas were directly influenced by their doc predecessors. Others, like Dallas Buyers Club and How to Survive a Plague and Captain Phillips and Stolen Seas are not as officially linked but certainly go together by being about the same real-life subject matter. Occasionally even the fictional contenders are informed by docs, as was Gravity heavily modeled after footage from the IMAX movie Hubble 3D.

Lately I’ve noticed a phenomenon where a lot of the 2014 Best Picture candidates are not just easily tied to past documentaries but specifically correspond quite perfectly with docs that are also in contention for Academy Awards this year. This isn’t to say all the following titles up for the Best Picture or Best Documentary categories will wind up nominees, but it sure would be cool for the five in the latter group to line up with five of the former and that could lead to a whole segment of the ceremony devoted to nonfiction and the different ways to tell true stories, depict actual events and address real issues and ideas. They could even make it a musical number.


Whiplash and Keep On Keepin’ On

And here’s a good place to start for that musical number, two films that deal in the sounds of jazz. Both are about young proteges and their old mentors. In Whiplash, a fictional work by Damien Chazelle, the instrument in focus is the drums with Miles Teller playing a conservatory student who admires Buddy Rich and J.K. Simmons as his abusive instructor. Alan Hicks’s Keep On Keepin’ On follows Justin Kaulflin, a very promising blind piano player in his early ’20s, alongside his new friend and inspiration, octogenarian trumpet legend Clark Terry. Let’s see both nominated and then let’s see a trio arranged on the stage of the Oscars comprised of Kaulflin, Terry and Nate Lang, the guy actually performing on the drums when we see Teller acting like he can.

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Zipporah Films[/caption

Mr. Turner and National Gallery

Frederick Wiseman really deserves an honorary Oscar yesterday, but it would at least be nice to see him finally nominated for once in his half-century career. National Gallery is his best work in years and seeing it recognized wouldn’t feel like the Academy was just throwing him a lifetime achievement sort of nod. Unfortunately it’s not either an “important” or “feel good” doc like those that get voters excited. If it did wind up in the ring, it would find a narrative cousin in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a biopic of British painter J.M.W. Turner. That’d be the same artist whose recent exhibit at London’s National Gallery figures into the content of Wiseman’s film.


Get On Up and Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown

Okay, technically officially Mr. Dynamite did not qualify for the Academy Awards, going directly to HBO this fall instead of making the requisite theatrical run. But if I can dream that Wiseman will be acknowledged at the Oscars, then I can dream that this doc about James Brown was the Alex Gibney music film that played in cinemas instead of the disappointing Finding Fela! Not just because it makes an obvious partner to Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic starring Best Actor hopeful Chadwick Boseman. It’s also a damn good film, maybe my favorite in its genre this year.

The Imitation Game and The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Two brilliant minds, both pioneers in the field of computers, each in their time a hero and someone persecuted by the government and who ultimately took his own life. The parallels between Alan turing and Aaron Swartz are not deep, and these movies ‐ respectively directed by Morten Tyldum and Brian Knappenberger ‐ don’t play out with much similarity, but long before either was released Turing’s name had kept coming up following the 2013 death of Swartz. The movies and the men together deserve the honor of being internationally recognized on that Oscar stage.

Ava DuVernay

Selma and Life Itself

Ava DuVernay, director of the civil rights historical drama Selma, is not very well known. In fact, I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with her at all before seeing her in Life Itself, the documentary by Steve James about Roger Ebert. She appears in that film to talk about how Ebert had championed her first narrative feature, I Will Follow, which like the doc deals with the loss of a loved one, and how many years earlier they’d met when she was just a child. Life Itself has long seemed like a shoo-in for the Academy Award this year, while DuVernay shot up to become a frontrunner in the Best Director race following Selma’s premiere. How cool would it be if the Oscar winner for Best Director turns out to be a character in the Oscar winner for Best Documentary?

Bond 360

Interstellar and Particle Fever

No, Particle Fever isn’t yet another doc about space exploration, but in a way it involves science that’s more relevant to that of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi spectacular. Its focus is the Large Hadron Collider and an experiment to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, something that might hold a key to unlocking greater understanding of gravity. And that might have an effect on interstellar travel. But never mind that for a moment, since I can’t totally comprehend or explain the science and where the two movies link there. Just on the surface, though, both are excited about science and present celebrations of scientists achieving great things. When Jessica Chastain throws a stack of papers into a room full of lab-coat-wearing extras at the joy of a discovery in Interstellar, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the energy and passion witnessed and felt in Mark Levinson’s doc.


Citizenfour and Citizenfour

They’re the same movie! There’s a push right now for Laura Poitras’s news-breaking Edward Snowden doc to not only get a nomination for Best Documentary, where it’s a neck-and-neck frontrunner beside Life Itself, but also to receive a nod for the top prize. It would be the first time a doc was recognized in the category, of course. If animation can have its own award and still occasionally be up for Best Picture, why not a doc, too? I am doubtful of Citizenfour’s chances (honestly I’d be less surprised by Life Itself squeezing in there) of doing what Fahrenheit 911 failed an attempt to do a decade ago, though I definitely agree it deserves to be there.

Also, maybe?: Love Is Strange and The Case Against 8; Captain America: Winter Soldier and Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia; Gone Girl and Private Violence.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.