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For Your Consideration: Here Are the Big Questions Surrounding This Year’s Documentary Race

For Your Consideration: Here Are the Big Questions Surrounding This Year's Documentary Race

READ MORE: Anne Thompson’s Oscar Predictions

For the past three years, the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature has gone to…the film everyone expected to win.

“Searching For Sugar Man,” “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Citizenfour” each claimed frontrunner status early on, and stayed there all the way to the Oscar stage.  But this year seems like it could be a different story.

“I think it’s been harder this year to get a sense of what the short list will look like,” said Basil Tsiokos, who programs documentaries for the Sundance Film Festival, Nantucket Film Festival and DOC NYC. “There are just a broader range of solid to good docs that could make the cut.”

Thom Powers — who leads the documentary programming team at the Toronto International Film Festival, among other gigs — agreed. 

“I don’t think this year has an obvious front runner the way ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ or ‘Man on Wire’ were dominant in past years,” he said. “This year has a big cluster of celebrity films alongside a wide range of serious topics and the fresh ingredient of Michael Moore delivering a surprise at TIFF, coming soon to the New York Film Festival.” 

Powers wondered if Michael Moore could emerge out of NYFF — like Laura Poitras and “Citizenfour” did last year — as the “fall surprise” with his “Where To Invade Next,” which was very well received out of TIFF. As of yet, the film does not have a distribution plan, but that is likely to change very quickly. Could Moore return to this race 13 years after he won for “Bowling For Columbine” (and eight years after his last nomination for “Sicko”)? That’s just one of many questions that remain in what could be one of this year’s most unpredictable races. Here are a few others.

Can newcomers make it against so many big, established names?

Michael Moore is one of many previous winners aiming for another Oscar this year. Davis Guggenheim (who won for “An Inconvenient Truth” and is back with “He Named Me Malala”), Alex Gibney (won for “Taxi To The Dark Side,” and returns this year for “Going Clear”) and Morgan Neville (who two years back for “20 Feet,” up this year for “Best of Enemies”) all will be in the conversation again, which makes one wonder how much room there is for newcomers to break through.

Crystal Moselle won Sundance’s grand jury prize for her feature film debut “The Wolfpack,” which depicts a family who home-schooled and raised their seven children in the confines of their apartment in New York City. It opened to rave reviews and solid box office ($1.2 million — a very good number for a doc these days) this summer, only aiding its case. But with a race this crowded with past favorites, it’s going to have a tough time. The same can be said for Evgeny Afineevsky and “Winter on Fire” (which documents the unrest in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014) and Marah Strauch and “Sunshine Superman” (a portrait of Carl Boenish, the father of the BASE jumping movement). That being said, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel got in last year for their first film “Finding Vivian Maier,” beating out many seasoned veterans.

Can celebrity-focused bio-docs make major inroads this year?

Documentaries focusing on the stories of “celebrities” don’t always fare so well here. The last nominee to fall into this designation was 2003’s “Tupac: Resurrection” (although arguments could be made for 2011’s “Pina,” Wim Wenders’ portrait of the famed choreographer). But if there was ever a year that could depart from that trend, it’s this one. Nina Simone (Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?”), Janis Joplin (Amy Berg’s “Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue”), Kurt Cobain (Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”) and Amy Winehouse (Asif Kapadia’s “Amy”) lead what has been an astonishing here for documentary portraits of departed music greats (oddly enough, three of them — Joplin, Cobain and Winehouse — belong to the tragic “27 club”).

How many will break into this race? The odds are certainly in favor of “Amy,” at the very least. The new rules in this category have weighted heavily toward box office hits. A24 released “Amy” this summer to the tune of $8.3 million and counting — making it one of the 25 highest grossing docs of all time in North America, easily outgrossing “Searching For Sugar Man,” “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Citizenfour” (“Sugar Man” was the highest of the three at just under $5 million). That makes it hard to bet against “Amy” — but it’s still hard to call it the frontrunner, given the Academy’s apprehension to the subgenre.

Will Joshua Oppenheimer get a second chance?

The closest thing we’ve had to a race these past few years was when Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” emerged as something of a potential upset to “20 Feet From Stardom” in 2013. That ultimately didn’t pan out, but Oppenheimer may have a second chance at the Oscar with “The Look of Silence.” A companion piece of sorts to “Killing,” the film won the grand jury prize at Venice last year (in addition to dozens of other festival awards) but opted to wait until this year to compete in the Oscar race. Could he once again face off against “20 Feet” director Morgan Neville if “Best of Enemies” makes the cut as well? The stage might be set for a rematch.

Can an anti-Scientology doc win an Emmy and an Oscar? 

Emmy voters sure weren’t afraid to show their support for Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” It was nominated for seven awards and took home three big ones: best documentary or nonfiction special, writing for nonfiction programming and direction for nonfiction programming. Will Oscar voters follow suit? 
It’s a rare film eligible for consideration at both awards, though it’s obviously a bit of a touchy subject for many Hollywood voters associated with the religion the film attacks. Will the Oscar producers dare to cut to John Travolta or Tom Cruise if the film’s nomination (or win) ends up being read on the big night? 

Will this finally be the year Frederick Wiseman and Kim Longinotto make it in?

Frederick Wiseman has made dozens of documentaries dating back to the 1960’s. Kim Longinotto is only a newcomer by comparison — she’s made over 15 docs since her 1982 debut “Underage.” They’re both regarded as major figures in the documentary community, but neither one of them has ever been nominated for an Oscar. Can their acclaimed 2015 offerings “In Jackson Heights” and “Dreamcatcher” change that? Neither one seems all that likely, but documentary purists would sure like to see these heavyweights break through. 

And moreover, what about Albert Masyles?

Speaking of documentary film icons, one of the greatest, Albert Masyles, passed away this March. Unlike Wiseman and Longinotto, Masyles does have an Oscar nomination to his name — in the documentary short category for 1974’s “Christo’s Valley Curtain.” He didn’t win, and the fact that nothing else from his remarkable, 60-year career of documentary filmmaking even got nominated is a genuine travesty. Oscar voters have one last chance to make up for that this year with his final film “Iris,” an absolutely fantastic documentary about fashion icon Iris Apfel. Voters might be swayed to support this possibility for sentimental reasons that have nothing to do with the movie itself, but if that’s what it takes to get Maysles into the Oscar race one last time…

Will the new rules keep the documentary world happy?

Notably, the past three years of relatively predictable results in the documentary category coincided some major rule changes back in 2012. The new rules required all films to be reviewed in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times in order to qualify; they also allowed the Academy to vote on the final five nominees by viewing the films online or via screeners (previously, voters were required to see all five films in theaters).

Now, it’s hard to deny that the changes have played a role in making the winners a bit more obvious that usual, as it brought a larger body of voters to the category and thus made a consensus easier to detect early on. But it hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing overall, especially compared to the rather erratic choices that preceded the change. 

“I think the new voting rules from the past couple years are a huge improvement over the old,” Powers said, noting that when “small committees voted on random groups of films, it resulted in short lists that contained oddball choices and left out films with wide acclaim.” Now, the contenders speak to a larger set of events. “For the past two years, the Oscar feature documentary short lists have better represented the films consistently rising to the top of festival awards, critical acclaim and audience recognition,” he said.

Who will make this year’s short list and beyond? Check out our latest predictions in the category here. And watch for DOC NYC’s Short List of potential contenders that will screen at their festival, which will be announced next week.

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