Oscar frontrunners: Top 15 Documentary Feature entries

Every month, the academy sends a package of newly eligible documentary feature screeners to the approximately 230 members of the documentary branch and randomly assigns one-fifth of them to watch any specific title. However all members are encouraged to view as many as they can.

That task became Herculean with last month’s mailing which contained a whopping 62 DVDs; a full half of the 124 titles that qualified. Voters have until today (Nov. 20) to list their top 15 picks on a preferential ballot.

Those results will be compiled and produce a shortlist of 15 contenders to be announced in early December. All members of the branch will be encouraged to watch the films on this list that they have not yet seen and cast preferential ballots with their top five choices. The resulting five Documentary Feature nominees will be unveiled along with all the other Oscar categories on Jan. 14.  

Earlier this month the International Documentary Association and Cinema Eye Honors announced their nominees. Last year “Citizenfour” took top honors from both those groups before going on to win the Oscar.

Below, we detail the 15 documentary features we believe to be the frontrunners in what is typically one of the most unpredictable races of the year.

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“Amy”

Synopsis: The story of Amy Winehouse in her own words, featuring unseen archival footage and unheard tracks.
Easily one of the biggest documentary hits, both commercially and critically, since 2013’s “Blackfish,” “Amy” enters the race with clout unmatched by any of its competition. While buzz doesn’t always translate into a nomination (“Blackfish” missed out after all), “Amy,” which has made over $8 million stateside, earned three Cinema Eye Honors nominations and a Best Feature bid from the IDA.


“Best of Enemies”
Synopsis: A documentary on the series of televised debates in 1968 between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr.
Five years in the making, “Best of Enemies” enters the race on the strength of its technical achievements as evidenced by its Cinema Eye Honors nomination in Editing and IDA award for Music. It couldn’t be more timely as the presidential political debates dominate the news and social media circles.

“Cartel Land”

Synopsis: A physician in Michoacán, Mexico leads a citizen uprising against the drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years.
Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Cinematography and Directing awards for documentaries and a 5-time Cinema Eye Honors nominee, this covers the same subject as the feature film “Sicario,” which is proving to be a hit with audiences and critics alike. Recent nominees “Dirty Wars” and “The Square” prove that the branch isn’t afraid to recognize tough, violence-focused material.


“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

Synopsis: An in-depth look at the inner-workings of the Church of Scientology.
Alex Gibney won this race in 2008 with "Taxi to the Dark Side" and his new film already won three Emmys earlier this year. The high profile subject matter and the implications it has on the industry mean it will be widely seen by voters, giving it an edge over its competition.


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"He Named Me Malala"
Synopsis: A look at the events leading up to the Taliban's attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai who advocated for girls' education and the aftermath, including her speech to the United Nations.
Davis Guggenheim won this award in 2006 “An Inconvenient Truth." With Fox Searchlight backing this film and the international name recognition of its subject, expect this to be a major threat for the win. 


“Heart of a Dog”
Synopsis: An impressionistic and musical meditation on a pet's death by the artist Laurie Anderson.

A deeply personal doc, much in the same way as last year's "Finding Vivian Maier," Anderson provides a more intimate option in this year's race. Winner of the Lina Mangiacapre Award at the Venice Film Festival, it is also up for Best Documentary at the Gotham Awards.


“The Hunting Ground”

Synopsis: An exposé of rape crimes on U.S. college campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and the devastating toll they take on students and their families.
Director Kirby Dick is a two-time Oscar nominee in the category with 2005’s “Twist of Faith” and 2013’s “The Invisible War,” both of which also shine a light on sexual abuse. 

“Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words”
Synopsis: A captivating look behind the scenes of the remarkable life of a young Swedish girl who became one of the most celebrated actresses of all-time.
Acclaimed Swedish filmmaker Stig Bjorkman, who has chronicled the life and work of Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier, turns his attention to his country's most famous export. This fascinating film tells the life story of this three-time Oscar champ using excerpts from her diaries and correspondence. 

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"Listen to Me Marlon”
Synopsis: A documentary that utilizes hundreds of hours of audio that Marlon Brando recorded over the course of his life to tell the screen legend's story.

If IDA and Cinema Eye Honors nominations aren’t enough, “Listen to Me Marlon” has the added benefit of using the voice of the beloved two-time Oscar champ Marlon Brando to tell the story of his life, the bulk of which involves his film career. The pic was also nominated for Best Documentary by the Gotham Awards this year.


“The Look of Silence”
Synopsis: A family that survives the genocide in Indonesia confronts the men who killed one of their brothers.

Joshua Oppenheimer has followed up his 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” with this companion piece that takes another look at the genocide in Indonesia. Top nominations at both IDA and Cinema Eye Honors followed on numerous awards throughout the world.


“Meru”

Synopsis: Three elite climbers struggle to find their way through obsession and loss as they attempt to climb Mount Meru, one of the most coveted prizes in the high stakes game of Himalayan big wall climbing.
Though the feature “Everest” may have taken a back seat in this year’s race, the world of adventure climbing may still make it to the Oscars. “Meru,” which has made just over $2 million, reaped four Cinema Eye Honors nominations. The 2011 nominee “Pina” showed that the branch values visually striking films just as much as anyone else.


“The Russian Woodpecker”

Synopsis: As his country is gripped by revolution and war, a Ukrainian victim of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster discovers a dark secret and must decide whether to risk his life and play his part in the revolution by revealing it.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema at Sundance, it also earned major nominations at the both the IDA and Cinema Eye Honors. The 2013 nominee “The Square” provides recent precedent for international politics-themed stories doing well with the branch.


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“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

Synopsis: A documentary about the life and legend Nina Simone, an American singer, pianist, and civil rights activist labeled the "High Priestess of Soul."
Last year Netflix reaped bid in this category with "Virunga" and has a good chance of repeating with this intimate and inspiring film. 

“Where to Invade Next”

Synopsis: To learn what the USA can gain from other nations, Michael Moore playfully "invades" them to see what they have to offer.
Moore is probably the biggest name in documentary filmmaking: “Bowling for Columbine” won the Oscar in 2002 and its 2004 follow-up “Fahrenheit 9/11” became the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or since 1956. Those two films are joined by 2007’s “Sicko” as three of the top 12 highest grossing documentaries of all time. That kind of street cred is hard to ignore!


“The Wolfpack”
Synopsis: Locked away from society in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Angulo brothers learn about the outside world through the films that they watch. 

Now a multiple nominee with Cinema Eye Honors, “The Wolfpack” first gained awards cred when it won the Grand Jury Prize for a U.S. Documentary at Sundance. Diving deep into the personal lives of a family, it is similar in theme to the classic “Grey Gardens.”

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