By Jason Turer
The Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature may not be one of the flashiest Oscar races, especially considering the format’s growing popularity in recent years due to streaming services making them more accessible than ever. Anyone who wants to win their office Oscar pool knows that every category counts, which is why one cannot be dismissive and casually go with whatever is the presumed frontrunner (“presumed” being the operative word). But how best to predict such an unpredictable category? Thankfully, we can look at recent Oscar history for some helpful clues.
First, the five nominees in this category at the 93rd Academy Awards are, in alphabetical order:
“The Mole Agent“
“My Octopus Teacher“
For reference, the eight most recent Best Documentary Feature Oscar-winners were:
2019: “American Factory“
2018: “Free Solo“
2016: “O.J.: Made in America”
2013: “20 Feet from Stardom”
2012: “Searching for Sugar Man”
At first glance, each 2020 nominee weirdly resembles a relatively recent winner:
“Collective” – a muckraking expose much like “Icarus” (2018)
“Crip Camp” – from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, just like “American Factory” (2019)
“The Mole Agent” – about a man going undercover in a nursing home — a bit of a stretch, but shades of “Citizenfour” (2014), perhaps?
“My Octopus Teacher” – a unique nature story about one man’s increasingly obsessive interest, similar to “Free Solo” (2018)
“Time” – touches on issues of race in America, not unlike parts of “O.J.: Made in America” (2016)
Given these parallels, one could be compelled to think that all five stand an equally fair shot at winning the Oscar. However, upon a close review of both recent history and how previous documentaries have done so far this awards season, we can deduce that this is essentially a three-film race; namely, it’s a contest between “Crip Camp,” “My Octopus Teacher” & “Time.”
Before editorializing, here are the results of some of the prominent precursors this year as they currently stand, and statistics on how reliable those are in predicting the Oscar-winner:
Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards
Best Documentary Feature winner this year: “Dick Johnson is Dead” (not nominated for the Oscar)
Of the five Oscar nominees:
“Crip Camp” received six nominations.
“My Octopus Teacher” received four nominations, two of which it won: Best Cinematography and Best Science/Nature documentary.
“Time” received four nominations.
“The Mole Agent” and “Collective” were not nominated for Best Documentary Feature, and in fact, were shut out entirely.
2019’s Oscar-winner, “American Factory,” won two awards here (though lost Best Feature)
2018’s Oscar-winner, “Free Solo,” won four awards here (though lost Best Feature)
2017’s Oscar-winner, “Icarus,” won one award here (was not nominated for Best Feature)
2016’s Oscar-winner, “O.J.: Made in America,” won four here, including Best Feature.
Before 2016, the Critics’ Choice had one Best Documentary Feature award:
2015’s Oscar-winner, “Amy,” won
2014’s Oscar-winner, “Citizenfour,” was nominated but lost
The last Oscar-winner to be nominated but not win anything at Critics’ Choice: “Citizenfour” (2014)
The last Oscar-winner to not be nominated at Critics’ Choice at all: “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007)
International Documentary Association
IDA Best Feature winner: “Crip Camp“
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last seven years: 2 (most recently in 2016 and 2014)
Producers Guild of America
PGA winner: “My Octopus Teacher” (PGA also nominated “Time“)
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 3 (most recently in 2016)
And over the last thirteen years (total times this award’s been given): 5 times
The last time the Oscar-winner wasn’t nominated here: 2017. Before that: 2014.
The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures
National Board of Review winner: “Time“
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 3 (most recently in 2016)
And over the last thirteen years: 5 times
The International Press Academy (IPA)
Satellite winner: “Collective“
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 2 times
The National Society of Film Critics (NSFC)
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Non-Fiction Film: “Time“
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 3 times (2014 – 2016)
The Writers Guild of America
WGA Documentary screenplay winner: “The Dissident” (not nominated for the Oscar)
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 1 time
We can ignore this result as being irrelevant this year, as none of the WGA nominees are up for the Oscar
The Directors Guild of America
DGA Documentary winner: “The Truffle Hunters” (“My Octopus Teacher” was the only Oscar-nominee competing here)
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 4 times (most recently last year and in 2016)
And over the last thirteen years: 6 times
The last time the Oscar-winner wasn’t nominated here: 2013
The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA)
BAFTA winner: “My Octopus Teacher” (“Collective” was the only other Oscar-nominee competing here)
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 4 times (most recently two years ago)
The last time the Oscar-winner wasn’t nominated here: Last year
American Cinema Editors
ACE Eddie winner: TBD (the only Oscar-nominee competing here is “My Octopus Teacher“)
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last six years: 4 times (most recently two years ago)
And over the last eight years: 6 times (including two years ago, and 2012 through 2016)
The last time the Oscar-winner wasn’t nominated here: 2017
Independent Spirit Awards
Indie Spirit winner: TBD (“My Octopus Teacher” is the only Oscar-nominee not competing here)
Times winner lined up with Oscar in last eight years: 4 times (most recently last year)
Well, that was a lot of information.
So, what can we conclude from the above, somewhat mixed results?
- If “Collective” or “The Mole Agent” were to win the Oscar, each would be first to do so without being nominated at Critics’ Choice since “Taxi to the Dark Side” won the Oscar in 2007. Either would be the first documentary in a language other than English to win in literally decades (see more on that below). Evidently, winning an award at Critics’ Choice is a fairly poor indicator of Oscar chances overall since many of their recent winners aren’t even nominated.
- DGA, BAFTA, and especially ACE Eddie wins have a robust correlation with the eventual Oscar victor. We’re still waiting for the ACE results, though it should be noted that “My Octopus Teacher” is the only one to be nominated AT ALL THREE…
Perhaps the key to this whole race may lie within the results of the Film Independent Spirit Awards (airing April 22nd). As of this writing, their winner is still TBD, but they nominated 4 of the 5 Oscar nominees (excluding “My Octopus Teacher“). While this may at first seem like a negative for that film, here’s a fascinating fact: While the winner of the Indie Spirit Award has lined up with the Oscar-winner in this category just four times in the last eight years (50% is hardly convincing) when the eventual Oscar-winner for Documentary Feature has been nominated here, it has NEVER managed to lose the award. Which means either that “My Octopus Teacher” is still very much a contender (according to this stat), but whatever wins at Indie Spirit is highly favored to win the Oscar (unless, of course, they award “Dick Johnson is Dead,” which is obviously not an Oscar-nominee), or a 20-year-old record will be broken.
Has an entirely non-English language documentary ever won the Oscar?
Indeed not this century, and not since “Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life” in 1969 (which was in French). And while we do, of course, live in a post-“Parasite” world now, the language barrier is not necessarily unbreakable. However, this stat still makes quite the uphill battle for “The Mole Agent” (a Chilean film in Spanish) and “Collective” (Romanian).
What about the fact that “Collective” is the only nominee here with a second nomination (Best International Feature)?
The last two documentaries to have that distinction (“Honeyland” last year and “RBG” the year before) each lost both of their races, but the one before that (“An Inconvenient Truth”) did win Best Documentary (and Best Song). “An Inconvenient Truth” is, to date, the only documentary to ever win an Oscar outside of its category (a fun Oscar trivia fact, if ever there was one).
Is Netflix a factor?
Well, one of their two nominees last year (“American Factory“) won, one of their two nominees in 2017 (“Icarus“) won, and all their previous nominees (one in 2016, two in 2015, one in 2014, and one in 2013) lost. The two Netflix nominees this year are “Crip Camp” and “My Octopus Teacher.” While one may be tempted to think that this gives those films the advantage of having been more widely seen, Academy members are not supposed to vote in this category without having seen all five, so overall, this factor can be more or less discounted, probably.
Finally, there is this…
Last year, the Oscar-winner (“American Factory“) first won: 2 Critics’ Choice Awards, DGA, and Indie Spirit (among others). Two years ago, the Oscar-winner (“Free Solo“) first won: 4 Critics’ Choice Awards, BAFTA, and ACE (among others).
And here are the current standings for this year:
- “Collective” – BAFTA nominee, Satellite winner, Indie spirit nominee
- “Crip Camp” – 6 Critics’ Choice nominations, IDA winner, Satellite nominee, Indie spirit nominee
- “The Mole Agent” – Indie spirit nominee
- “My Octopus Teacher” – 4 Critics’ Choice nominations (2 of which it won), PGA winner, BAFTA winner, DGA nominee, ACE Eddie nominee
- “Time” – 4 Critics’ Choice nominations, PGA nominee, National Board of Review winner, National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Non-Fiction Film winner, Indie spirit nominee
With the following awards TBD as of this writing:
- ACE Eddie (only “My Octopus Teacher” nominated) — announced April 17
- Indie Spirit (all of this year’s Oscar nominees nominated except “My Octopus Teacher“) — announced April 22
Based on the above, it would seem that to be well-positioned to win the Oscar; you need at least one win at Critics’ Choice, as well as a combination of at least two other big wins. In short, all the evidence points to the Oscar winner being “My Octopus Teacher.” It has the Critics’ Choice wins, another two big wins (PGA & BAFTA) under its belt, and the potential to win big at ACE Eddie.
Now, how about critical and audience acclaim?
Consider the following IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes scores:
- “Collective” – 8.2 IMDb; Another 28 wins & 48 nominations. 99% Tomatometer; 91% Audience Score
- “Crip Camp” – 7.7 IMDb; Another 8 wins & 34 nominations. 100% Tomatometer; 91% Audience Score
- “The Mole Agent” – 7.8 IMDb; Another 3 wins & 20 nominations. 95% Tomatometer; 90% Audience Score
- “My Octopus Teacher” – 8.2 IMDb; Another 8 wins & 14 nominations. 100% Tomatometer; 94% Audience Score
- “Time” – 7.0 IMDb; Another 23 wins & 51 nominations. 98% Tomatometer; 49% Audience Score
Of course, this is a flawed and unscientific metric, but perhaps still a useful one. None of the nominees scored lower than an impressive 95% on the Tomatometer, but “Time” has a stunning near 50-point gap with the Audience Score, unlike its competitors. “Time” also has the lowest IMDb rating (7.0). While these are not technical measures (after all, IMDb rating reflects nothing more than…how a film is perceived by those who rate movies on IMDb), it should not be entirely ignored.
Last year’s Oscar-winner, “American Factory,” had an IMDb rating of 7.5 and a 98% Rotten Tomatoes score. While rated lower on IMDb than “For Sama” (8.6) and “Honeyland” (8.1), it still managed to prevail. At the very least, these factors should give some pause to those backing “Time,” which appears to be divisive amongst broader audience members outside of the film critic community and therefore vulnerable.
Finally, there is the content of the documentaries themselves, which I will briefly summarize along with some quick potential pros and cons:
“Collective” – A sobering look at a recent tragedy in Romania and the ensuing exposure of vast corruption, fraud, and rot at the center of that country’s health care system.
- Methodically details a fascinating story that many in America are unaware of and is in retrospect extremely topical – it is all but impossible to ignore the parallels here with the plethora of issues exposed by the US’s many failures dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Disturbing, depressing, and like it or not, many will be turned off by having to read subtitles.
“Crip Camp” – A half examination of a summer camp for disabled young people, and the other half chronicle of the civil rights struggle fought for by that community (which involved many people who went to the camp referenced in the title).
- Inspiring, uplifting, and still relevant in its overarching message of compassion and the need to fight for equality and justice.
- Will the shift in focus about midway through the film come off as a bait-and-switch move to some viewers?
“The Mole Agent” – A senior citizen is hired to go undercover in a Chilean nursing home to determine whether or not an elderly resident is being mistreated.
- The setup is pretty irresistible, especially given the music that frames the film as a quirky spy thriller.
- Potentially depressing, and like “Collective,” it has that subtitle hurdle…
“My Octopus Teacher” – A South African filmmaker narrates his eye-opening interactions with the titular octopus.
- Beautiful cinematography, and with a lovely, feel-good message about respecting nature and animals.
- It can be potentially seen as manipulative and perhaps just slightly anthropomorphizing the invertebrate of the title. The sole human in the film (aside from some brief scenes featuring his son) will likely not be as endearing to some viewers as the lovable octopus.
“Time” – A woman fights to have her husband released from prison after he’s sentenced to 60 years for armed bank robbery.
- Interestingly edited and well-scored, it makes good use of black and white photography and touches on an important issue that’s only getting more and more attention these days.
- The woman at the center of the film is bound to turn off some voters, especially those in the “don’t do the crime if you can’t do time” camp. The clear choice made to argue more with emotion than anything else and refusal to provide even the most basic details about the facts of the case at the film’s center — or to quote any statistics about mass incarceration — will also undoubtedly bother some viewers, especially those accustomed to the abundance of True Crime films and shows that are enjoying increased popularity now.
Clearly, none of the five films is a slam dunk, but the case for some of these is certainly easier to make than others. In short, and in conclusion, here is a final rough ranking of likelihood to win:
1. “My Octopus Teacher“
3. “Crip Camp“
5. “The Mole Agent“
What do you think is going to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. You can check out the Next Best Picture team’s predictions for this category here.
You can follow Jason and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JasonTurer