Saturday, December 9, 2023

Best Documentary Feature Is Up For Grabs

The category of Best Documentary Feature has been a notorious source of frustration for Oscar predictors- more so as far as nominations go rather than winners. This is mainly because of the quirks and eccentricities of the Documentary branch members (which singularly votes on nominees), which are often smoothed out when the whole Academy membership votes on the eventual winner.

This year has been no exception, though not quite as unpredictable as years past. With the shortlists and nominations, the branch was up to its usual antics. The first significant casualty of the branch was Amazon’s Critics Choice Award winner “Good Night Oppy,” which was widely predicted as an eventual nominee at the time that it failed to make the shortlist entirely. Nominations last month were surprisingly tame- arguably, the four frontrunners all secured nominations: “All That Breathes,” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” “Fire of Love,” and “Navalny.” Most predictors had these four clearing the hurdle (with varying degrees of confidence, having learned to expect the unexpected to some extent when predicting the category).

The fifth slot was much more open, but consensus formed around a loose three films to make the cut. “Descendant” seemed like the clearest pick: it had been among the seven nominees at the Producers Guild awards, had been well received by critics (manifesting in recognition from the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review), and had the might of Netflix and Higher Ground Productions (the production company founded by the Obamas), who have produced two Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees (“American Factory” even won the category) in their short lifetime. Beyond that, “Retrograde” made an impressive case with nominations at the PGA as well as the Director’s Guild Awards, and “Moonage Daydream” was appealing after its BAFTA nomination, appearing on the Academy shortlist in Best Sound as well, and a solid late FYC push from Neon and director Brett Morgen himself. Alas, none of these managed to be nominated, with the fifth slot going to “A House Made of Splinters” instead, whose only significant awards splash before came from the International Documentary Association, where it scored three nominations.

Much has been made of the alleged “frontrunner curse” for features in the Best Picture race, but this effect may be even more pronounced in the Documentary branch in recent years. At almost every other prediction list outside of NBP, that frontrunner is “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (currently 4th in NBP odds). On paper, the folks behind “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” should be feeling more than comfortable (including previous Oscar-winner Laura Poitras, the director): the film is leading in precursor wins (mostly from critics groups) and has been primarily considered the juggernaut. It cleared the bar of getting nominated, unlike notable examples of critic-fueled presumed frontrunners like “Jane,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Apollo 11,” and “Dick Johnson Is Dead.” In the most recent examples, documentaries that manage critical frontrunner status, having managed to get nominated, have fared reasonably well, though. Movies like “Free Solo,” “American Factory,” and “Summer of Soul” coasted through Phase Two (the period between nominations and the ceremony) fairly smoothly, despite very capable contenders and runners-up. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” could do this too- it’s not hard to imagine it winning a couple more prizes on its way to the Oscar with relative ease.

However, there are cracks in the facade of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (as predictors at NBP might be foreseeing). It has missed in those couple of essential places listed above, and movies like “Fire of Love” are right on their heels in the numbers (while sitting at 3rd in the odds). “Fire of Love,” while falling into the archival-footage trap that so many others have, still feels very viable as a winner. After all, “Summer of Soul” was almost entirely archival footage and walked away nearly uncontested just last season! Could the archival-footage bias be lessening in the Academy? Also, narratively, “Fire of Love” reminds me a lot of the win two years ago for “My Octopus Teacher“- it’s stylishly made, tells a wonky love story between humans and nature, and is simultaneously cozy and tear-jerking in its arc. As we have become further separated from that year, “My Octopus Teacher” has become something of an anomaly in the collective imagination of Oscar followers, often chalked up to COVID isolation and cozy, small, heartwarming storytelling. Of course, there are big differences between the two films, but I could see “Fire of Love” scratching similar itches for Academy members and audiences alike. Considering the subject matter of the recent winner, “Free Solo,” we might be seeing an actual pattern forming around more populist human stories alongside marvels of nature.

All That Breathes” is not dissimilar thematically and is also a genuine competitor to win (currently ranked 2nd in NBP odds). It won the top prize at the IDA Documentary awards and has not missed any major precursors so far. The biggest detractor from it might be a lack of vocal enthusiasm, though its recent addition to the HBO Max platform may address this as it becomes more widely seen by bigger audiences. It also positions itself as the beneficiary of vote splitting between the other nominees. If documentaries with more passion behind them fracture the field, a solid performer like “All That Breathes” could very plausibly be left standing.

Speaking of passion: another kind of winner is the “important” one that feels especially deserving of recognition due to social/political factors and being timely to the specific moment. The righteous activism of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” certainly checks that box, but I think the real lane here is opened for the leader in the NBP odds, “Navalny.” With the 95th Academy Awards occurring just weeks after the anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine and the distressingly large mark Russia’s authoritarianism left on the world in 2022, “Navalny” has the chance to tap into a rich vein of passionate support. While it didn’t make a huge splash upon release after winning the Best Documentary prize at Sundance, or in its debut on HBO Max back in the Spring, “Navalny” has hit all the precursors it’s needed to and could be a sleeper pick to win it all (NBP is somewhat unique in their placement of it at the top of the predictions). If voters are looking for the most timely and vital message captured in a documentary of 2022, it would be hard to find something more pressing than the riveting story of “Navalny.”

The path to winning is very much slimmest for the surprise nominee “A House Made of Splinters” (which is also suffering from a visibility problem for general audiences), especially when the four other competitors have been mainstays of the season so far in a way that it has not. It looks like the statuette will be awarded to one of these four films: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” “Fire of Love,” “All That Breathes,” and “Navalny.” Here is a breakdown of the awards each have won so far this awards season:

All The Beauty And The Bloodshed (18) – AFCA, AWFJ, BOFCA, BSFC, CACF, COFCA, FFCC, GWNYFCA, LAFCA, LFCC, NDFS, NSFC, NYFCC, NYFCO, OFCC, StLFCA, TFCA, VFCC
Fire Of Love (11) – AFCC, BFCC, CFCA, CIC, GFCA, NCFCA, OAFFC, OFCS, PCC, SEFCA, SFCS
All That Breathes (4) – CEH, GOTHAM, IDA, SFBAFCC

Notice “Navalny” has not won anything so far this season. Which means at this point it’s in a do or die position where it needs to win some combination of PGA, DGA, ACE and/or BAFTA. Between the critical frontrunner from a previous winner, the couple of impactful nature-adjacent documentaries of varying disposition and styles, and the straightforward but momentous political thriller, Best Documentary Feature is a category ready for the drama of Phase Two.

What do you think will win Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account, be sure to check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here.

You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm

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