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 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 successfully mounted an Oscar campaign in three categories: Animation, Documentary, and International Feature Film, a first for any Oscar contender.
“Flee” landed an early Gotham Awards nomination and has assembled a mighty collection of awards and nominations, along with “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 wins and Best Documentary from the LAFCA and National Board of Review.
Also racking up awards recognition was 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.
During the fall festival circuit, The Toronto International Film Festival opening nighter “Attica” (Showtime), a harrowing portrait of what happened in 1971 during the prison uprising, directed by prolific two-time Emmy winner Stanley Nelson (“Freedom Riders”) and archivist Traci Curry, premiered on September 9, the 50th anniversary of the Attica prison riots.
Nominations are listed in order of their likelihood to win.
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
“Writing With Fire”