Despite our best efforts, there’s little genuine strategy available to predict the Academy Award nominees for any of the three shorts categories. With few precursors and a plethora of shorts to choose from, there’s not much that can inform us about what the Academy will ultimately nominate. Documentary Short is no different. Even so, there are 15 films shortlisted for this category, which span various genres, moods, and quality. Let’s dive into the shortlisted films and attempt to predict the final five Oscar nominees.
With “The Queen of Basketball” winning this category last year, it’s difficult to say if that helps or hurts HBO’s “30 At The Garden.” Chronicling the rise of “Linsanity,” the phenomenon that exploded surrounding NBA star Jeremy Lin in 2011 and 2012. The documentary is thrilling, even for people who aren’t very invested in basketball. It’s a true underdog story watching Lin rise from a player nearly cut from the NBA altogether, completely undervalued, to shocking domination, even up against Kobe Bryant. While the film loses momentum toward the end as it draws comparisons to Lin’s story and the rise in anti-Asian hate since 2020, it’s a hugely enjoyable film. Will voters shy away from nominating the short since they so recently awarded a basketball-themed film? Or is that evidence that they’re fans of the sport and will continue nominating them? Regardless, it’s a crowdpleaser with HBO behind it, so it’s in good shape for a nomination.
Another short with the backing of another major studio, Disney and National Geographic, “The Flagmakers,” is a deeply American documentary, more traditional in form but nonetheless impactful. Eder Flag is the country’s largest producer of American flags. The employees of Eder Flag in Wisconsin come from all over the world, with different religions, experiences, political opinions, and more. It’s remarkable to see such a melting pot of people working at a place producing the iconic symbol of America – and all that the flag represents, good and bad. Directed by Oscar-winner Cynthia Wade and Sharon Liese, this could gather solid support from the Academy.
Netflix has received a nomination in this category every year since 2016, and they’ve got two documentaries still in the race. “The Martha Mitchell Effect” chronicles a lesser-known figure in Nixon’s Watergate scandal. As the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, Martha Mitchell became known for her frank and outspoken comments against Nixon, claiming that her husband was his fall guy for the scandal. This documentary is entirely composed of well-edited archival footage, though that’s only sometimes a form the Academy responds to well. It’s highly informative and entertaining, especially if Mitchell’s saga is new information to the viewer. Netflix’s better shot at a nomination may be with “The Elephant Whisperers.” Endearing and personal, this film follows a couple in South India who devote their lives to caring for an orphaned elephant. It’s sweet, very personal, and could capture animal lovers’ hearts.
Two other animal-focused documentaries hail from The New Yorker. “Nuisance Bear” has garnered many awards, including the Cinema Eye Honor for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking and Critics Choice for Best Documentary Short. This wordless short takes an artful, almost operatic look at the journey of a polar bear migrating through a Canadian town. The bear is seen as a nuisance, even though it’s humanity who has encroached on the bears’ land. Gorgeous cinematography and sound design make this a hypnotic but excellent experience. It’s almost certainly getting a nomination. Similarly, The New Yorker’s “Haulout” follows a scientist, Maxim, in the Russian Arctic observing walrus migration and the toll ocean warming has taken. It’s fascinating to see Maxim amidst the hoards of walruses, but it’s a lonely, desolate place. Overall, when pitted against “Nuisance Bear,” “Haulout” doesn’t pack quite the same punch.
Also from The New Yorker is “Holding Moses,” a devastatingly honest portrait of the mother of a son with severe disabilities. Randi describes what it was like to have a picture of what she dreamed her family would be, but how different it looks now, and how she copes with that reality. It’s brutal but deeply felt. Few documentary subjects are as bracingly truthful. The film is ultimately hopeful and loving, which makes for a really emotional piece. “Stranger at the Gate” is the last of The New Yorker’s solid slate of contenders. This one is best left unspoiled, but the film explores the dehumanization of Muslims in the eyes of American soldiers post-9/11 and the deep pain it caused in one former Marine. It’s a shocking story that’s easy to get absorbed in.
MTV Documentary Films scored three placements on the shortlist with “Anastasia,” “Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices from a Plantation Prison,” and “As Far as They Can Run.” In a very similar story to Best Documentary Feature frontrunner “Navalny,” “Anastasia” follows one of Putin’s most outspoken critics, a leader in the movement to protest and question the corruption in Russia. She’s also a mother torn between caring for her family and standing up for the people of Russia. It’s a tragic and timely documentary, though perhaps too similar to “Navalny” to get the nomination. In much better shape for MTV’s nomination is “As Far as They Can Run,” about three young adults in Pakistan with disabilities who are invited to join a running program. It’s heartwarming, heartbreaking, and made with such empathy. Voters could genuinely be moved by this short.
“Angola Do You Hear Us?” tells the story of playwright Liza Jessie Peterson’s performance of her acclaimed play at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Exploring art, activism, and the modern-day prison system, “Angola” doesn’t quite balance all the elements well, especially when the central performance couldn’t be filmed. This is a crucial subject matter, but there are better documentaries short on the list. Similarly, “American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton” covers the country’s distorted justice system in the 1968 trial of Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton. It’s an informative documentary about an important trial, but its presentation is quite traditional.
Like “Angola,” “Shut Up And Paint” explores themes of art and activism but truly nails the execution. Titus Kaphar, who stars and co-directed, is a highly successful and sought-after artist, but some galleries want to avoid the perceived trouble of his activism. The film features vital conversations about the meaning and purpose of Titus’ art and the dilemma of wanting the money he’s worth without selling out. It’s well-shot and explores some deep concepts without giving cheap answers.
From The New York Times, “Happiness Is £4 Million” follows a rookie journalist in Beijing interviewing a controversial real estate speculator. Their opposite views on life and wealth are surreal and highlight the absurd views of a person pursuing wealth above all else. It’s a fascinating documentary that could be appealing to the branch.
Finally, the most unassuming documentary on this list might be one of the best. “How Do You Measure a Year?” was filmed over 16 years, as a father asked his daughter some questions on her birthday every year. It’s emotional to watch a child grow up right before our eyes, even when it’s a stranger in a film. The ups and downs of life are so evident, even for a child, and make it easy for us to remember how simultaneously simple and complicated life can be. As a parent of young kids, it’s even more moving. The father and director, Jay Rosenblatt, was nominated in this category just last year, and his simple, sweet film could score him a second nomination.
While there’s a lot up in the air about any of the shorts categories, for Documentary Short, “Nuisance Bear” seems the most solid bet for a nomination and is likely to win the whole thing. Will this be the first time in six years without a Netflix film? They may miss, but I’m playing it safe and keeping “The Elephant Whisperers” in there. HBO is also a strong player, and “38 At The Garden” is a crowdpleaser, so that seems safe. With such a divided time in our country, “The Flagmakers” could really strike a chord. It helps that it’s from Disney and NatGeo too. That leaves one tough spot to fill. It’s very tempting to predict “Holding Moses” or “How Do You Measure A Year?” I think “As Far As They Can Run” could be the more palatable film for voters.
Below are my favorites on the shortlist and my predicted five nominees:
My Personal Favorites:
- How Do You Measure A Year?
- Holding Moses
- 38 At The Garden
- As Far As They Can Run
- Nuisance Bear
- Nuisance Bear
- The Flagmakers
- 38 At The Garden
- The Elephant Whisperers
- As Far As They Can Run
What do you think will be nominated for Best Documentary Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here.