"Searching for Sugar Man," the absorbing investigation into the whereabouts of an elusive '70s singer-songwriter, won the Academy Award for feature documentary last year. It was the first time that the entire body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could vote on the category. In previous years, academy members had to attend special screenings of all five nominated documentaries, signing in at the theater in order to prove they were present.
Did the feel-good "Sugar Man" win because it was the best documentary — or because it was the most publicized and thus the movie that the majority of academy members saw? It's a question that can't be answered definitively but one that will be asked again about both the documentary and the foreign-language feature winners, as this year the academy has opened up the foreign-language category to all 6,028 members for the first time as well.
Will the winners be the easiest movies to watch? If so, you'd figure Paolo Sorrentino's gorgeous, carnivalesque character study, "The Great Beauty," will prevail for foreign-language feature and "20 Feet From Stardom," the rousing musical tribute to unheralded backup singers, will win documentary. Fine choices both. But if they win, expect to hear some grumbling that by relaxing category guidelines and relying on voters to adhere to an honor system, the academy has effectively turned the races into popularity contests favoring the films that have garnered the most publicity. The price of democracy?
ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
"Despicable Me 2"
"Ernest & Celestine"
"The Wind Rises"
And the winner is: "Frozen." The soundtrack is bigger than Beyoncé. Disney is already planning out the Broadway musical version. A singalong version arrives in theaters on Friday. Yes, "Frozen" is a phenomenon. One academy member told us that her teenage daughter didn't even mind going to see it with her ... in public! You think that kind of love will go unrewarded?
Unless: Enough academy members wish to reward Hayao Miyazaki for "The Wind Rises," which had been billed as the revered Japanese director's last movie. Then again, Miyazaki has come out of retirement more times than the Who, and he's reportedly working on a new samurai-themed manga comic. Nobody would be surprised if he makes another movie. So whatever send-him-out-in-style sentiment had been building might actually turn against "Wind," a melodramatic (if beautiful) biopic about the designer of Japan's famed Zero aircraft and a film that figures to be a tough sit for many academy members.
"The Broken Circle Breakdown"
"The Great Beauty"
"The Missing Picture"
And the winner is: "The Great Beauty." Sorrentino's dreamlike visual banquet has won comparisons to Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and "81/2," and even if the connection is more spiritual than concrete, the mere mention of Fellini's name is enough of a hook to guarantee a sizable audience among academy cineastes. Its recent Golden Globe win also helped to raise the movie's profile.
Unless: Denmark's The Hunt," which stars Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher wrongly accused of abusing a little girl, pulls off a surprise. It's the most mainstream entry in the group and won a fair audience when it opened in July. Mikkelsen took an acting prize at the recent Palm Springs Film Festival. Then too, so did Belgium's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," which won foreign-language film of the year. "Breakdown" could well be a sleeper here for its inventive mix of bluegrass music, romance and affecting melodrama. We know several academy members who have it at No. 1 on their ballots.
"The Act of Killing"
"Cutie and the Boxer"
"20 Feet From Stardom"
And the winner is: "20 Feet From Stardom." Probably. Maybe? In a field full of tough-minded docs (Indonesian death squads, Egyptian revolutionaries, covert military operatives), "20 Feet From Stardom" easily ranks as the DVD academy members won't hesitate to watch at the end of a long day. (It's also the entry seen by the most voters theatrically.) The movie's stories of artists struggling to stay true to their craft and remain relevant in an industry that puts personality ahead of authenticity should also hit home with many voters.
Unless: Since a music-themed documentary, "Sugar Man," won just last year, academy members could be inclined to go in a different direction. In that case, look for "The Act of Killing," Joshua Oppenheimer's acclaimed film that has former Indonesian death squad leaders reenacting their real-life mass killings through their own choice of moviemaking techniques. It's audacious and unforgettable. Word-of-mouth has been strong enough to persuade voters to at least put it atop their stack of screeners. The question remains: Will enough people actually put it in and press play?