While Best Documentary conversations start to take shape in January at the Sundance Film Festival, making the transition from rapturous festival play to awards-season contender is a harrowing road. A documentary must be truly extraordinary to make the final Oscar five. This year four of the five nominated feature documentaries were made by directors of color.
The number of Sundance 2016 docs with awards potential was breathtaking: Breaking out was U.S. Documentary Directing Award winner “Life, Animated” (The Orchard, July 1), a moving portrait of an autistic child who grows up with Disney movies. Also scoring great reviews was Ezra Edelman’s five-part movie “O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN), an exhaustive examination of O.J. Simpson and race relations in Los Angeles from the ’60s through the Trial of the Century.
Berlin launched Golden Bear-winning immigration exposé “Fire at Sea” (Kino Lorber, October 21), which was submitted for the foreign-language Oscar by Italy. Toronto launched Raoul Peck’s artful James Baldwin portrait, “I Am Not Your Negro” (Magnolia), which opened February 3 with considerable media attention and scored at the box office. And the NYFF debuted “13th,” a powerful (and timely) examination of the U.S. treatment of African-Americans post-slavery by Ava DuVernay (October 7), which has been pushed relentlessly by Netflix and won the BAFTA.
Landing both PGA and DGA nominations were “Life, Animated,” and “OJ: Made in America,” which won both, while generating much debate about its massive almost eight-hour length. Was it episodic TV, or film? Anyone who watches it knows it’s an extraordinary achievement.
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Contenders (in order of likelihood to win):
1. “OJ: Made in America” (Ezra Edelman)
2. “13th” (Ava DuVernay)
3. “I Am Not Your Negro” (Raoul Peck)
4. “Life, Animated” (Roger Ross Williams)
5. “Fire at Sea” (Gianfranco Rosi)