Best Documentary Feature: Which 5 will make the cut at the Oscars?

The 15 shortlisted contenders for Best Documentary Feature showcase the diversity and power in vérité storytelling with such a vast array of subjects and visions. From racial injustice and voter suppression to government conspiracies and emotionally connecting with animals, these stories, from all corners of life, illuminate the world we live in today.

Both the 15 semi-finalists and five nominees were determined by preferential voting. Final voting for the winner is widened to all academy members who attest to having watched all the nominees. Let’s take a closer look at the 15 films and their performances at the precursor awards.

The film that tackles 2020’s most pressing issue is “76 Days,” which gives an insider view of overwhelmed frontline workers caring for patients battling COVID-19 in Wuhan hospitals during its citywide lockdown.  The direct cinema filmmaking highlights the doctors and nurses’ nonstop care, sustained compassion, and waves of anguish, all while donning hazmat suits taped airtight to their bodies. International turmoil is again found in the beautifully shot “Notturno,” which critiques the unrest across the Middle East following years of war, terrorism, and political hardship.

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2020 also included one of America’s most contentious presidential elections, giving rise to multiple films detailing the power of voting and democracy. The Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner “Boys State” follows a group of 1,100 boys through the eponymous week-long program where they build their own governments from the ground up. The insightful film becomes a chilling mirror of the stubborn American political system but finds hope in the bright minds and potential for change. “All In: The Fight For Democracy” focuses on Stacey Abrams’ inspiring activism in recounting the country’s long history of voter suppression through racial discrimination.

Minority inequalities are addressed in other contenders including “Time,” which tells the empowering struggle of a wife reconciling with her past amidst a decades-long fight for the release of her incarcerated husband. “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” the Sundance Audience Award winner ,shows how a New York summer camp united a group of people with disabilities and inspired their life-long fight for the Disability Rights Movement and normalcy in an ableist society. LGBTQ+ violence is examined in “Welcome To Chechnya” as activists persevere to save citizens from the country’s torturous hate crimes. The technology used for disguising the subjects’ identities was also recognized in the Visual Effects category shortlist.

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Another government cover-up is exposed in “MLK/FBI” as declassified documents reveal the FBI’s targeted campaign to surveil, undermine, and harrass Martin Luther King Jr. “Collective” provides another shocking and thrilling entry that navigates the journalistic disclosure, traumatic fallout, and political and healthcare corruption following a deadly nightclub fire in Romania. It follows in the footsteps of last year’s “Honeyland” which was nominated for Best International Feature.

On a lighter note, some pictures find the beauty in nature to tell unexpectedly evocative stories. The magnificent and intelligent octopus takes center stage in “My Octopus Teacher” by emboldening the narrator to find his purpose. “Gunda,” titled after the leading sow, offers a minimalist yet moving depiction of farm animals with a human-level emotional intelligence. In “The Truffle Hunters,” the audience is given an immersive and unique view of the niche tradition of finding wild truffles and the elaborate and exploitative journey from dog sniffing to culinary enjoyment.

The remaining three films focus on the power of human connection with different perspectives on the meaning of life. “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is one daughter’s love letter to her aging father, who has inspired her to creatively and endearingly confront the conversation of death with a comedic spin. Levity ensues in “The Mole Agent” as an 83-year-old man is hired to infiltrate a Chilean retirement home to check on a client’s seemingly ill-treated mother. What begins like a mysterious spy thriller transforms into a thoughtful reflection of one’s own humanity. In the final contender, “The Painter and the Thief,” an artist forms a surprising yet authentic friendship with the man who stole her paintings. By using the thief as her painting subject, she hopes to find closure while he struggles to battle his inner demons.

PREDICT the 2021 Oscar nominations through March 15

The Producers Guild of America Awards has previewed five of the last dozen Oscar winners. This year’s PGA Awards nominees are: “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “My Octopus Teacher,” “Time,” and “The Truffle Hunters.”

Over the 30-year history of this category at the Directors Guild of America Awards, at most three filmmakers have also reaped Oscar bids. This year’s DGA Awards nominees are: “Boys State,” “My Octopus Teacher,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “The Truffle Hunters,” and “Welcome to Chechnya.”

The Cinema Eye Honors winner has been nominated at the Oscars all but three times in its 13-year history. This year’s winner was “Collective.”

The five nominees at the Independent Spirit Awards are: “Collective,” “Crip Camp,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “The Mole Agent,” and “Time.”

Seven of the 15 contenders for the Oscars overlapped with the BAFTA shortlist, but only “Collective” and “My Octopus Teacher” were among the final nominees.

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