By all accounts, it was an outstanding year for documentary filmmaking. While the traditionally narrative feature-focused Best Picture race has seen some high profile flops at the box office, audiences turned up in unprecedented numbers for several non-fiction films. And with the streaming services providing further access to the documentaries, it’s no wonder that publications have declared this a new Golden Age for the form. Ask any cinephile for their favorite documentaries of the year and you’re bound to get a myriad of answers.
The Academy faces a huge task in narrowing down the 166 eligible films to 15 when the Documentary Feature shortlist is announced on December 17. From festival darlings to awe-inspiring human interest stories, there is no shortage of great options. As we eagerly anticipate the shortlist announcement, here are our best guesses for which contenders will make the cut.
Documentary films are rarely the focus of box office reporting, but a quartet of documentaries made headlines this year with impressive grosses. Each earning more than $10 million in North American theaters, “RBG“, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?“, “Three Identical Strangers” and “Free Solo” have set a tough act to follow in the Oscar race. As highlighted in the film itself, the unlikely celebrity status of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved a major draw for Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG.”
Meanwhile, nostalgia certainly played a factor in the appeal of Morgan Neville’s touchingly humanist “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the Critics Choice winner about beloved TV personality Mr. Rogers. In the nerve-wracking “Free Solo,” audiences were kept on the edge of their seats as climber Alex Honnold attempted to conquer the 3,000 ft El Capitan rock formation without a rope.
Equally unbelievable is the story behind “Three Identical Strangers,” about triplets separated at birth who eventually find each other at age 19. Barring any upsets, all four films can be expected to show up on the shortlist.
While theatrical releases proved fruitful for some documentaries, streaming platforms have increasingly become a haven for discovering the year’s best in non-fiction filmmaking. Leading the charge is Netflix, having distributed no less than 7 Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, including the most recent winner, “Icarus.”
This time around, Netflix’s biggest contenders are “Reversing Roe“, “Quincy” and “Shirkers,” all of which were selected to the influential DOC NYC Short List. “Shirkers” in particular could be a major threat in the race. This incredible odyssey about a mysteriously lost Singaporean film notched up a Sundance Award for Sandi Tan’s direction, as well as nominations from the Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards.
Though Netflix surely won’t relinquish their Documentary Feature Oscar easily, they will face stiff competition from upstart Hulu. This year, Hulu has two major contenders in the form of “Crime + Punishment” and “Minding the Gap.” The first is an eye-opening investigation into the NYPD’s illegal quota system for arrests, which disproportionately affects black and latino officers and civilians alike. “Crime + Punishment” received a DOC NYC Short List mention as well as an IDA Awards nomination.
The stronger threat to Netflix’s domination, however, is Bing Liu’s debut “Minding the Gap.” This chronicle of three young skaters’ lives in a Rust Belt town has proven to be the “little film that could,” garnering rave reviews and nominations for virtually every major documentary prize this awards season. As its buzz continues to build, the Academy’s shortlist seems like its next stop on the awards circuit.
In addition to the theatrical and online premieres, festivals continue to offer an invaluable launchpad for documentaries. Sundance continues to be the most important film festival for docs, with the majority of recent Oscar nominees first unspooling in Park City. Among this year’s Sundance debuts were prizewinners “The Sentence,” “Of Fathers and Sons,” “This Is Home: A Refugee Story,” “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” and “Science Fair,” winner of the inaugural Festival Favorite award.
Away from Sundance, several other contenders made their mark at major international film festivals. Out of Berlin, “The Silence of Others” emerged with the festival’s Panorama Audience Award, before garnering further significant notices including an IDA Awards nomination. Likewise, “The Dawn Wall” copped a similar prize following its SXSW premiere, leading up to a PGA nomination. And finally, the captivating Tribeca winner “United Skates” will also be one to watch, boasting an IDA nod to go along with numerous festival plaudits.
Much like biopics in the Best Picture race, documentaries about extraordinary people have proven popular with Academy voters, as evidenced by such winners as “O.J.: Made in America” and “Amy.” In addition to the ones mentioned above, the eligibility list includes many such profile documentaries. The most likely nominee of these hopefuls is “On Her Shoulders,” a harrowing account of activist Nadia Murad’s efforts to bring international attention and aid to the Northern Iraq region which suffered at the hands of ISIS. Director Alexandria Bombach was the winner of the Sundance Directing Award for the film, which also picked up nominations from Film Independent and Cinema Eye.
While the name Nadia Murad may not ring a bell for some voters, many famous figures were featured among this year’s documentaries. These include Jane Fonda in “Jane Fonda in Five Acts“, Pope Francis in “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word“, M.I.A. in “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” and Hal Ashby in “Hal“. But perhaps the most exciting celebrity profile in the race is the long-delayed “Amazing Grace,” which showcases footage of Aretha Franklin performing in 1972. After making its unexpected debut at DOC NYC, the film garnered enthusiastic reviews and could be a serious dark horse for the shortlist.
Evidently the competition will be fierce for the 15 slots on the Documentary Feature shortlist. Surprises will therefore be inevitable, but here are my best guesses (in order of likelihood):
1. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
2. “Free Solo”
3. “Three Identical Strangers”
4. “Minding the Gap”
7. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
8. “On Her Shoulders”
10. “Science Fair”
11. “Of Fathers and Sons”
12. “Dark Money”
13. “United Skates”
14. “Amazing Grace”
15. “This Is Home: A Refugee Story”
Also watch out for: “Reversing Roe,” “Crime + Punishment,” “The Sentence,” “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” and “Jane Fonda in Five Acts.”