The approximately 230 members of the documentary branch of the academy have narrowed the field of contenders for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar down from 124 entries to a shortlist of 15 titles (detailed below). 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 nominees will be unveiled along with all the other Oscar categories on Jan. 14.
Last month we profiled the 15 titles we considered the frontrunners in the race, singling out films that had already earned recognition at festivals, recorded nominations with the IDA and Cinema Eye Honors and were abuzz with strong word of mouth. Twelve of these made the cut and are described in detail below as are the three we missed.
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, a Best Feature bid from the IDA and just won with the National Board of Review.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Click here to see ups and downs of Oscar races over entire awards season
“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, including with the Gothams.
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.
“3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets” (not in our preview)
Synopsis: In November 2012, four boys in a red SUV pull into a gas station and a man and a woman pull up next to the boys. While half of each party is in the station store, an argument breaks out when the driver of the second car asks the boys to turn the music down. 3 1/2 minutes and ten bullets later, one of the boys is dead.
Given the current state of gun violence in America, this one has a sense of urgency and timeliness that often impact the doc branch’s choices.
“We Come as Friends” (not in our preview)
Synopsis: As war-ravaged South Sudan claims independence from North Sudan and its brutal President, Omar al-Bashir, a tiny, homemade prop plane wings in from France. It is piloted by eagle-eyed documentarian Hubert Sauper, who is mining for stories in a land trapped in the past but careening toward an apocalyptic future.
This Austrian-French documentary enters the race with accolades from, among others, the Vienna, Berlin and Sundance Film Festivals.
“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!
“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” (not in our preview)
Synopsis: A documentary on the unrest in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014, as student demonstrations supporting European integration grew into a violent revolution calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.
Also a Netflix documentary, “Winter on Fire” is thematically similar to recent Oscar nominee “The Square” and won the Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF.