On February 9, the documentary branch of the academy will announce the 15 films that made the shortlist for their Best Documentary Feature award. This is the branch’s first step in narrowing down the 238 documentary features that qualified for Oscar consideration before the final five nominees are unveiled along with all the other Academy Award categories on March 15.
In order to determine the 15-title short list, members of the academy’s documentary branch have been working their way through eligible films via a virtual screening room. While the more than 500 members of the branch are encouraged to watch as many titles as possible, one fifth of them are assigned to each title. By now they’ve all compiled and submitted a preferential ballot of their top 15 choices.
Once these ballots are collated to determine the 15 and the short list has been announced, branch members will then be encouraged to watch the semi-finalist films that they haven’t seen yet before casting another preferential ballot of their top five choices. The resulting five Documentary Feature nominees will be unveiled along with all the other Oscar categories in March. All academy voters can cast ballots for the winner of this race, which will be revealed during the Oscar ceremony on April 25.
Unlike other Oscar races we have our eye on, there are only have a handful of groups to look to as precursors. Among those are the International Documentary Association and Cinema Eye Honors which are documentary-specific groups, as well as the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. The Sundance Film Festival is an annual jumping off point for many docs and dish out their own awards each January. Critics groups also play a part in the conversation and have, by now, announced their own winners.
With those precursor prizes in mind, we can expect a certain handful of films to make the short list cut with ease. At the top of that list is critics’ favorite, “Time,” the debut film by Garrett Bradley. Prior to the PGA nomination, “Time” earned Bradley the Sundance Film Festival award for directing, was nominated five times by CEH, and four times by the CCDA. It won the Gotham Independent Film award for Best Documentary and the IDA award for Best Director. It was most recently nominated by the Independent Spirit Awards and named the Best Documentary by the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, and New York Film Critics Circle.
Bradley’s stiffest competition will come from Kirsten Johnson and her ode to her father “Dick Johnson Is Dead.” Johnson previously lensed the Oscar winner “Citizenfour” and directed CEH winner “Cameraperson.” She won Best Director this year at the CCDA, as well as Best Documentary. Her film also won Best Writing and Best Editing with the IDA and was most recently named among the Spirit nominees.
Johnson’s film is one of many being pushed by Netflix this year. Their other top contender is “Crip Camp” by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham about a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities around Woodstock. It is also a nominee for the Spirit prize and a six-time nominee with the CCDA. It was most recently named the overall champ at the IDA awards, capping off its five nominations there. When it debuted at Sundance 2020, it won the audience award for Best Documentary. We’re also expecting Netflix to see “The Social Dilemma” and “My Octopus Teacher” make the cut, the latter of which was just named a nominee by the PGA.
PREDICT the 2021 Oscar nominations through March 15
Two films likely to be among the 15 here are also hoping to make the same cut in the International Feature Film category. Gianfranco Rosi returned to the race this year with Italy’s IFF selection “Notturno,” a CCDA nominee for cinematography and a three time nominee with CEH. Rosi was nominated for an Oscar in 2017 with “Fire at Sea,” which at the time was also Italy’s submission though it didn’t make the cut as a foreign film title. Romania has selected Alexander Nanau‘s “Collective” as their IFF submission and so far it’s splitting early wins in both categories. The NSFC named it Best Foreign Language Film while the European Film Awards picked it as the Best Documentary. It also earned four major noms with CEH, a notice with the Spirits, IDA and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
HBO is looking to capitalize on four CEH and one IDA nomination for David France‘s “Welcome to Chechnya” about LGBTQ+ activists fighting for their rights. AppleTV+ is part of the conversation this year with “Boys State” which follows a thousand teenage boys as they build the foundation for a new way of government. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was named among the top 5 in the field by NBR. NEON/Hulu’s “The Painter and the Thief” by Benjamin Ree is also looking good after a Best Director and Best Feature nomination from the CCDA.
Sam Pollard was nominated for an Oscar in 1998 for “4 Little Girls” and should make the short list cut with his newest “MLK/FBI” which chronicles the harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The IDA nominated it three times, the same amount it gave “The Truffle Hunters” by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw about the closely guarded secret of expensive fungi hunting in Piedmont, Italy.
Rounding out our predictions to make the list of 15 are CEH and Gotham nominee “76 Days,” IDA, CEH, and CCDA nominee “Gunda,” about a pig and its companions on a farm, and Gotham Awards winner (in a tie with “Time) “A Thousand Cuts” which was also named a nominee with the PGA and CEH.
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