The Impossible
The Impossible (Picturehouse Entertainment)

If you’ve spent any time at all gaming the Oscars, you’ve run into the magnificent unknowability of Best Documentary Feature. It’s impossible to figure out which of a given year’s eminently deserving films will make the short list – and tougher still to pick the title that will ultimately win.

This year, for instance, I’d have put money on The Imposter, The Invisible War and West of Memphis being among the final five nominees – and maybe Detropia and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, too. But only The Invisible War made it onto the list; despite strong reviews and considerable acclaim on the festival circuit, the other four fell by the wayside.

This week, one of those movies comes to disc, along with another documentary that did make it onto Oscar’s doc list. And oddly enough, both of them are ultimately about the same thing.

Bart Layton’s The Imposter, which I first saw at last year’s Hot Docs film festival, is the film that did not secure a nomination. That’s a shame, as it’s exactly the sort of movie that could have benefited from the spotlight of an Oscar nod. It’s cerebral, formally challenging and too complex to comfortably explain in a single sentence. “You’d like it, it’s up for an Oscar” would be so much simpler.

The Imposter starts out as the story of Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared from his small Texas town in 1993 … and who supposedly reappeared three years later in a phone booth in Spain, speaking with a French accent and telling an incredible, highly improbable tale of abduction, abuse and escape.

Given the title of Layton’s film, it’s not a massive spoiler to say that “highly improbable” turned out to be “totally invented,” and Barclay’s family found themselves welcoming home a man who was definitively not their lost boy. But using an ingenious storytelling structure, Layton puts us into the minds (and hearts) of people who wanted, more than anything, to believe their child was back among them – even when the evidence before them suggested the opposite was true.

That simple premise grows more and more compelling as the story continues to develop, twisting and turning in preposterous but utterly credible ways as the Barclays and their mysterious house guest take increasingly desperate steps to put off acknowledging their situation – and things get even stranger once that happens.

Layton’s real fascination in The Imposter isn’t that the Barclay family was conned; it’s the human tendency to create (or believe) impossible stories in order to cope with awful, unimaginable realities. And that gives the Barclays’ story a tragic weight that can’t easily be shaken off.

Maybe The Imposter was just too dark for the Academy; certainly, the lost-and-found arc of Searching for Sugar Man offers a more pleasing experience overall, to say nothing of the upbeat soundtrack. This is the tale of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit musician who released two great soul albums (Cold Fact and Coming to Reality) in the early 1970s and then stopped making music when those albums didn’t sell in the States.

But though Rodriguez never broke out at home, his records were massive hits in Apartheid-era South Africa, where their thoughtful content arrived at just the right time to dovetail with the swelling freedom movement. It just happened after he’d retired from performing, leaving his fans to fill in the blanks with invented legends of crippling drug addiction, self-destructive stage performances and even suicide.

Malike Bendjelloul’s documentary recounts all of this, initially framing Rodriguez’ story as a sort of forensic investigation carried out by two die-hard fans, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydrom, who just want to learn what became of their hero – and letting us share in the fruits of their investigation. Given the events that followed the film’s premiere at Sundance this time last year, I’m not ruining anything when I tell you Rodriguez was found, alive and well and living happily in Detroit -- and pleasantly surprised to learn people still care about his music. (He also seems far less concerned with financial remuneration than Bendjelloul, which gives the film an interesting tension between filmmaker and subject.)

In unearthing Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man becomes something wonderful; it’s genuinely uplifting to watch Rodriguez’ friends and family discover his hidden past, and we get to share in their delight as Bendjelloul reintroduces the world to his music four decades after it was recorded.

The uplifting, concrete resolution to the mystery at the heart of Searching for Sugar Man stands in stark contrast to the oblique conclusion of The Imposter; one film ends in triumph and redemption while the other wraps up by acknowledging that some aspects of its story may never be fully understood. And here’s the reason I’ll never fully understand the way the Academy picks its nominees and its winners: The ambiguity at the heart of The Imposter is the very thing that makes me love it, while the more easily understood arc of Searching for Sugar Man is almost certainly the reason that film is up for the Documentary Feature prize. Go figure.

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