Predicting the winner of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar will become a lot easier in early December when the academy announces the 15 films that have made the shortlist. Those semi-finalists are culled from the 100 plus titles that qualify every year for consideration.
To winnow these down to a manageable number, the academy sends monthly packages of the newly eligible documentary feature screeners to all 350 or so members of the documentary branch. While all members are encouraged to watch as many of these as they can, one-fifth of the voters are assigned each title. In late November, each branch member will submit a preferential ballot listing their top 15 choices.
All of these ballots will be collated to determine the 15 semi-finalists. Branch members will then be encouraged to watch those films on this list that they haven’t seen yet before casting another preferential ballot on which they list their top five choices. The resulting five Documentary Feature nominees will be unveiled along with all the other Oscar categories on Jan. 23, 2018. All academy voters can cast ballots for the winner of this race, which will be revealed during the Oscar ceremony on March 4, 2018.
To be eligible for consideration, a documentary feature must first qualify with week-long runs in Los Angeles and New York City which merited reviews by film critics of leading publications.
Below, a small sampling of the record 170 titles that are in contention this year. Check back often as new contenders are scheduled while others are dropped due to delays or critical reception.
UPDATED: November 26, 2017
Past winners of this race in contention again include:
“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” (Paramount)
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk‘s follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth,” their 2007 winner about climate change.
Release date: July 28, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 77; MetaCritic: 67
Laura Poitras won this award in 2015 for “Citizenfour,” which documented the battle between whistleblower Edward Snowden and the American government. Her new film chronicles the efforts of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Release date: May 5, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 86; MetaCritic: 72
“This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous” (YouTube Red)
Two-time Oscar champ Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, USA,” 1976; “American Dream,” 1991) profiles a transgender activist who becomes a YouTube sensation.
Rotten Tomatoes: 73; MetaCritic: 61
Previous nominees looking for their first win include:
“City of Ghosts (A&E/Amazon)
Matthew Heineman contended in 2015 for “Cartel Land,” which documented the drug war at the border. He now tells the compelling story of a group of Syrian journalists from Raqqa who pursue the truth no matter the price paid.
Release date: July 14, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 100; MetaCritic: 93
“Cries From Syria” (HBO)
Evgeny Afineevsky reaped a bid in 2015 for “Winter on Fire” about the war in the Ukraine. Now he chronicles the Syrian civil war using footage shot by citizen journalists.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100; MetaCritic: 76
Festival winners that are hoping to add an Oscar bookend include:
“Dina” (The Orchard)
Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance for detailing the romance between shopper Dina Buno and Walmart greeter Scott Levin in suburban Philadelphia.
Release date: October 6, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 100; MetaCritic: 81
“Last Men in Aleppo” (Grasshopper)
Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen won the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for their portrait of the White Helmets, a group of dedicated rescue workers in war-torn Syria.
Release date: May 3, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 100; MetaCritic: 83
“Step” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Amanda Lipitz won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her year-long look at a dance team hoping to bring glory to their inner-city Baltimore girls’ high school.
Release date: August 4, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 94; MetaCritic: 83
“The Work” (The Orchard)
First-time filmmakers Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary won the Grand Jury Prize at the SXSW FIlm Festival for this provocative look at an unusual prison therapy program.
Among the other strong contenders vying for a place on the shortlist are:
“Chasing Coral” (Netflix)
Release date: July 14, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 100; MetaCritic: 86
Jeff Orlowski follows up his 2012 film “Chasing Ice,” which reaped a Best Song Oscar bid for “Before My Time,” with this exploration of threatened coral reefs.
“I Am Another You” (FilmRise)
Nanfu Wang, who made the shorlist last year for “Hooligan Sparrow,” travels across America with a young drifter who left a comfortable home and loving family for a life of intentional homelessness.
In the coming weeks and months, we will be predicting all 24 of the competitive categories at the Oscars.
Best Picture | Best Director | Best Original Screenplay | Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Actor | Best Actress | Best Supporting Actor | Best Supporting Actress
Best Cinematography | Best Costume Design | Best Film Editing | Best Production Design
Best Makeup & Hairstyling | Best Sound Editing | Best Sound Mixing | Best Visual Effects
Best Original Score | Best Original Song
Best Animated Feature | Best Documentary Feature | Best Foreign Language Film
Best Animated Short | Best Documentary Short | Best Live-Action Short