Documentaries weave beautiful stories, expose the darker side of humanity, examine popular culture and challenge communities and viewers alike. Films of this ilk regularly make critics’ year-end Top 10 lists and sometimes they even make dividends at the box office. But no documentary feature has ever been nominated for Best Picture (although nine foreign-language films and even three animated features have broken into the Best Picture category).
Documentaries can be every bit as compelling as their narrative counterparts. While a number of docs become critical favorites (e.g. “Grizzly Man”), there are quite a few that even become box office smashes (e.g. “Fahrenheit 9/11”). And fewer still that become both (e.g. “Hoop Dreams”). So why can’t these documentaries make the transition to the Best Picture conversation?
Here, we offer a list of some of the documentaries that should have made the leap. There are a number of inspiring, compelling and thought-provoking documentaries out there and these docs deserve an Honorable Mention: “Paris is Burning,” “Thin Blue Line,” “Bowling For Columbine,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and “The Act of Killing.”
dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite
“Blackfish” exposed the world to the controversial confinement of killer whales by telling the story of Tilikum, a SeaWorld bull Orca who became notorious after killing three people while in captivity. Following the release of the movie, SeaWorld reported major profit losses and eventually ended their Orca shows in 2016 after much backlash. Grossing over $2 million worldwide, this thought-provoking documentary was a film festival favorite and critical success.
9“Prelude to War” (1942)
dir. Frank Capra & Anatole Litvak
The first film in director Frank Capra’s seven-film “Why We Fight” series, this Oscar-winning documentary was a propaganda masterpiece. This official U.S. government film convinced millions of Americans to get on board with our entry into WWII and show why Americans had to fight for democracy. Although the film made little money at the box office, “Prelude to War” definitely made a social and political impact on a generation. In 2000, the United States Library of Congress deemed this entry “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
dir. Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay‘s in-depth look at the history of racial inequality in the U.S. prison system was a sociopolitical critical phenomenon. Nominated for Best Documentary, this feature was powerful and often times overwhelming as it challenged audiences. The first documentary ever to open the New York Film Festival, this thought-provoking feature is included among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
dir. Asif Kapadia
Featuring archival footage and personal testimonies, “Amy” paints a vivid portrait of the life and career of one of the most talented and doomed singer/songwriters of the last few decades. Winning Best Documentary and multiple other awards, this doc was a film festival darling. Both a commercial and critical success, “Amy” is a must-see and doubly should have earned a place among the Best Picture nominees.
6“March of the Penguins” (2005)
dir. Luc Jacquet
With beautiful cinematography and captivating narration by the incomparable Morgan Freeman, “March of the Penguins” visualized the quest to find the perfect mate and start a family. The fascinating mating rituals of the Emperor penguins made for one of the most beautiful, gripping and touching documentaries of the year. This one definitely provides viewers with an overwhelming emotional experience. And to make the case even further for this feature, “March of the Penguins” out-grossed all five of the Best Picture nominees that year, making it the second highest grossing theatrical documentary.
5“Hoop Dreams” (1994)
dir. Steve James
One of those elusive documentary phenomenons that was both a box-office smash (grossing over $11 million worldwide) and a critical favorite, “Hoop Dreams” shadows the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys as they struggle to eventually make it to the professional level. This documentary has stood the test of time and has impacted subsequent generations and is still stands tall in the sports and cultural lexicon. Filled with the ups and downs of life as well as a first hand look at poverty, drug abuse, peer pressure and racism, this feature sucks audiences in from the very beginning. This film failing to garner even a Best Documentary nomination was the catalyst for the Academy changing the rules about the documentary selection process. “Hoop Dreams” was even included in Entertainment Weekly’s “50 Greatest Independent Films.”
4“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996)
dir. Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky
A true crime mainstay, “Paradise Lost” tells the story of the horrific triple child murder that gripped a nation and led to the indictment and trial of three boys and the heyday of the “Satanic Panic.” This documentary shines a spotlight on the occult and the American justice system in “small-town” America. With compelling and interesting characters, this is a complex film that challenges viewers assumptions and convictions. The doc even led to a celebrity-led movement to prove the innocence of the three suspects who were convicted on questionable evidence.
3“Minding the Gap” (2018)
dir. Bing Liu
More than just a glorified look at the skateboarding subculture, shot over twelve years, “Minding the Gap” was a sociocultural exposé on today’s “new middle class.” This feature spotlights the bond of three young men escaping volatile families and facing adult responsibilities. Going into this film, one might just brush it off as just another skateboarding movie without knowing it confronts some serious societal issues such as race, domestic violence, mental health, poverty and breaking generational cycles with such authenticity and realism. A tour de force of documentary filmmaking, “Minding the Gap” is beautifully shot, brilliantly edited, thought-provoking and therapeutic all at once.
2“The Square” (2013)
dir. Jehane Noujaim
One of the most eye-opening documentaries in recent memory, this Oscar-nominated documentary told the story of a group of Egyptian revolutionaries risking their lives and toppling regimes in the age of camera phones and social media. “The Square” puts the viewer in the midst of the chaos of the Arab Spring as history unfolds before their eyes. “The Square” is a powerful portrait of rebellion and true democratic ideals told in an authentic way straight from the minds of the compelling characters at the middle of the fight.
1“Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004)
dir. Michael Moore
Arguably one of the most influential documentaries of all time (and definitely the most commercially successful, grossing more than $200 million world-wide), “Fahrenheit 9/11” goes behind what happened to the U.S. after September 11th. A film festival darling, this documentary even won the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. A stinging indictment of the political administration, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is a perfect example of democratic self-expression and an entertaining watch. This one is definitely a force to be reckoned with; a cultural phenomenon that will be in the public discourse for years to come.