Unsurprising surprises dominated this morning’s Producers Guild of America documentary nominees. While the PGA’s feature nominees often align with Oscar contenders, that’s often untrue for the documentaries. In 2014, the PGA nominated “The Green Prince,” “Life Itself,” “Merchants of Doubt,” “Virunga, and “Particle Fever;” only “Virunga made the final Oscar five. (The winner was Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour.)
Last year, the PGA did select eventual Oscar nominees “Amy” (which won the Oscar) and “The Look of Silence,” but also chose “The Hunting Ground” and “Meru,” both of which made the Oscar shortlist of 15; PGA selection”Something Better to Come” didn’t even make that cut.
Today, the committee of some 30 or more PGA documentary producers nominated two anticipated films in Roger Ross Williams’ “Life, Animated” (The Orchard/A & E) and Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN Films). Both were much-lauded Sundance hits and made the DOC NYC Shortlist.
However, the PGA also recognized the female empowerment story “The Eagle Huntress” (Sony Pictures Classics), Keith Maitland’s well-regarded feat of rotoscope animation, “Tower” (Kino Lorber), and Steven Cantor’s “Dancer” (Sundance Selects), which has flown under the radar with middling reviews after playing second-tier European festivals such as Zurich, London, and Warsaw.
Left off the PGA nominations were lauded Netflix docs “13th” from Ava DuVernay and Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno” (both were eligible, per Netflix), as well as Sundance Selects’ controversial popular and critical hit “Weiner,” Italy’s foreign Oscar submission and critics’ fave “Fire at Sea,” and well-reviewed Kirsten Johnson memoir “Cameraperson.”
“Life Animated,” a well-reviewed and moving coming-of-age portrait of an autistic child who grows up with Disney movies and learns to live on his own, is the winner of the Sundance U.S. Documentary Directing Award, nominated for Cinema Eye Honors, and won audience awards at the Full Frame Documentary and San Francisco International Film Festivals. Williams figured out how to get his cinephile subject, Owen Suskind, to engage naturally with DP Tom Bergman, and cleverly used animation to capture his vibrant inner emotional life.
“O.J.: Made in America” was the big winner at the inaugural Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, taking home both Best Documentary and Best Director in the Theatrical Feature category, and is nominated for Cinema Eye Honors and IDA Best Feature. Edelman’s five-part, seven-hour-and-46-minute examination of O.J. Simpson and race relations in Los Angeles is exhaustive, eye-opening and riveting, running from the ’60s through the Trial of the Century and its aftermath.
“Tower,” using rotoscope animation and archival footage, follows the events of August 1, 1966 when University of Texas student Charles Whitman took to the school’s iconic tower and opened fire on the campus below. The producers agree with critics, as Maitland’s film scored a 92 on Metacritic and won both documentary jury and audience prizes at SXSW and is nominated for a Gotham Award and Cinema Eye Honors.
“Dancer” (Sundance Selects/BBC), directed by Oscar-nominated documentary veteran Steven Cantor (“Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann”), profiles troubled and lonely Ukrainian-born ballet star Sergei Polunin, who isn’t sure he wants to pursue the perfection required of his art.
“The Eagle Huntress,” elegantly filmed in Kazakhstan by rookie documentarian Otto Bell and narrated by Daisy Ridley, follows an exceptional young woman whose father trains her to fly eagles and compete against men for prizes. It’s nominated for Cinema Eye Honors for best first feature, production, and cinematography.
The Academy will announce 15 selections for the Oscar documentary feature short list on December 5. (My picks are here.)
All 2016 Producers Guild Award winners will be presented on Saturday, January 28, 2017 at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles.