Thursday, June 20, 2024

An Early Look At The 2023 Best Documentary Feature Oscar Race

One of the hardest categories to predict each year is Best Documentary Feature. Part of this is because despite the precursor dominance by some early frontrunners, this branch within the Academy tends to do things by the beat of their own drum, and occasionally, this results in the frontrunners not receiving an Oscar nomination ultimately. There are early signs one can point to that can give you a clear idea of where the race might be heading, especially when there are so many worthy contenders up for consideration.

Most recently, the Critics Choice Association announced their nominations for Best Documentary Feature, which included:

20 Days in Mariupol (PBS)
American Symphony (Netflix)
Beyond Utopia (Roadside Attractions)
The Deepest Breath (Netflix)
The Eternal Memory (MTV Documentary Films)
Judy Blume Forever (Amazon Studios)
Kokomo City (Magnolia Pictures)
The Mission (National Geographic)
Stamped from the Beginning (Netflix)
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (Apple TV+)

If we use this as a starting point to determine which of these ten nominees will end up in the final five at the Oscars, you can see below that the CCDA tends to overlap 3/5 with the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature.

*Oscar nominees highlighted in bold

Fire at Sea
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America (WINNER)
The Witness

Missing “I Am Not Your Negro

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Beware the Slenderman
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
California Typewriter
Chasing Coral
City of Ghosts
Cries from Syria
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends)
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Faces Places
One of Us
Strong Island

Missing “Icarus” & “Last Man In Aleppo

Dark Money
Free Solo
Hitler’s Hollywood
Minding the Gap
Three Identical Strangers
Wild Wild Country
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (WINNER)

Missing “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” & “Of Fathers And Sons

American Factory
Apollo 11 (WINNER)
The Biggest Little Farm
The Cave
The Kingmaker
Knock Down the House
Leaving Neverland
One Child Nation
They Shall Not Grow Old

Missing “The Edge Of Democracy” & “For Sama

Athlete A
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Dick Johnson Is Dead (WINNER)
Feels Good Man
The Fight
The Go-Go’s
Mr. Soul!
My Octopus Teacher
The Painter and the Thief
A Secret Love
The Social Dilemma

Missing “Collective” & “The Mole Agent

Becoming Cousteau
The Crime of the Century
A Crime on the Bayou
Introducing, Selma Blair
The Lost Leonardo
My Name Is Pauli Murray
The Rescue
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (WINNER)

Missing “Writing With Fire

The Automat
Fire of Love
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down
Good Night Oppy (WINNER)
The Janes
Moonage Daydream

Missing “All That Breathes,” “All The Beauty And The Bloodshed” & “A House Made Of Splinters

If we were to try and determine which four from the CCDA ten are the safest, I’d currently say “20 Days in Mariupol,” “Beyond Utopia,” “Kokomo City,” & “Stamped from the Beginning.” This is based on pure gut instinct, having seen all of the nominees and analyzing the types of films the branch has been nominating for the past few years. But that leaves one slot open. How can one possibly determine what will fill that last slot? And what if CCDA overlaps 2/5 this year as they did last year?! Well, let’s take a look at what the non-CCDA nominated turned eventual Oscar nominees had in common…

One commonality almost all of their misses have is they’re either an under-seen film in the race compared to some of the other mainstream titles CCDA tends to go for or an international film (which has only increased in popularity within the Academy in recent years as they grow and become more global in their makeup). I decided to take a look and see if there were other commonalities to be found amongst the thirteen films that the CCDA did not nominate that went on to receive an Oscar nomination instead.

All The Beauty And The Bloodshed: BAFTA, CEH, DGA, GOTHAM & SPIRIT
Hale County This Morning, This Evening: CEH, DGA, GOTHAM, IDA & SPIRIT
Collective: BAFTA, CEH, IDA & SPIRIT
Last Man In Aleppo: CEH, IDA & SPIRIT
Of Fathers And Sons: CEH, IDA & SPIRIT
Writing With FireCEH, IDA & PGA
The Edge Of Democracy: GOTHAM & IDA
A House Made Of Splinters: CEH & SPIRIT
The Mole Agent: CEH & SPIRIT

4/13 had a DGA nomination, 5/13 had a Gotham nomination, 6/13 had a BAFTA nomination, and 10/13 had a Spirit Award nomination. 10/13 also had an International Documentary Association (IDA) mention. All of these seem really good, but the real precursors came from the documentary-specific group, the Cinema Eye Honors (CEH). 12/13 had a mention at the Cinema Eye Honors, with the only film not receiving a mention there being “The Edge Of Democracy” (which managed to score an IDA mention and a Gotham nomination).

The Cinema Eye Honors won’t announce their full list of nominations until November 9th, but until then, we currently know the following:

Audience Choice Award Long List
20 Days in Mariupol, directed by Mstyslav Chernov
32 Sounds, directed by Sam Green
American Symphony, directed by Matthew Heineman
Beyond Utopia, directed by Madeleine Gavin
Bobi Wine: The People’s President, directed by Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo
A Compassionate Spy, directed by Steve James
Confessions of a Good Samaritan, directed by Penny Lane
The Deepest Breath, directed by Laura McGann
The Eternal Memory, directed by Maite Alberdi
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Projectdirected by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
Little Richard: I Am Everything, directed by Lisa Cortés
Invisible Beauty, directed by Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, directed by Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle
Kokomo City, directed by D. Smith
The Mission, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
The Pigeon Tunnel, directed by Errol Morris
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, directed by Anna Hints
Stamped From the Beginning, directed by Roger Ross Williams
Stephen Curry: Underrateddirected by Peter Nicks
Still: Michael J. Fox Movie, directed by Davis Guggenheim

The Unforgettables Honorees
American Symphony, Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad
Apolonia, Apolonia, Apolonia Sokol
Bobi Wine: The People’s PresidentBobi Wine
Confessions of a Good Samaritan, Penny Lane
The Disappearance of Shere Hite, Shere Hite
The Eternal Memory, Augusto Góngora & Paulina Urrutia
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, Nikki Giovanni
Invisible Beauty, Bethann Hardison
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise, Joan Baez
Kokomo City, Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell and Dominique Silver
The Pigeon Tunnel, David Cornwell aka John le Carré
Still: Michael J. Fox Movie, Michael J. Fox
A Still Small Voice, Margaret “Mati” Engel,
Twice Colonized, Aaju Peter
While We Watched, Ravish Kumar

Broadcast Film Nominees
Being Mary Tyler Moore, directed by James Adolphus, HBO | Max
Judy Blume Forever, directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, Prime Video
Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, directed by Sam Pollard and Geeta Gandbhir, Peacock
Nothing Lasts Forever, directed by Jason Kohn, Showtime
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, directed by Lana Wilson, Hulu
The Stroll, directed by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker, HBO | Max

Obviously, there are already a lot of documentaries that have a mention from CEH that could occupy those final slots. When the eventual nominees are announced, that will only become more evident. But I want to particularly look at five documentaries that I believe could land at CEH, IDA and/or the Independent Spirit Awards and be that under-the-radar nominee no one saw coming because they were too busy thinking one of the more widely seen contenders would get in instead.

Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters” is an Arabic-language documentary that had its world premiere at the 76th annual Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or and has been selected by Tunisia as their entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards.

Luke Lorentzen’s “A Still Small Voice” had its world premiere at Sundance, where it won the festival’s directing prize for U.S. Documentary. It may be coming out late this season, but it received positive reviews out of Sundance and will be an emotional and challenging watch for many that will likely linger for a long time once it’s over. 

Claire Simon’s 168-minute long “Our Body” follows patients in the gynecology ward of a hospital in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and has had a quiet presence in the season ever since as it did not show up at other fall film festivals this year as another Berlin title did, “Orlando, My Political Biography.” While that film made its way through Telluride, TIFF, and NYFF courtesy Janus Films, expect the content of “Our Body” to potentially resonate more with voters as per our own Ema Sasic, who said in her review, “is required viewing to understand better the ups and downs of being a woman in this world, and Simon delivers this lesson in the most gentle and beautiful way possible.”

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” is another female-focused documentary that would function as a terrific companion piece with last year’s Best Picture-nominated “Women Talking.” Director Anna Hints films a group of women who share their innermost secrets of shame, guilt and humiliation in a sauna and heal through their shared, intimate experiences. It’s already long listed for the Audience Award at the Cinema Eye Honors and if it continues to show up throughout the rest of the season, it could prove to be another strong contender.

And then, finally, there’s Asmae El Moudir’s “The Mother Of All Lies,” which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, re-surfaced during TIFF, and is the Moroccan entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards. It’s a personal film for El Moudir as she explores her family’s history through interviews and re-enactments with homemade puppets tying them into the 1981 Casablanca bread riots to create a harrowing but powerful effect.

While it remains to be seen which of these five mentioned films receives mentions from the CEH or IDA or a Spirit Award nomination this awards season, if they do, they’re likely going to be the contenders no one sees coming to replace films many feel will get in but inevitably won’t because the Documentary branch has shown time and time again the types of films, subjects and styles of storytelling they prefer. Who would’ve imagined “Apollo 11,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” or “Jane” would’ve been passed over by the picky branch? In fact, from “O.J.: Made In America” until “Summer Of Soul,” the CCDA winner was always overlooked by the Academy’s documentary branch (and last year’s Critics Choice Documentary winner, “Good Night Oppy,” didn’t even make the shortlist). While we’re excited to see the first major Documentary Precursor announce their nominees, they’ve never been the be-all end-all in determining the final five nominees. We should know better by now what to expect from the Documentary branch of the Academy. It may still be early in the season with many twists and turns to come, but remember to think outside the box with this particular category when finalizing your predictions.

The Gotham Awards will announce their nominees for Best Documentary on October 24th. The Cinema Eye Honors will announce their complete list of nominations on November 9th. The International Documentary Association will announce its nominees on November 21st. The Film Independent Spirit Awards will announce their nominees for Documentary Feature on December 5th. The PGA nominees for Outstanding Documentary Production will be announced on December 12th. The DGA nominees for Documentary will be announced on January 9th, 2024. The BAFTA nominations will be announced on January 18th, 2024.

What do you think will be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards? Are there any documentaries you haven’t seen yet that you’re looking forward to? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar predictions here.

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Matt Neglia
Matt Neglia
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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