Every January, the Sundance Film Festival launches a slew of documentary Oscar contenders, and 2021 was no exception. While notable recent examples of fall openers winning Oscars include “Citizenfour” and “Free Solo” — and last year’s Netflix winner “My Octopus Teacher” played no festivals at all — most eventual Oscar nominees got their initial boost at Sundance and became must-sees for the expanding list of increasingly international documentary branch voters.
Emerging strong from Sundance 2021 was Nanfu Wang’s daring China Covid expose “In the Same Breath” (HBO Documentary Films), which went from opening the festival to winning the SXSW audience award and is shortlisted for the IDA, as well as “RBG” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “My Name Is Pauli Murray” (Amazon Original Documentary), an archive portrait of a powerful influencer over decades of activism from the ’40s through the ’80s, which was nominated for several Critics Choice Awards, along with Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s innovative animated documentary “Flee,” which scored rave reviews and the Grand Jury Prize. This moving story of a refugee survivor reveals the identity-crushing dangers and humiliations of an immigrant trying to find sanctuary in a harsh world. Neon knows how to mount an Oscar campaign in multiple categories.
“Flee” landed an early Gotham Awards nomination, along with other Sundance debuts “Faya Dayi” (Janus Films), Jessica Beshir’s dive into Ethiopia’s cash crop khat; Camilla Nielsson’s look at contemporary Zimbabwe, “President”; and “Summer of Soul” (Searchlight), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s first film, about a legendary 1969 concert in Harlem, which back in January won the Sundance U.S. Documentary Grand Jury and Audience awards, and also nabbed six Critics Choice Documentary Award nominations.
So did another Gotham nominee and first-time filmmaker, Jessica Kingdon, whose China portrait “Ascension” (MTV Documentary Films) won two key awards at the Tribeca Film Festival, for directing and Best Documentary Feature. Also debuting at Tribeca was biodoc “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (Focus Features), from Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”), which played well with audiences at the summer box office but also ignited controversy about his creation of an artificial Bourdain voice narration using words from an email. Nonetheless the movie landed on the influential DOC NYC Shortlist.
So did Cannes debut “Velvet Underground” (AppleTV+), an innovative musical portrait from narrative-filmmaker-turned-documentarian Todd Haynes, which later played Telluride and New York. Also at Cannes was A24 production “Val,” featuring a wealth of archive footage shot by actor Val Kilmer, who is looking back on his turbulent career after a throat cancer diagnosis.
The fall circuit introduced several non-fiction movies gaining momentum. Telluride introduced Robert Greene’s searing “Procession” (Netflix), which tracks a group of male survivors of childhood sex abuse by Catholic priests. The Toronto International Film Festival opening nighter “Attica” (Showtime), an archive dive from prolific two-time Emmy winner Stanley Nelson (“Freedom Riders”), premiered on September 9, the 50th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. Also at TIFF was Amazon Studios’ “Burning,” from Australian Oscar-winner Eva Orner (she produced “Taxi to the Dark Side”), which tracks the many causes of the record-breaking Australian fires of 2019-2020, when 59 million acres of land were destroyed.
Two NatGeo titles playing on the fall festival circuit scored five Critics Choice nominations each: “Becoming Cousteau” (Picturehouse), directed by two-time Oscar nominee and Emmy-winner Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), digs into the rich restored archives of French filmmaker Jacques Cousteau and reveals things we did not know about the explorer and his merry band of Calypso ocean adventurers, and Thai cave-diver thriller “The Rescue” (NatGeo and Greenwich Entertainment), from Oscar-winning “Free Solo” filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Also from NatGeo were John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ “Fauci” (Magnolia), about the most famous epidemiologist in the world, and hard-hitting, emotional heart-tugger “The First Wave,” turned down by a surprising number of major film festivals, from Oscar-nominated Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”), which opened to raves at The Hamptons Film Festival and moved on to the regional festival circuit.
Another famous person, French chef Julia Child, carries the delightful, sensuous, and romantic “Julia” (Sony Pictures Classics), from Oscar nominees Betsy West and Julie Cohen (“RBG”), which audiences adored.
Truth is, the reconfigured documentary branch is leaning toward more international titles, and as before, away from celebrity profiles, especially of the hagiographic variety. As always, getting seen is half the battle. Even if early awards groups spread their attention over a wide range of worthy but less-hyped titles, the well-marketed movies that the most people have seen will rise to the top.
Contenders for the shortlist of 15 are listed in alphabetical order. No one will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.
The Cousteau Society
“The First Wave”
“In the Same Breath”
“The Lost Leonardo”
“My Name Is Pauli Murray”
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”
“The Sparks Brothers”
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
“The Velvet Underground”
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”
“Bring Your Own Brigade”
“Convergence: Courage in a Crisis”
“A Cop Movie”
“A Crime on the Bayou”
“The Crime of the Century”
“Don’t Make Me Over”
“Introducing, Selma Blair”
“Nothing but the Sun”
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”
“9/11: Inside the President’s War Room”
“Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James”
“Black Power: A British Story of Resistance”
“Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters”
“Changing the Game”
“The Day Sports Stood Still”
“Enemies of the State”
“Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground”
“Four Hours at the Capitol”
“Fruits of Labor”
“Kevin Garnett: Anything Is Possible”
“Life of Crime 1984-2020”
“Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres”
“The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52”
“Missing in Brooks County”
“The Neutral Ground”
“No Ordinary Man”
“North By Current”
“Not Going Quietly”
“Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story”
“Puff: Wonders of the Reef”
“The Real Charlie Chaplin”
“So Late So Soon”
“Taming the Garden”
“This Stained Dawn”
“Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre”
“The Year Earth Changed”
“Who Are You, Charlie Brown?”
“Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker”
“Writing With Fire”