Documentary Oscar nominees: What research topics are featured in this year’s Academy Awards?

"20 Feet from Stardom" is up for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. (Credit: RADiUS-TWC)

“20 Feet from Stardom” is up for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. (Credit: RADiUS-TWC)

Documentaries have a long and sordid history with the Academy Awards. It’s a highly contested category, and the rules of Oscar nominees’ eligibility have changed a number of times. This year, topics include genocide (“The Act of Killing”), backup singers for pop stars (“20 Feet from Stardom”), the toppling of the Egyptian government (“The Square”), the artist marriage of the Shinoharas (“Cutie and the Boxer”) and U.S. covert operations (“Dirty Wars”). Any one of these could offer a good research paper topic in psychology, political science or entertainment. And, lucky for at-home viewers, most are easily available to watch before the 86th Academy Awards ceremony on March 2.

The history of the documentary category

“Documentary film has always been the older sibling who receives fewer gifts than their prettier, spoiled, younger sibling: the movie,” wrote Brian Formo of Crave Online in “The other Oscars: Best Documentary Feature,” January 31, 2014. Formo recounted the history of the category’s nominations process, explaining that, while the modern style of documentary has been around since the 1970s, the Academy has had trouble recognizing a documentary’s ability to tell a story as compellingly as a movie. In the 1990s, a string of lauded documentaries were unable to land nominations, and in 1994, Siskel and Ebert took the Academy to task for snubbing the film “Hoop Dreams.”

In the 1990s, there were so many documentaries that voters were not required to watch the whole film; they were also using a weighted system of rankings, but most voters weren’t using it, instead giving films either a 10 or a 0. So, changes were made: voters had to view all five nominees. But later, that change was overthrown, and new changes were made requiring theater screenings – which some documentary producers got around by renting small theaters for a week of showings in order to be eligible. Formo listed the current new rules:

  • A one-week commercial release in New York or Los Angeles
  • A review in either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times

The nominees and research paper topics

The 2013 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature:

  • “20 Feet from Stardom” is the most lighthearted and biggest commercial success, earning $5 million at the box office. The stars of the film are backup singers who performed for such icons as Ray Charles and Bette Midler. The film has boosted the careers of the featured backup singers; several sang the national anthem at the Rose Bowl and there has been talk of a tour. Watch “20 Feet from Stardom” for research paper ideas about the music industry.
  • In “The Act of Killing,” filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer has a government-rewarded-killer from Indonesia act out his acts of genocide in the styles of his favorite American films. “I’ve been astonished by the readiness and even the hunger by audiences to embrace something new,” Oppenheimer told Marc Olsen, writing for the Los Angeles Times in “Oscars 2014: Documentaries illustrate a diversity of styles.” He continued, “In this case it’s trying to understand how human beings commit atrocities and how we build normality around these atrocities.” That theme could make an excellent research paper topic in psychology.
  • “Cutie and the Boxer” centers around the 40-year marriage of two artists, Noriko Shinohara and Ushio Shinohara. Their relationship is explosive, at times feeling like a love-hate marriage, but both artists try to make something beautiful in their creative lives. Consider the art vs. life topic for a paper in fine arts or psychology.
  • “Dirty Wars” centers on the career of investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater, as he covers covert actions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Scahill’s encounters with the Joint Special Operations Command make him question war and his role as a reporter. “Dirty Wars” offers topics in military history, political science, and journalism.
  • “The Square” is a look into the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and follows events as the government changes; the film was updated after its initial Sundance debut as filmmaker Jehane Noujaim returned to Egypt to cover political protests in 2013, which were then added to the film. Look at “The Square” for topics in international relations or Middle Eastern studies.

How can you watch these films? Luckily, you can “Watch the Oscar nominees at home,” according to Sean Stangland of the Arlington Heights, IL Daily Herald. Four of the five nominees are streaming on Netflix. The only one that isn’t is “20 Feet from Stardom,” which, Stangland explains, you can rent on services like Amazon Instant Video.

Which films do you want to see? Tell us in the comments. 

For more on documentary filmmaking, visit Questia.

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