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Oscars 2022: Best Documentary Feature Predictions

A wide range of movies means that getting voters' attention is going to be a high priority. (Constantly updated.)

The Rescue

“The Rescue”

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.

"Procession"

The six participants of “Procession”

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.

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 was 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.

In the end, 138 films were submitted for consideration, down by 100 from last year’s record, due in part to the pandemic. The documentary branch will vote for the 15 films on the shortlist December 10-15. Contenders for the shortlist of 15 to be announced on December 21 are listed in alphabetical order. No one will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.

Jacques Cousteau wears his iconic red diving cap aboard his ship Calypso, circa 1970s. (Credit: The Cousteau Society)

“Becoming Cousteau”

The Cousteau Society

Frontrunners
“Ascension”
“Becoming Cousteau”
“Bring Your Own Brigade”
“Faya Dayi”
“The First Wave”
“Flee”
“In the Same Breath”
“The Lost Leonardo”
“My Name Is Pauli Murray”
“Procession”
“The Rescue”
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”
“The Sparks Brothers”
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
“The Velvet Underground”

Contenders:
“The Alpinist”
“Attica”
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”
“Convergence: Courage in a Crisis”
“A Cop Movie”
“A Crime on the Bayou”
“Cusp”
“Francesco”
“Homeroom”
“Introducing, Selma Blair”
“Jacinta”
“Julia”
“LFG”
“Mayor Pete”
“Nothing but the Sun”
“Pray Away”
“President”
“Rebel Hearts”
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”
“Simple as Water”
“Val”
“Wojnarowicz”
“Wuhan Wuhan”

Long Shots
“Ailey”
“All About My Sisters”
“All Light, Everywhere”
“American 965”
“Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters”
“Citizen Ashe”
“Dave Chappelle Live in Real Life”
“Dying to Divorce”
“Enemies of the State”
“Final Account”
“Influence”
“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”
“Not Going Quietly”
“Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story”
“The Real Charlie Chaplin”
“So Late So Soon”
“Speer Goes to Hollywood”
“Storm Lake”
“Tina”
“Torn”
“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Race in America”
“Writing With Fire”

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