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Oscars 2021: Best Documentary Feature Predictions

Especially this year, Sundance looms large for documentary Oscar contenders. But fall festivals have pushed newer titles. (Constantly updated.)

A still from Crip Camp by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Steve Honigsbaum.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Crip Camp”


One secret to success in the documentary Oscar race is getting into the competitive Sundance lineup. While notable recent examples of fall openers winning Oscars include “Citizenfour” and “Free Solo,” most nominees still get a boost at Sundance and became must-sees for the burgeoning list of documentary branch voters.

The Sundance 2020 list is massive. Emerging strong from this year’s festival were five Netflix titles, from Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht (audience award winner “Crip Camp: “A Disability Revolution,” produced by the Obamas), Lana Wilson (Taylor Swift portrait “Miss Americana”), Rachel Mason (kinky family bookstore “Circus of Books”), Sam Feder (“Disclosure,” about trans portrayal in media) and Kirsten Johnson (father tribute “Dick Johnson is Dead“), two from Neon (’90s Biosphere 2 saga “Spaceship Earth” and artist and muse story “The Painter and the Thief,”), and two from Magnolia (ACLU booster “The Fight,” from Participant and the filmmakers behind “Weiner,” and Alexander Nanau’s health system expose “Collective” (which is also Romania’s Oscar submission), as well as Ron Howard’s heart-tugger “Rebuilding Paradise” (NatGeo), Bao Nguyen’s Bruce Lee biodoc “Be Water” (ESPN), A24/Apple’s provocative look at government “Boys State,” Amazon’s “Time,” by Garrett Bradley (the first Black woman to win the Directing prize), Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s “On the Record” (HBO Max), and Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s foraging story “The Truffle Hunters” (Sony Pictures Classics).

Other festivals played a role in highlighting must-see documentaries. Directed by Ric Burns, “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” (Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber) debuted at Telluride 2019 before hitting the festival circuit; Victor Kossakovsky’s black-and-white portrait of a pig, “Gunda,” broke out at Berlin and was snapped up by Neon, while Rithy Panh’s “Irradiated” won the festival’s jury prize, and “Mayor” debuted at North Carolina’s Full Frame and won a prize at Denmark’s CPH: Dox; “Songs of Repression” won that festival’s top award.

But SXSW, Tribeca, Cannes, Telluride and other festivals were shuttered due to the pandemic, taking away launchpads for such docs as Dawn Porter’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (Participant/Magnolia), which had planned a Tribeca debut. The SXSW documentary jury did announce winner “An Elephant in the Room” (New Films International). Online, AFI Docs played “Rebuilding Paradise” before its July 12 premiere, which was packed with 6000 attendees, including the fire-ravaged community’s residents and first responders and Academy and IDA members.

This fall, festivals in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles offered hybrid showcases for such new entries as Errol Morris’s Timothy Leary documentary “My Psychedelic Love Story” (Showtime) and Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus’ voter suppression film “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Amazon), focused on Stacey Abrams. “Fire at Sea” Oscar nominee Gianfranco Rossi’s “Notturno” was selected for Venice, Telluride, Toronto and NYFF. Also slated for Telluride was Porter’s second film of the year, her portrait of White House photographer Pete Souza, “The Way I See It” (Focus Features), as well as Sam Pollard’s archive dive “MLK/FBI” (Field of Vision/IFC), which played Toronto and New York.

Delayed by the pandemic, Alex Gibney’s portrait of a forensic psychiatrist “Crazy, Not Insane” debuted at Venice rather than SXSW (November, HBO), while “Totally Under Control,” his fast-tracked examination of the COVID crisis, hit theaters October 9 (Neon), multi-platforms October 13, and Hulu October 20, ahead of the election.

The fall festivals unveiled more new titles like Weixi Chen and Hao Wu’s “76 Days” which chronicles up close the struggle at four Wuhan hospitals to battle COVID-19. Sheila Nevins’ MTV Documentaries is mounting an awards push. DOC NYC in mid-November benefited from what the other festivals learned, offering filmmaker conversations for free to watch anywhere in the world, as well as its annual shortlist of 15.

Despite everything, this year’s list of contenders is long — so far a record 215 are eligible for Oscar consideration, breaking the prior record of 170 in 2017, with still more to come. This will make it tough for documentary branch voters to see everything; they may have to screen as many as 40 films apiece.

And this year, critics carried more sway than ever as voters try to cut through the clutter. Early awards voting from the IDA and Cinema Eye Honors have spotlighted many of the best-reviews movies of the year,m including the top five eligible documentaries on Metacritic: Magnolia’s “Collective” (95), Amazon’s “Time” (91), Neon’s “Gunda” (90), and Netflix’s “Dick Johnson is Dead” (89).

Contenders for the Oscar shortlist of fifteen (announced February 9) are listed in alphabetical order. No contender will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.

Welcome to Chechnya

Grisha in David France’s “Welcome to Chechnya.”


“76 Days”
“All In: The Fight for Democracy”
“Boys State”
“Crip Camp: a Disability Revolution”
“Dick Johnson is Dead”
“The Dissident”
“The Fight”
“On the Record”
“The Painter and the Thief”
“The Truffle Hunters”
“Welcome to Chechnya”

“40 Years a Prisoner”
“Acasa: My Home”
“Athlete A”
“Be Water”
“Crazy, Not Insane”
“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds”
“The Human Factor”
“I Am Greta”
“John Lewis: Good Trouble”
“The Mole Agent”
“Rebuilding Paradise”
“A Thousand Cuts”
“Totally Under Control”
“The Way I See It”

Long Shots
“Bully Coward Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn”
“Circus of Books”
“An Elephant in the Room”
“Miss Americana”
“My Octopus Teacher”
“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life”
“My Psychedelic Love Story”
“The Reason I Jump”
“Some Kind of Heaven”
“Songs of Repression”
“Spaceship Earth”

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