2016 Oscar Circuit: Best Documentary Feature

1

Welcome to our annual Oscar Circuit series, our deep down look into each and every category that will be presented at the upcoming Academy Awards.  Each writer of AwardsCircuit.com will tackle a different category, offering up their own perspectives on those specific races.  If you miss a piece, click on the tag titled Oscar Circuit 2016. You can also see the official Oscar Predictions for that particular race by clicking on the link here or at the bottom of each article.  Make sure to include your predicted winners in the comment section too!

Best Documentary Feature can be one of the most unpredictable categories. Favorites during critic award season can be completely overlooked – see last year’s Life Itself for example. There are some topics they’re simply adversed to, including themselves. There were two frequently awarded documentaries at risk this year, but fortunately both Amy and The Look of Silence found themselves nominated. Meanwhile, the dark horse spoiler The Hunting Ground ended up losing out on musical chairs. Last year there was a strong frontrunner with Life Itself out of the running in Cititzenfour. With both the two strongest contenders being some kind of makeup award as well, it’s a question of which topic the Academy finds the most compelling. Lets take a look at the last ten winners:

  • Citizenfour (2014) – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy & Dirk Wilutzky
  • 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) – Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen & Caitrin Rogers
  • Searching For Sugar Man (2012) – Malik Bendjelloul & Simon Chinn
  • Undefeated (2011) – TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay & Richard Middlemas
  • Inside Job (2010) – Charles H. Furguson & Audrey Marrs
  • The Cove (2009) – Louie Psihoyos & Fisher Stevens
  • Man On Wire (2008) – Simon Chinn & James Marsh
  • Taxi To The Dark Side (2007) – Alex Gibney & Eva Orner
  • An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – Davis Guggenheim
  • March of the Penguins (2005) – Luc Jacquet & Yves Darondeau

And this years nominees are:

  • Amy – Asif Kapadia & James Gay-Rees
  • Cartel Land – Matthew Heineman & Tom Yellin
  • The Look of Silence – Joshua Oppenheimer & Signe Byrge Sorensen
  • What Happened, Miss Simone? – Liz Garbus, Amy Hobby & Justin Wilkes
  • Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom – Evgeny Afineevsky & Den Tolmor

AMY

This decade in Best Documentary is probably going to have a strong theme. Documentaries on the topic of music had a two-punch effect on 2012 and 2013 with Searching For Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom, and Amy is looking the most likely to join the list. Whether they’re drawn to music-relation or the idea of the other two documentaries bringing underdogs to light since Amy Winehouse is a celebrity, but this takes her from when she was an underdog. It swept up most critics awards on top of the PGA. Frankly, it was only from this film that I realized the way she changed the industry. It’s a makeup award for how Asif Kapadia was snubbed for Senna, despite winning the BAFTA for Best British Film. Also crafted through intimate archive footage, Winehouse’s rise is documented most powerfully through the awards she won, ironically.

CARTEL LAND

Cartel Land is not a Netflix documentary like the last two on the ballot, but you can actually find it on Netflix at the moment. It’s a perfect companion to this year’s Sicario, but this takes us closer to the heart of the issue with raw candid footage from the heat of the battlefield. It’s ballsy, even if it struggles to shape and balance its narratives in an organic way. It won the DGA, and since Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won for The Revenant, they ostensibly admire a director in the trenches, whereas Kapadia formed his art in the editing bay. It’s our dark horse spoiler solely based on that precursor. The WGA doesn’t help us because none of its 4 nominees made it here.

THE LOOK OF SILENCE

Is this our first sequel documentary to be nominated? It’s hard to research since most them don’t number it. Even so, it’s impressive that Joshua Oppenheimer earned two nominations in a row for The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Hopefully gratifying too since he put himself at high risk to do these, as evidenced by the idle threats he leaves in when the interviewers want the interviews to stop. They both had early festival runs and even national releases in the year prior to their eligibility so their buzz had to stick around for a while. It’s an hour shorter than The Act of Killing but no easier to swallow, focusing on the nuanced reactions to the horrific crimes from both sides. It certainly has a chance if Amy’s momentum somehow falters.

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?

Arguably the most conventional of all the documentaries listed, and really we have a film similar to Amy where we come to understand an iconic figurehead in the music industry. Even so, the nomination was quite a surprise. It is the only one not trying to capture the world as it is today. The film really lends itself to its subject and is impeccably handled, balancing out all the contradictions of Nina Simone’s character and life. The campaign started on its release in the Summer, with even posters and billboards spread over Los Angeles, so the fact it stayed on the radar and double-dipped is a win for Netflix, even though they’re coming away empty-handed.

WINTER ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM

Hey filmmakers, thank our Mark Johnson for getting his raving quote on the FYC poster. Like Cartel Land, Winter on Fire is shot in the trenches with an abundance of found footage. With little to no precursor attention, Winter on Fire earned its nomination from Netflix’s aggressive campaign, but it’s helped by playing at the right festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Not that it didn’t deserve it. If voters are still up for the grueling will to survive after The Revenant, this is an all too real and all too present example. It’s hard to judge if it has a better shot than What Happened, Miss Simone? but it certainly demonstrates the two topics this category is attracted to the most after Listen To Me Marlon, a doc about the Oscar-beloved Brando, missed the cut.

Will win: Amy. Music themed documentaries have been so successful at winning this decade. Searching For Sugar Man, 20 Feet From Stardom – the more important Citizenfour is merely a blip in the pattern.

Could win: The Look of Silence. It’s the only other documentary with the critical momentum and arguably greater importance to Amy. Could also be a makeup win for The Act of Killing, but that more acclaimed companion lost to the more trivial 20 Feet From Stardom.

Should win: Amy. It’s hard to judge whether that’s a popular opinion or not. However, I actually prefer What Happened, Miss Simone? over The Look of Silence, which I know isn’t a popular opinion. My favourite documentary of the year is Call Me Lucky, which you can also find on Netflix.

CHECK OUT THE OFFICIAL OSCAR PREDICTIONS FOR ALL CATEGORIES:

PICTURE |DIRECTOR | LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS |SUPPORTING ACTOR |SUPPORTING ACTRESS |ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY |ADAPTED SCREENPLAY |ANIMATED FEATURE |PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING |SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS | ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |DOCUMENTARY FEATURE | FOREIGN LANGUAGE | LIVE ACTION SHORT | ANIMATED SHORT |DOCUMENTARY SHORT