With the Critics Choice Documentary Awards and Gotham nominations now out, the Best Documentary Feature race has officially begun. Twists and turns have become the norm in this category as these incredible true stories fight for their place in the final five slots. I feel we have a good grasp of which films are competing for an Oscar nomination, ranging from heartwarming and endearing to darkly fascinating and important. As these films begin their paths through awards season, it is valuable to take a deep dive into the many potential contenders, their likelihood of receiving that coveted Oscar nomination, and what that could mean for the Best Documentary Feature category as a whole.
Is “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” The Early Frontrunner?
Laura Poitras’ look at Nan Goldin and her fight against the Sackler family “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” has become one of the most buzzed-about titles of the entire season. Being the only film to screen at the New York, Telluride, Toronto, and Venice International Film Festivals, “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” has already built up a massive amount of word-of-mouth, only bolstered by its historic Golden Lion win in Venice over Best Picture contenders like “The Banshees Of Inisherin,” “TÁR,” and “The Whale.” Additionally, Laura Poitras is a recognizable name to the Academy’s documentary branch after her win for “Citizenfour” in 2014. The popularity and timing of Hulu’s Emmy-winning show “Dopesick,” which also critiques the Sackler family, is yet another reason why the film may be coming at the perfect moment to become an early frontrunner in the race. These early precursor nominations show a very interesting path for the film. However, it missed a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards, receiving nominations only for Best Director and Best Political Documentary. Earlier last week, though, it secured a nomination at the Gotham Awards, showing its strength despite its underperformance with the CCDA. Considering no film received a nomination for Best Documentary Feature from either organization, this doesn’t necessarily weaken the chances for “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” to go all the way. Nonetheless, it is an interesting statistic to remember as the awards race shapes up. Despite its strange performance at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards, “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” remains the frontrunner in the category unless it misses another major precursor down the road. The buzz surrounding may feel strong at the moment, but the warning signs are officially there.
Could A Feel-Good Film Like “Good Night Oppy” Capture Hearts This Year?
When thinking about “Good Night Oppy,” I can’t help but remind myself of “My Octopus Teacher.” In a ceremony bogged down by a pandemic and the massive cloud of dread brought with it, “My Octopus Teacher” charmed audiences with its feel-good story and beautiful photography, winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in the process. This year, the film that feels most similar to that crowd-pleasing underdog story is “Good Night Oppy.” An awe-inspiring story about a NASA exploration rover that was able to charm audiences at Telluride and TIFF, “Good Night Oppy” was nominated for six Critics Choice Documentary Awards, including Best Documentary Feature. Alongside its strong emotional core, the film has the potential to be accepted outside of the Documentary Feature category. After “Welcome To Chechnya” made the Best Visual Effects shortlist in 2020, it feels as if the gates are wide open for a documentary to receive the first nomination in that category. “Good Night Oppy,” with its incredible computer-generated environments and revolutionary use of visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic, could potentially make history. In the past, films nominated outside of the documentary category gave them a much easier time getting the documentary nomination itself. Think of recent Best International Feature Film nominees “Flee,” “Collective,” and “Honeyland,” all of which secured a Best Documentary Feature nomination alongside those other nominations. With the potential to make history and its ability to capture the hearts of its audience, “Good Night Oppy” could cruise past any lack of complexity within the film to receive these Oscar nominations. If it makes the Best Visual Effects shortlist, watch out for it to go all the way toward a nomination.
Is “Navalny” A Potential Favorite In The Race?
“Navalny” is another film that came out at the perfect time. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, a movie like “Navalny,” an incredible exploration of the man who is directly opposing Vladimir Putin, who ordered that invasion, is primed to have its moment in the spotlight. The festival favorite out of the Sundance Film Festival and five-time Critics Choice Documentary Award nominee, “Navalny” could be an easy pick for a nomination and even a win as a way for the Academy to make a statement against Russia and its actions. Additionally, it is one of the year’s most entertaining films, with Navalny himself thrilling audiences with his boldness and charming them with his charisma. HBO and CNN together could push this one to Oscar glory with a good campaign. This one feels like it could do some real damage, ironically similar to Laura Poitras’ own “Citizenfour.” A vote for the film could easily turn into a vote for the man himself, creating an obvious path for “Navalny” to triumph. Although, some worry the film’s popularity might make it this year’s perennial “Best Documentary Snub” as “Jane,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” “Apollo 11,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” and “The Rescue” have experienced in recent years.
Could Other Sundance Winners Dominate The Category?
Alongside “Navalny,” the Sundance Film Festival has provided us with a slew of documentaries that all have strong cases to claim those five Oscar nomination slots. Twenty-six of the last fifty nominees over the previous ten years have come from Sundance, with six of the last ten winners coming from the independent film festival. “Descendent” seems to be Netflix’s biggest push this year for Documentary Feature (give or take a last-minute pivot towards Chris Smith’s and Robert Downey Jr. produced “Sr.,” but more on that in a second). It left Sundance with a Jury Award and was just released by Netflix to great acclaim from critics. It’s a powerful story of reclaiming history told through the people of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama. Its three nominations at CCDA show that there is love for the film already. When it comes to a movie like this, it will only grow with time as word of mouth develops around the story being told, especially as the precursors continue to weigh in throughout the season. Keep an eye on this one as not only a potential nominee but a winner as well if “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” stumbles along the way. “Fire Of Love” led the nominees at the CCDA with seven nominations, making it an easy pick for a slot in the final Oscar five. With its visually stunning imagery, strong emotional hook, and what’s shaping up to be a strong campaign from NEON, I wouldn’t count this one out any time soon. If the buzz holds for this one, it could certainly go all the way. I’d say similar things about Sundance and Cannes winner “All That Breathes” (the first film ever to win both documentary prizes from the two festivals), a film about air pollution in New Delhi and its effects on the bird population there, as well as “The Territory,” a National Geographic documentary about deforestation in the Amazon. Both films have strong emotional sides that could allow voters to connect to their stories efficiently. Other films I would not count out would be either “Aftershock” or “The Janes,” as both films have gained new appreciation after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June and received CCDA nominations as well.
What Are The Other Contenders Out There?
With the Best Documentary Feature category, you can never count anything out. The branch is fickle and near impossible to predict. Despite the branch’s seeming distaste for archival documentaries and musical biographies, “Moonage Daydream” could break through on its pure theatricality, critical acclaim, and all-around love for David Bowie. “Sidney,” Apple’s leading contender in the race this year, could ride the goodwill for the late, great Sidney Poitier to a nomination, despite the film’s shortcomings. I think the film to watch out for though this year is “Sr.” Robert Downey Jr.’s exploration of trauma, memory, and mortality through his father is Netflix’s dark horse in this race. It reminds me so much of another film, “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” which was another personal exploration of an aging man from the streaming service. But while that film could not secure the nomination, “Sr.” has the recognition of Robert Downey, both Sr., and Jr. That recognition could be massive in this race if Netflix can form a strong campaign around it. If that buzz continues to build, it could become a more prominent contender than we might be giving it credit for.
While it is still early in this race, these are the names we will see popping up at awards ceremonies throughout the season. I feel confident one of these films will go on to secure the coveted Oscar for Best Documentary Feature this March. The question is, which one? Races as wide open as these are always the most fun to follow and with. The next significant precursors in this race will be International Documentary Association (IDA) nominations on 11/11, then the Critics Choice Documentary Award winners will be announced on 11/13, followed by the Film Independent Spirit Award nominations on 11/22 and the Gotham Award winners on 11/28. More dates can be found on Next Best Picture’s Awards Calendar here.
What do you think will be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars? Do you have any early predictions on which film you think might win? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account and be sure to check out our latest Oscar predictions here.