Just like the Best Foreign Language Film category, this year’s Best Documentary Feature race is unusually hard to predict. Indeed, when expected frontrunners “City of Ghosts” and “Jane” failed to make the final cut, many pundits were left scratching their heads. But the category is hardly lacking in quality contenders in their absence, boasting many awards from festivals and the awards circuit. Moreover, a win for any of these films would represent a significant milestone for these respected filmmakers and their distributors.
This year’s nominees are:
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
“Faces Places” charming
“Last Men in Aleppo”
When the Documentary Feature nominees were announced, the most suprising inclusion was definitely Steve James’ “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail“. With its relatively straightforward approach, it hasn’t amassed the same level of awards attention as its fellow nominees. Still, it’s an effective documentary about the unfair persecution of a small, family-owned bank in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Furthermore, there will be much goodwill towards its director Steve James, widely regarded as one of the greatest documentarians of our time. After being snubbed for such widely beloved films as “Hoop Dreams”, “Life Itself” and “The Interrupters”, he may finally be due for a win on his first nomination.
An even more persuasive “overdue” argument can be made for the 89-year old Agnes Varda, who is nominated for her charming film “Faces Places“. Despite a lauded career spanning several decades, her work has never been recognized by the Academy. But that seems likely to change this year. Having just received an Honorary Academy Award, her subsequent competitive nod in this category makes her the oldest Oscar nominee ever. It’s hard to see the Academy passing up the opportunity to finally reward this French New Wave icon for a proven crowdpleaser and critics darling that stands out among its more solemn competitors.
While “Faces Places” will certainly benefit from the sheer pleasure it provides, there are some voters who may consider too slight in comparison to more “important” films like Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus“. This eye-opening exposé of government-sponsored doping in Russian sports is undeniably timely, as the recent Winter Olympics was marred by the absence of many Russian athletes due to the doping violations uncovered. Netflix has quickly become a fixture in this category over the years, garnering 7 nominations in just 5 years. They will therefore have high hopes for this riveting, globe-trotting work of investigative journalism to finally net that elusive Oscar.
This year’s documentary feature submissions included several outstanding entries about the refugee crisis and civil war in Syria. As the last one standing, Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo” will certainly be a major contender to win it all. This absolutely harrowing documentary follows the courageous volunteers known as the white helmets, who risk their lives to save the vulnerable lives of civilians who are endangered by the effects of the ongoing war. Just last year, “The White Helmets” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short for exploring the same subject matter. And with numerous major nominations and wins in tow, we could easily see repeat recognition for these awe-inspiring heroes.
The final nominee is another Netflix contender in the form of “Strong Island“. Directed by Yance Ford, “Strong Island” is a raw, intimate reflection on the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of Ford’s brother. Delving into resonant issues surrounding racial prejudice and injustice, the film is a serious dark horse contender, having already won the top prize at the Gotham Awards and Cinema Eye Honors. Furthermore, Ford is the first openly transgender nominee in Oscar history. A win would therefore provide an prime opportunity to showcase a more inclusive, progressive image of the Academy.