The Academy documentary branch’s shortlist of 15 represents a diverse range of films from all over the world, representing strong political views as well as high artistry. However, this year also stands as the first HBO shutout in recent memory — perhaps because they didn’t campaign assertively.
Rivals PBS landed five, Independent Lens and Showtime three, Netflix two, and American Experience Films, POV, A&E, Amazon Studios, and ESPN each have one. Theatrical distributors Kino Lorber and Magnolia had two, with Sundance Selects, Sony Pictures Classics, Open Road, Janus Films, Film Rise, The Film Collaborative and The Orchard one.
But which will make the final five? Those screeners will eventually be sent to the entire Academy — who have more mainstream taste than this group of professional documentarians. For now, this more demanding group will winnow down the list.
Films on similar topics could knock each other out. For example, voters could choose critics’ favorite and PGA nominee Ezra Edelman’s five-part “O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN) over either respected documentarian Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” (Independent Lens/Magnolia) or Ava DuVernay’s well-argued American revisonist history “13th” (Netflix) — or both. On the other hand, “O.J.: Made in America” is almost seven hours long — even if that proves to be an advantage once you watch it. But it’s hard to deny the unique film as both must-see and major accomplishment.
Being singular is an advantage in making the final five. Popular cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s memoir “Cameraperson” (POV/Janus Films) falls in this category — she’s worked with many of the filmmakers voting for her — along with Gianfranco Rosi’s Berlin Golden Bear-winner and Italian Oscar entry “Fire at Sea” (Kino Lorber) his personal exploration of the refugee crisis in Lampedusa, Keith Maitland’s rotoscoped and PGA-nominated “Tower” (Independent Lens/Kino Lorber), and Roger Ross Williams’ PGA nominee “Life, Animated” (A & E/The Orchard), which uses animation and Disney clips to reveal the inner life of a young autistic man coming of age.
Oscar documentary branch voters can be tough on movies that are too successful or entertaining. This year, they left out Netflix’s “Amanda Knox” as well as HBO profiles of artists such as Nora Ephron, Mike Nichols, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the daughter-mother combo of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. But the voters did recognize the accomplishment of “Weiner” (Showtime Documentary Film/Sundance Selects), where getting close to a controversial subject paid dividends that lasted through the presidential election.
Another disappointed filmmaker today is snubbed Dawn Porter, whose low-budget report from the abortion front lines, “Trapped” (Independent Lens), carries even more weight post-election.
Alex Gibney’s ahead-of-the-curve cyber-warfare expose “Zero Days” (Showtime/Magnolia), shaped like a thriller, could knock out Robert Kenner’s similarly effective approach to the danger of nuclear missile warheads, “Command and Control” (American Experience Films/PBS), or Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s compelling look at the high-stakes fight against elephant poachers, “The Ivory Game” (Netflix).
The Oscar documentary voters often leave out major filmmakers who have been rewarded in the past, like Gibney. This year, prolific documentary brand name Werner Herzog did not make the cut yet again for volcano road movie “Into the Inferno” (Netflix), along with veteran Barbara Kopple, whose “Miss Sharon Jones!” (Starz) portrayed the soul singer as she was fighting the cancer to which she recently succumbed.
Among the snubs, the documentary branch did not reward rookie filmmaker Brian Oakes for his portrait of his murdered journalist friend, “Jim: The James Foley Story” (HBO Documentary Films). But they did recognize the extraordinary editing job on Clay Tweel’s heart-tugger about an ALS-ridden football star, “Gleason” (Open Road/Amazon Studios), first-timer Nafu Wang’s activist-in-China adventure “Hooligan Sparrow” (The Film Collaborative), and producer-turned-director James D. Solomon’s Kitty Genovese murder investigation “The Witness” (Independent Lens/FilmRise).
They also saw the degree of difficulty for Otto Bell’s first feature, family-friendly, PGA-nominated Kazakhstan coming-of-age “The Eagle Huntress” (Sony Pictures Classics), which is playing well for audiences. If it gets into the final five, it could be a popular entry.
Here’s my breakdown of the 15 into frontrunners, contenders, and long shots (in alphabetical order):
“Cameraperson,” Big Mouth Productions
“Fire at Sea,” Stemal Entertainment
“Life, Animated,” Motto Pictures and A&E IndieFilms
“O.J.: Made in America,” Laylow Films and ESPN Films
“Zero Days,” Jigsaw Productions
“13th,” Forward Movement
“Command and Control,” American Experience Films/PBS
“I Am Not Your Negro,” Velvet Film
“The Ivory Game,” Terra Mater Film Studios and Vulcan Productions
“Weiner,” Edgeline Films
“The Eagle Huntress,” Stacey Reiss Productions, Kissiki Films and 19340 Productions
“Gleason,” Dear Rivers Productions, Exhibit A and IMG Films
“Hooligan Sparrow,” Little Horse Crossing the River
“The Witness,” The Witnesses Film