On December 16, one of the most brutal cuts of the pre-nominations Oscar season will occur, as 159 films will be narrowed down to just 15 contenders for Best Documentary Feature. Each year many of the year’s most acclaimed films are snubbed in this category, as the shortlists are unable to capture all of the incredible works of non-fiction filmmaking being produced. With various precursor nominations having already been announced, however, several films stand in an enviable position for selection to this esteemed list. Ranging from stirring polemics about modern democracy to gut-wrenching personal accounts of the Syrian Civil War, they provide passionate insight into our collective past, present, and future.
Here are our best guesses for the top films in contention for the 2019 Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.
Despite the typically vast array of options, the awards season thus far has agreed on five common films which have been cited by virtually every major awards group. Leading the way with the highest box office gross of any documentary this year is Critics Choice Award winner “Apollo 11“, Todd Douglas Miller’s awe-inspiring recollection of the historic first trip to the moon. Not far behind is the Gotham Award winner “American Factory,” a fascinating examination and comparison of labor practices in China and the USA. Similarly, differences in American and Chinese cultures are investigated in “One Child Nation,” in which Chinese-born American Nanfu Wang explores the impact of China’s former one-child policy.
Not to be outdone, Sundance triple winner “Honeyland” has also emerged as an industry and critics darling, emulating the aforementioned trio’s haul of Cinema Eye Honors, International Documentary Association, and Producers Guild nominations. And continuing the Academy’s recent trend of spotlighting films about the Syrian Civil War, “For Sama” also enters the race with a plethora of accolades, including wins at Cannes, South by Southwest, and most recently, a sweep of the top categories at the British Independent Film Awards.
As impeachment hearings continue to stir heated debate in the US, it’s hardly a surprise that politics are at the core of many of this year’s most notable documentaries. And three of them belong to Netflix’s slate, namely “Knock Down the House,” “The Great Hack,” and “The Edge of Democracy.” Furthermore, they were all featured on the coveted DOC NYC Shortlist, a reliable bellwether for the Academy’s shortlist. Also, making a strong case is Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones’ “Advocate,” an IDA and PGA nominee. This documentary tells the story of Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, who advocated for political prisoners throughout her 50-year career.
On a slightly lighter note, the cheeky “Hail Satan?” looks at the efforts of The Satanic Temple to preserve the ideals of separation of church and state. Meanwhile, Filipino politics is the focus of Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker,” reflecting on the controversial efforts of former first lady Imelda Marcos to secure power for her family.
To stand out from such a vast field of contenders, proven audience appeal could signify a competitive edge for documentaries. Notably, a trio of films has secured such attention at film festivals and the box office. After garnering a nod for 2017’s “Last Men in Aleppo,” Feras Fayyad is once again in the thick of the Oscar race for his harrowing new film, “The Cave.” Winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, it gives new meaning to the term “underground resistance” as it chronicles the brave efforts of a team of female doctors to maintain a hospital in a cave during the chaotic Syrian Civil War.
Meanwhile, Sundance’s World Cinema Audience prize went to the environmental documentary “Sea of Shadows.” And at the domestic box office, family-friendly crowdpleaser “The Biggest Little Farm” racked up $4.3 million to go along with its IDA and Critics Choice nods.
Every year, the shortlist springs a few unexpected surprises, and this 2019 should be no different. Several well-reviewed films are serious threats for a spot on the list, despite being relatively under the radar in the awards season so far. These include profiles of famous figures such as “Diego Maradona” and “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” musical retrospectives in “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” and “The Apollo” and pair of “midnight” titles in “Midnight Family” and “Midnight Traveller“. Pundits would also be smart to keep an eye on “The Elephant Queen” and “Maiden,” which recently won the NBR Award for Best Documentary.
All these worthy films and many more could make an appearance on the December 16 shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. Based on my best guesses, here are my predictions for those lucky finalists (in order of likelihood):
1. “Apollo 11”
2. “American Factory.”
4. “For Sama”
5. “One Child Nation”
6. “The Cave”
7. “The Biggest Little Farm”
8. “The Edge of Democracy”
9. “Ask Dr. Ruth”
12. “Midnight Family”
13. “Midnight Traveller”
14. “Hail Satan?”
15. “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”
Also watch out for: “Knock Down the House,” “The Great Hack,” “The Apollo,” “Diego Maradona,” “The Elephant Queen,” “The Kingmaker”