Among the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature are four films that received acclaim across the major nonfiction precursors this year and a fifth that earned its spot after flying under the radar for much of the season. One of these five films will become the documentary branch’s next Oscar winner when the 95th Academy Awards air on March 12. Let’s take a look the road to the ballot for the five nominees and consider which could end up with the statue.
During the season there are four major groups that signal where the documentary feature race is headed. The International Documentary Association (IDA), Cinema Eye Honors (CEH), the DOC NYC festival shortlist, and the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards (CCDA) have the strongest recent history of indicating which films will earn a nomination from the academy’s branch. Their track record at matching the academy’s winner is less of a sure thing.
In the last five years only one film — “The Mole Agent” (2020)– was nominated for the Academy Award without recognition from at least one of these groups first. Of the other 24 nominated films, three were cited by only one of them: “Writing with Fire” (2021) and Oscar winners “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) and “Icarus” (2017). That means that 21 of 25 or 84% of the Oscar nominees for Documentary Feature in the last five years were mentioned first by at least two of these four precursor groups.
This year, two of the Oscar nominees were recognized for top honors by all four: Sara Dosa‘s “Fire of Love” and Daniel Roher‘s “Navalny.” Two of the nominees missed out on CCDA nominations, but were recognized by the other three groups: “All That Breathes” by Shaunak Sen and “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” by Laura Poitras. The fifth nominee, “A House Made of Splinters” by Simon Lereng Vilmont, was an IDA nominee, but went unrecognized for a top award by the other precursors.
While presence among the precursor groups is a solid way of predicting which films will be nominated for the Oscar, looking at their winners as a way of predicting which of the academy’s five nominees will take the Oscar home is not as clear cut. The CCDA’s top award went to “Good Night Oppy” in November, but that film failed to make the Oscar shortlist of 15 films in December. Both the IDA and CEH decided that “All That Breathes” was their documentary of the year, planting Shen’s film in the frontrunner position for much of the season. The only film in the last five years to win either of those awards and then go on to win the Oscar was “American Factory;” in the other four years, winning with CEH or IDA was more likely to signal an Oscar defeat.
At this point in the season, we can also turn to the Producers Guild Awards (PGA) nominees and winner as indicators. “All That Breathes,” “Fire of Love” and “Navalny” are all up for the PGA win that will be announced on February 25. Last year’s PGA winner was “Summer of Soul,” which went on to win the Oscar over its strongest competitor “Flee,” which had won top honors from both the IDA and CEH earlier in the year. The year before that, “My Octopus Teacher” rallied to win the Oscar following a PGA win despite it missing the IDA, CEH and DOC NYC precursors. In the three years prior, the films that each won both the PGA and CCDA feature prizes weren’t even nominated for the Oscar (“Apollo 11,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Jane”).
Based on PGA prefacing the last two winners, if “All That Breathes,” “Fire of Love,” or “Navalny” win there we could have a clearer indication of where the academy votes will go. That being said, BAFTA is another group that we can look to since they’ve matched the Oscar winner for two years running as well. The only Oscar nominee not nominated for the BAFTA equivalent this year is “A House Made of Splinters.” The British academy will award their winners on February 19.
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