Reality Check: Predicting the Documentary Feature Oscar Short List

Any day now, the Academy will release their annual short list for Best Documentary Feature, dashing the hopes of 130 films. Typically one of the strongest Oscar categories in terms of quality, the cut is a brutal one often resulting in shocking omissions. For the most part however, the unwieldy long list tends to solidify around a smaller group of contenders that rise to the top of the pile. And that is once again the situation this year, as key precursors have hinted at where all the buzz lies in this competitive race. Most significantly, the DOC NYC Short List has been announced, which consistently forecasts nearly all of the eventual Oscar finalists with their own 15-film list. Therefore, the trick in figuring out the shortlist is to guess which few films will be replaced from that line-up.

Below is a preview of the contenders to expect on the Oscar short list for Best Documentary Feature, grouped into three broad categories.


Our first set of contenders is from a distributor that deserves a category all on its own. Since entering the game just recently in 2013, Netflix has become a major force in the world of documentaries. Indeed, they have already secured nominations for four films: “The Square,” “Virunga,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” And with their 2016 slate, they seem to be growing stronger. Of the six films in their awards campaign, four were selected by DOC NYC, namely: “13th,” “Amanda Knox,” “Into the Inferno” and “The Ivory Game.” Better yet, they may have their first winner on their hands with Ava Duvernay’s “13th,” a probing examination of the prison system. And aside from these four, Netflix will also have high hopes for the visually captivating “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” and the depressing but vital “Audrie & Daisy.”


Whereas narrative features are commonly seen as entertainment, documentaries are more often regarded for their informational and advocacy purposes for pressing social issues. Among this year’s top contenders, several themes relevant to modern society are reflected in their subjects. Of course, one of the biggest concerns right now is race relations, both in America and abroad. In addition to the aforementioned “13th,” “O.J.: Made in America” and “I Am Not Your Negro” explore the history of the black experience, through the lens of the O.J. Simpson trial and James Baldwin’s writings, respectively. From an international perspective, Gianfranco Rosi’s award-winning “Fire at Sea” also touches on racial tensions in the context of the European migrant crisis.

The endless gun control debate was also a major concern for this year’s documentarians. 14 years after “Bowling for Columbine” won the Oscar, Keith Maitland and Kim A. Snyder continue the conversation with their films “Tower” and “Newtown,” respectively. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio lends his voice to another long-standing issue with the climate change doc “Before the Flood.” Following its premiere on National Geographic Channel and free streaming on online platforms, it is already one of the most-watched documentaries of all time. And finally, Dawn Porter’s DOC NYC honoree “Trapped” is a rallying cry against anti-abortion laws that have been passed in many states.


In recent years, the documentary feature Oscar has often come down to a battle between the “important” docs like those mentioned above and those that profile a compelling individual. And much to the chagrin of certain critics and cinephiles, the latter has usually won (“Amy,” “20 Feet from Stardom,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” etc.).

This year, there are many such documentaries hoping the Academy will continue this trend. There are the always popular stories about artists in various fields for example, with films like “Cameraperson,” “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,” “Miss Sharon Jones!,” “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” and the already mentioned “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang.” Then there is an array of wholly unique individuals, like Darius McCollum in “Off the Rails,” Ye Haiyan in “Hooligan Sparrow,” Steve Gleason in “Gleason,” Aisholpan in “The Eagle Huntress” and Owen Suskind in “Life, Animated.” And of course, Oscar voters won’t soon forget the ripped-from-the-headline stories behind “Weiner,” “Jim: The James Foley Story,” “Amanda Knox” and “O.J.: Made in America.”

Based on their current buzz, here are my predictions for the Best Documentary Feature short list (in order of likelihood):

1. “13th”
2. “O.J.: Made in America”
3. “Weiner”
4. “Miss Sharon Jones!”
5. “I Am Not Your Negro”
6. “Life, Animated”
7. “The Ivory Game”
8. “Jim: The James Foley Story”
9. “Amanda Knox”
10. “Into the Inferno”
11. “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”
12. “Tower”
13. “Hooligan Sparrow”
14. “Trapped”
15. “Cameraperson”

Also watch out for: “Fire at Sea” and “Gleason”

Which films are you predicting for the Documentary Feature short list? Let us know in the comments below.