Oscars: Predicting the 2017 Documentary Feature Shortlist


With a record 170 films in the running, there’s no doubt that the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature will be one of this year’s most competitive. And with many esteemed films in contention, the category is high on quality too. In a few months we’ll know which 5 of these the Academy deems the best, but prior to the nominations, this unwieldy longlist will soon be whittled down to 15. Predicting which films will make that shortlist is no easy task however, as the Academy’s Documentary branch is known to throw curveballs every year. But after observing the festival and awards circuit thus far, there are some clues as to which films are generating buzz. Here is our take on the main candidates for this year’s Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.


Several frontrunners have already staked their claims with their populist appeal and precursor laurels. Leading the way in both regards is “Jane“, which showcases the life and work of Jane Goodall and recently won the Critics Choice Award. This moving doc also made the DOC NYC shortlist, an annual selection of the 15 best documentaries that consistently has the strongest correlation to the Oscar shortlist. Additional DOC NYC honorees include “The Force“, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” , “Kedi“, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography“, “The Final Year“, “Risk” and “Step“, a deserving winner of a special Sundance prize for inspirational filmmaking.

Missing from that prestigious lineup but also looking strong are a trio of Gotham Awards nominees. Namely, they are Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ experimental “The Work“, the activist “Whose Streets?” and “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library“, an expansive look at the venerable New York institution. The latter is the latest from respected documentarian Frederick Wiseman and could garner him an overdue Oscar nomination following additional nods from Cinema Eye and the International Documentary Association. Joining “Ex Libris” as an IDA Best Feature nominee is “LA 92“, one of 5 major documentaries this year about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.


When predicting the documentary shortlist, one of the first places to look is the list of entries from Netflix, the new heavyweight in the documentary Oscar game. The streaming service has achieved great success in just 4 years, earning 5 nominations in this category. And in 2017, the streaming service released more than 20 documentaries in 2017, ranging from the illuminating “Get Me Roger Stone“, to Jim Carrey starrer “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond“, to Producers Guild nominee “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower“.

With such a hefty slate, their FYC campaign has focused on 4 films in particular. Unsurprisingly, all of them secured placements on the aforementioned DOC NYC list. After earning an Oscar nod for “Jesus Camp”, directing duo Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are back again with “One of Us”, which chronicles the lives of three ex-members of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. Netflix will also be championing a trio of Sundance winners in “Chasing Coral”, “Icarus” and “Strong Island”, the Audience, Orwell and Storytelling awardees respectively. “Strong Island” has been especially prominent throughout the precursor circuit so far, landing Cinema Eye, Gotham and IDA noms. This deeply personal documentary may be Netflix’s best bet to finally clinch an elusive Oscar.


Throughout the history of Best Picture nominees, biopics were so common that they contributed to the popularity of the term Oscar bait. In recent times, that trend seems to have caught on in the Documentary Feature category too. Our innate fascination with extraordinary people will likely continue in 2017, as many hopefuls aim to continue in the footsteps of “Searching for Sugar Man”, “Amy” and “OJ: Made in America”.

Each year, Cinema Eye names its “Unforgettables”, described as a “list of the year’s most notable & significant film subjects”. And 2017’s honorees come from a number of Oscar contenders. “Dolores” depicts the tireless activism of the titular Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the first farm worker unions. In addition to her “Unforgettables” honor, Dolores was also recognized as one of the year’s Most Compelling Living Subjects of a Documentary at the Critics Choice Awards. Meanwhile, awards voters were captivated by the stories of the Rainey family in “Quest” and the medical woes plaging Jennifer Brea in “Unrest”. The former received nods from Film Independent and Cinema Eye, while the latter won the Sundance Jury’s Editing award. Also grabbing early buzz this year were “Dina” and “Bobbi Jene”, the top prizewinners at Sundance and Tribeca respectively.

For cinephiles however, the most “notable” and “significant” film subject in this group is probably Agnès Varda, who was recently bestowed with an Honorary Academy Award. The indefatigable pioneer of the French New Wave has one of the most beloved films in the race with “Faces Places”. This travelogue documentary has already marched to wins at Cannes and Toronto, to go along with noms from Cinema Eye, IDA and the Indie Spirits.


Whereas 2016 was all about issues surrounding race in America, the ISIS threat and Syria’s associated refugee crisis will likely be at the forefront of this year’s Documentary Feature race. As recently announced by the International Documentary Association, 4 such films about present-day Syria were honored with the Courage Under Fire Award for “displaying conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the truth.” Of the quartet, “City of Ghosts” seems the most assured of a spot on the shortlist, having picked up nods from Cinema Eye, IDA and PGA.  Similarly acclaimed, it wouldn’t be surprising to see “Cries from Syria” and “Last Men in Aleppo” make the cut too. And finally, the Academy could also make room for “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS”, a National Geographic documentary from Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested.

Taking all of the above factors into consideration, here are my current predictions for the Best Documentary Feature shortlist (in order of likelihood):

  1. “Jane”
  2. “Strong Island”
  3. “Chasing Coral”
  4. “Icarus”
  5. “Faces Places”
  6. “City of Ghosts”
  7. “Dina”
  8. “One of Us”
  9. “Step”
  10. “The Force”
  11. “The Work”
  12. “Whose Streets?”
  13. “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”
  14. “Cries from Syria”
  15. “Last Men in Aleppo”

Also watch out for: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”, “Kedi”, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” and “The Final Year”

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

Also, check out the official Oscar Predictions for DOCUMENTARY FEATURE below!



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Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.


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9/15. Not bad.


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