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 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/Hulu), 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. Landing on the influential DOC NYC Shortlist was Cannes debut “Velvet Underground” (AppleTV+), an innovative musical portrait from narrative-filmmaker-turned-documentarian Todd Haynes, which later played Telluride and New York.
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.
A NatGeo title playing on the fall festival circuit scored five Critics Choice nominations: 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, but nonetheless R.J. Cutler’s artfully constructed “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry” (Apple TV+) made the shortlist. 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 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. Contenders for nominations to be announced on February 8 are listed in alphabetical order. No one will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.
“In the Same Breath”
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”
“The First Wave”
“Simple as Water”
“The Velvet Underground”
“Writing With Fire”