The 83rd Annual Academy Awards will be announced this Sunday night, where we’ll find out if “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Gasland,” “Inside Job,” “Restrepo,” or “Waste Land” will claim the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Before that happens, we’ve put together a second group of past nominees and winners in that category for indieWIRE‘s curation of Hulu’s Documentaries page.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “indieWIRE @ Hulu Docs” is a regular column spotlighting the iW-curated selections on Hulu’s Documentaries page, a unique collaboration between the two sites. iW selections appear in the carousel at the top of the page and under “Featured Content” in the center. Be sure to check out the great non-fiction projects available to watch free of charge.
Barbara Kopple’s portrait of striking Kentucky coal miners, “Harlan County USA,” took home the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Kopple and her team lived with the families, who began their strike against the Eastover Mining Co and its corporate owner, Duke Power, in 1974, and reveals the treacherous conditions of their work and the precarious financial situation it provided for them. Recognized as one of the most significant documentaries on organized labor made in the US, it was added to the US National Film Registry in 1990.
Premiering in 1989 at the Utah/US Film Festival (later known as “Sundance”), “For All Mankind,” was the winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary the following year, though it lost out to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s acclaimed “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.” Al Reinert’s breathtaking film combines archival audio and visual footage from Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s to detail travel to the moon, supplemented by interviews with the astronauts.
Noted surfing documentarian Bruce Brown followed up his popular 1966 doc, “The Endless Summer,” with “On Any Sunday,” his look at the hyperkinetic world of motorcycle racers and enthusiasts. The film features legendary actor Steve McQueen, whose production company financed the project. It went on to be nominated for the 1971 Best Documentary Academy Award, but the Oscar that year went to the sci-fi/doc hybrid “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” which posited a Darwinian struggle between humans and insects for domination of the Earth.
Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s “The Weather Underground” premiered in competition at Sundance in 2003 and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature the following year, where it faced stiff competition from the eventual winner, Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” as well as “Capturing the Friedmans,” “My Architect,” and “Balseros.” This compelling, archival-rich portrait traces the history of The Weathermen, one of the most extreme and radical activist groups of the 1970s and the federal government’s response to their violent tactics.
In the Canadian documentary “Prisoner of Paradise,” directed by Malcolm Clarke, German-Jewish performer Kurt Gerron is condemned to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and forced to write and direct a Nazi propaganda film. The film received a Best Documentary Feature nomination in 2002, but, in another very competitive year which included “Winged Migration,” “Spellbound,” and “Daughter from Danang,” it lost out to Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” Clarke did win the Directors Guild of Canada Award for the film, as well as a nomination for the Directors Guild of America.
Wrapping up this look back at Oscars past, “The Conquest of Everest” brings us to the 1953 awards, where UK director George Lowe captures the danger and grandeur of attempting the ascent of Mt Everest. Its fellow nominees for that year were “A Queen is Crowned,” a fellow Brit’s record of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, and the winner, “The Living Desert,” part of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures doc series, focused on the animals of the southwestern US – and pointing out how far the Best Documentary Feature category – and documentary filmmaking, for that matter – has come in the past 60 years.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1 and @CanalStMadamDoc) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).