Many are called, few are chosen: The number of high-quality, awards-worthy documentaries seems to grow every year, but there’s still only 15 slots on the Oscar documentary shortlist. That will be announced December 5; the final five will be revealed on nominations morning, January 24. This year, 145 features were submitted.
This is the white-knuckle portion of the final campaign stretch, as documentary filmmakers and distributors hope their movies make it onto documentary branch voters’ viewing piles before they file their final grades. Those with the advantage are high-profile established hits and festival award-winners with the right combination of engaging accessibility, artful filmmaking, and gravitas.
So what’s looking like a strong bet? It’s a diverse list in more ways than one. Here are my picks for the Top 15, which are not listed in order of likelihood.
The Sundance Kids
1. “Weiner” (Sundance Selects, Showtime Documentary Film)
Strengths: This entertaining portrait of a once-promising New York politician brought down by his weakness for sexting scored rave reviews — in part for its astonishing fly-on-the-wall access, thanks to filmmaker Josh Kriegman’s relationship with seven-term-Congressman Weiner as his former chief of staff. Kriegman and his codirector, Elyse Steinberg, began filming the charismatic Weiner literally the day he announced his candidacy for mayor. They stuck with his political unraveling as scandals pushed him out of contention, with no idea of what would happen next.
The movie turned into an indie summer hit both in theaters and on-demand for IFC/Sundance Selects. The movie’s portrait of a politician’s complex relationship with modern media became even more timely as the presidential election played out. Who knew the one-time New York candidate for mayor (whose wife and Hillary Clinton lieutenant Huma Abedin shared his computer) would continue to play a key role —lambasted by late-night talk-show hosts — in the late days of the election?
Weakness: Weiner’s now-estranged wife Abedin accused Kriegman and Steinberg of using footage of her without permission.
Quote: “The intention was to take someone reduced to a punchline,” said Steinberg, “who as a character had been ridiculed, and offer a full look at him in all his complexity. While the story changed, the intention stayed the same.”
2.“Life, Animated” (The Orchard and A&E IndieFilms)
Kudos: Sundance U.S. Documentary Directing Award, DOC NYC Shortlist, nominated Cinema Eye Honors, audience award winner at the Full Frame Documentary and San Francisco International Film Festivals.
Strengths: This 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 sensitively directed by documentary veteran Roger Ross Williams. He figured out how to get his cinephile subject, Owen Suskind, to engage naturally with DP Tom Bergman, who was embedded in his life, and cleverly uses animation to capture his vibrant inner emotional life.
Weakness: Academy governor Williams is a force inside the doc branch, which may or may not help him win votes.
Quote: “It was this sort of a natural arc of events that were going to happen which everyone goes through in their life — everyone graduates, everyone moves out one day on their own, everyone falls in love,” said Williams. “Because Owen has autism and because he has these struggles it’s even more edge of your seat. Is he going to make it? How is he going to do out there on his own? As someone says in the film, ‘life is not a Disney film and he has to confront all the things that adults confront,’ which you know is sex and heartbreak.”
3. “Jim: The James Foley Story” (HBO Documentary Films)
Kudos: Sundance 2016 Audience Award winner, DOC NYC Shortlist, shared Emmy for Best Documentary (with “Cartel Land”).
Strengths: The James Foley film (trailer here) was developed independently by animator Brian Oakes, who had worked on many HBO shows, going back to “Bobby Fischer Against the World.” Oakes grew up next door to Foley in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and he watched his friend become an intrepid freelance journalist who fearlessly covered war zones around the world. In August, 2014 Foley was kidnapped and horrifically killed by ISIS terrorists. Also on the team were producers Teddy and Peter Kunhardt, who worked with Oakes on HBO’s “Living with Lincoln.” HBO scooped up the film before Sundance.
Weakness: Documentarians may perceive Oakes as a rookie outsider.
Quote: “Oakes had access to the family,” said HBO Documentary czar Sheila Nevins. “I don’t know that a stranger could have moved in there. It needed someone close to Jim.”
4. “O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN)
Kudos: DOC NYC Shortlist, Cinema Eye Honors, and IDA Best Feature nominations. Ezra Edelman’s five-part “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.
Strengths: Edelman’s exhaustive five-part, seven-hour-and-46-minute examination of O.J. Simpson and race relations in Los Angeles from the ’60s through the Trial of the Century is eye-opening and riveting.
Sometimes giving a director the freedom to find a movie can be the right thing. ESPN exec Connor Schell gave Edelman (“Requiem for the Big East,” “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals”) carte blanche to provide the O.J. Simpson Trial of the Century with history and context. Raised in Washington, D.C. by children’s-rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman, the filmmaker started off with a contract to deliver four hours on Simpson by 2015. Nobody ever told him to make it shorter.
Weaknesses: While critics are raving, this was a series commissioned by the execs behind “30 by 30” and perceived by many as episodic TV. (Edelman insists it’s a long-form film not broken into one-hour segments.)
Quote: Edelman said he told ESPN: “I’m not doing a mini-series, I have zero interest. I’m interested in telling a story. I don’t care how you air it.” He added: “Honestly, the whole thing was a complete cart-before-the-horse approach, a leap of faith. We wanted to do something long before we had any idea what it was. I was on my own.”
5. “Cameraperson” (Janus Films)
Kudos: DOC NYC Shortlist, IDA Best Feature Award Nomination, Cinema Eye Honors Nomination.
Strengths: Cinematographer-turned-director Kirsten Johnson’s probing memoir came out of her attempts to salvage material that she shot in Afghanistan, where one of her subjects no longer felt safe letting her use her interview. With editor Nels Bangerter, Johnson crafted an examination, without narration, of raw footage shot over decades of filming with the likes of Michael Moore, Dawn Porter, and Laura Poitras, among many others. You see her role as a cinematographer in a radically different way as she questions herself and her responsibility to her subjects.
Johnson is a remarkable craftsperson who has collaborated with many filmmakers over the years; she is respected and popular. Fellow filmmakers are rooting for her.
Weakness: No one has ever seen a personal documentary like this before.
Quote: “I was not in control of this material at all,” Johnson told me after an IDA screening. “This material was manipulating me, seriously, because these are the very real things that do haunt me, and have, and that I’ve grappled with for a long time — I didn’t understand how profoundly until I started looking back at footage … It is the people in front of the camera that are taking the biggest risks, especially as none of us know what the future will be, and where their images will go and how their images could be used against them. That’s one of the things for me: I’ve asked so much of people, to share so much of themselves. How dare I not show myself and the things that matter so much to me?”
6. “Gleason” (Open Road/Amazon Studios)
Kudos: SXSW audience award, DOC NYC Shortlist, IDA Best Feature nomination.
Strengths: This heart-tugging, intimate portrait of former New Orleans Saint star Steve Gleason relies on home movie footage and up-close access to a sports hero who fights his fate as a wheelchair-bound invalid after he’s diagnosed with ALS. Like Stephen Hawking, Gleason has the fame, resources, and family support to stay connected to the world, wheeling into screenings to standing ovations.
In 2010, when Gleason first received his diagnosis, he picked up a camera and started talking to his son, still in his wife Michel’s belly. In 2012, Gleason asked filmmaker David Lee and friend Ty Minton-Small to shoot his deterioration. By the time director Clay Tweel (“Finders Keepers”) started working on the film in March of 2015, over 1,200 hours of footage had been shot. He added several sit-down interviews to help shape the narrative, focused on fathers and sons.
Weakness: This feat of editing is more crowd-pleaser than cinematic art.
Quote: “From working on my other films, I now have an organizational structure for how to organize footage in a way that I can trace back and find things when necessary,” Tweel told IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt. “The dirty little secret of documentary filmmaking is organizing your footage and being able to as quickly and efficiently so you can find it later. ‘Oh, I need a shot of Steve where he’s got shaky hands, or ‘I need a shot of River and Michel together hugging,’ or ‘I need a shot of Steve and his Dad together in some kind of loving moment’ … as opposed to having to wade through 1300 hours of footage again trying to find it.”
7. “Trapped” (ITVS/Abramorama)
Kudos: Sundance Special Jury Prize, DOC NYC Shortlist.
Strengths: Post-election, veteran Dawn Porter’s abortion exposé takes on urgency. While working on another film, the filmmaker (“Gideon’s Army”) read a newspaper story about the one abortion clinic in Mississippi. She was horrified, and started investigating with her camera what is happening to women’s right to choose. More and more red states, including Texas and Alabama, are enacting TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that are purportedly designed to keep women healthy and safe but make it almost impossible for abortion clinics to stay open. These laws severely infringe on the availability of abortions for women, including pregnant teenagers and victims of rape.
Weakness: Porter uses a no-nonsense cinema verité style — with help from cinematographer Kirsten Johnson — that gets close to her subjects while protecting their privacy. But while the straightforward film tells its story well, it faces competition from films that advance the art form in new ways.
Quote: “These women opened up,” said Porter. “It was a combination of appreciation and rage. They were so angry and upset. It’s about what is the political climate that allows these laws to be enacted. What does it feel like to work within the confines of these laws? The Supreme Court of Texas could not produce one woman these laws have saved or helped.”
Boosted by the Political Zeitgeist
8. “Fire at Sea” (Kino Lorber).
Kudos: Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear-winner, DOC NYC Shortlist, IDA Awards Best Feature nominee, Cinema Eye Honors nominee, Italian foreign Oscar submission.
Strengths: For this unique and timely immigration exposé, director-cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi roamed with his camera for a year on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is close to the coast of Africa, where for 20 years some 100,000 refugees have been washing up, most recently in horribly crowded boats, some dead or dying. He cross-cuts between the stories of the arriving refugees, many of them needing rescue and rehabilitation, and the “normal” life of a young boy roaming the island with his slingshot, climbing trees, visiting his fisherman father’s boat, eating meals in his home kitchen, getting treated for a lazy eye.
One boat arrived with a hold full of death. The filmmaker felt it was his duty to show what was down there, and he took his camera and filmed it. “It was a terrible thing to do,” Rosi told me at an IDA Q & A. “When I came out everything was broken inside. I decided that would be the last scene I shot in my film.”
Weakness: To its credit, this meandering, poetic art film lacks a conventional story structure or over-narration.
Quote: “Whenever I am in a place to make a film I know absolutely nothing about what I am going to do,” Rosi said. “I have to adjust myself to a condition and I enter a place with a blank mind and completely no idea of what’s going to be in the film. The film, somehow, becomes a long journey of discovering things. For me, being with the camera is like a scientist looking at a microscope and discovering a reality that you cannot see with your eyes. I have to film with my eye. The camera is a part of my body, and everything always starts with this eyepiece, where you are discovering the frame. That frame becomes everything. It becomes the story you want to tell. It takes a long, long time.”
9. “13th” (Netflix)
Kudos: DOC NYC Shortlist, IDA Best Feature Award Nomination, Critics Choice Awards.
Strengths: It’s easy to see why the New York Film Festival picked “13th,” a powerful examination of the U.S. treatment of African-Americans post-slavery by Ava DuVernay, as its first-ever documentary opening-night film. In the year of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, as fearful cops continue to gun down unarmed black men in the street, this must-see film raises consciousness about how race affects the way we regard and behave toward the people around us.
“13th” is a history of how white people have treated African Americans since 1865 — when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery — and it roused the Lincoln Center crowd to multiple standing ovations as well as critics’ raves.
After some internal debates, DuVernay included Donald Trump in the film. “Trump has taken this country to a place that will have repercussions past this moment … for a long time,” she told the NYFF press. “13th” hit theaters for an Oscar-qualifying run October 7 — the same day it began streaming on Netflix, 25 days before Election Day. Netflix’s marketing team and social media savant DuVernay rode the post-election zeitgeist to create urgency for watching this movie. Common’s single “Letter to the Free” is a likely Original Song nominee.
Weakness: DuVernay constructs a strong argument in this agit-prop exercise, but she leans heavily on interviews with experts.
Quote: “I felt eager to share this material before folks made their decisions to vote,” DuVernay told me. “The October 7 release was just in the nick of time to enter the conversation and ask people to interrogate these issues.”
10. “Amanda Knox” (Netflix)
Kudos: DOC NYC Shortlist.
Strengths: TIFF premiered Brian McGinn (“Chef’s Table”) and Rod Blackhurst’s (“Here Alone”) deconstruction of the high-profile Italian trial of 20-year-old party girl Amanda Knox, studying abroad in Perugia, accused of murdering her roommate, Meredith Kercher. The court of public opinion — as well as the courts of Italy — declared she was guilty as charged. It took eight years, but in 2015 the Italian Supreme Court finally declared her innocent, and that she had no motive.
Who supplied her motives? According to McGinn and Blackhurst’s take, which took five years to make, a local prosecutor was all too eager to swiftly solve the case, and supplied often made-up “evidence” to the gaping maw of the global tabloid press, who were desperate to beat the competition and get clicks. Finally, “Amanda Knox” is a perfect storm of culture clashes, as a pretty young American abroad and in love confronted colliding world views. She will never be the same.
Weakness: From the start, Knox, now 29, presents an enigmatic subject, and try as they might, the filmmakers don’t get to the bottom of all the questions swirling around her.
Quote: “Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing,” Knox tells the camera, “or I am you.”
11.”The Ivory Game” (Netflix)
Kudos: Doc NYC shortlist.
Strengths: L.A.-based producer-director Kief Davidson and German director-cinematographer Richard Ladkani (“The Devil’s Miner”) make an urgent call to save elephants from poachers and extinction. The film is shot like a thriller, as crack investigators, including a bad-ass ex-Mossad agent, track down poachers and their buyers in Asia.
The film is tough to watch, as beautiful elephants are shown in the wild, all too vulnerable, filmed by drones from above, alive and dead. But there’s room for optimism toward the end, as Hong Kong and China start to show awareness of their crucial role in fighting the black market for ivory. As a result of the filmmakers’ footage being shown to the Hong Kong government, a ban on ivory was announced — in five years. China should follow suit.
Weakness: The film, backed by Paul Allen, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DiCaprio and other activists and investors, is an effective call to arms. It is also a bummer.
Quote: “It’s not enough to be done in five years,” said Davidson, who made a deal with Netflix to get the film out to 190 countries as soon as possible. “It has to be done immediately. In five years, 50% of the current population of elephants will be gone. There’s been a 30% decline in the number of elephants in the last five years.”
COURTESY OF TIFF
12. “I Am Not Your Negro” (Magnolia Pictures/Independent Lens)
Kudos: DOC NYC Shortlist, IDA Feature Award Nomination.
Strengths: 62-year-old filmmaker Raoul Peck addresses race relations in America in the riveting “I Am Not Your Negro,” working from an unfinished manuscript (“Remember This House”) by the eloquent late writer James Baldwin (“Another Country”) about a generation of black leaders slain in their prime: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.
Samuel L. Jackson voices Baldwin as the film’s articulate narrator, describing meetings with all three men and their oversized impact on the culture before they were tragically brought down. We see clips of Baldwin giving talks, and appearing on the Dick Cavett Show describing the mythology of the negro criminal.
Weakness: Hollywood do-good Liberals may not like Peck and Baldwin’s criticism of the “lie of their pretended humanism” in such lauded ’60s classics as “The Defiant Ones” and “In the Heat of the Night,” which produced images of black and white reconciliation that were designed “not to trouble but to reassure.”
Quote: Whites’ terror toward blacks “has made them criminals and monsters,” said Baldwin.
Hurt by Documentary Stardom
13. “Zero Days” (Showtime/Magnolia)
Kudos: Nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, nominated for Cinema Eye Honors.
Strengths: Alex Gibney reported ahead of the curve this disturbing docu-thriller about computer virus Stuxnet and global cyber-espionage. Created by the United States and Israel (with an assist from British intelligence) to sabotage Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the powerful malware raises broader questions about the protection of state secrets and the future of cyber war. Alongside the release of Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” not to mention the renewed attention to nuclear proliferation and cyber security in presidential politics, Gibney explores the crucial relationship between technology, security, and nuclear war.
Weaknesses: After being nominated for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Gibney won the Oscar in 2007 (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and while Emmys and other awards have continued to come his way, the Oscar doc branch keeps passing over the respected and prolific documentary film and television producer, who may be seen as perhaps too successful to need their plaudits. He also likes to use digital actors to convey composite interviews from anonymous sources (in this case inside the NSA), a practice that is frowned on in some quarters.
Quote: “We came so fucking close to disaster,” one NSA source said of the moment when an aggressive Israeli version of Stuxnet moved out into the world. “And we’re still on the edge.”
14. “Miss Sharon Jones!” (Starz)
Kudos: DOC NYC Shortlist, Cinema Eye Honors nomination.
Strengths: Veteran verite filmmaker Barbara Kopple debuted this concert movie at Toronto. She went on the road to chronicle for three years the extraordinary soul singer Sharon Jones, performing with her band the Dap-Kings, as she fought to contain her cancer, a battle she just lost last week. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Jones’ energetic, larger-than-life performances — and how much her band loves her.
Weakness: Two-time Oscar-winner Kopple (“Harlan County U.S.A.”) also faces the resistance of the doc branch to reward their best-known colleagues.
Quote: “Even if she sits in a room where people are getting chemo, she’s sunshine,” Kopple told IndieWire‘s Graham Winfrey. “I’ve been to a lot of film festivals where there have been a lot of cancer survivors who come up to me afterwards and my shoulder is wet from listening to their stories and how inspired they are by Sharon.”
15. “Into the Inferno” (Netflix)
Kudos: DOC NYC Shortlist
Strengths: Werner Herzog puts himself in front of the camera again in “Into the Inferno,” along with Cambridge volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, whom Herzog met on an Antarctic volcano during “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007), his only documentary to earn an Oscar nomination. “Into the Inferno,” could be his second, although his branch has ignored him of late.
True to form, Herzog visits volcanoes all over the world. He’s tough enough to hike close to the edge in a protective suit to look with a long lens into the magma of the inner Earth. However, he does not deliver on the title of his latest documentary and descend into live craters: Herzog is not foolish.
Weakness: This movie may just be too much fun.
Quote: “I have never been attracted to danger,” he said in our video interview, above. “Everybody thought at Mount Erebus in Antarctica, I’d go down in ropes. They were surprised when I didn’t want that. Something happens in the media. It’s not me. A certain stratum of my existence is only in perception. Yes, I am clinically sane.”