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Oscars 2023: Best Documentary Feature Predictions

January's Sundance kicked off the documentary Oscar race, while later festivals will play a key role in nabbing awards attention in a crowded field. (Constantly updated.)

"Navalny"

“Navalny”

Warner Bros.

The Sundance Film Festival, high in the Utah Rockies, is the festival of choice for nonfiction films to be seen and discovered. Every January, Sundance launches a slew of documentary Oscar contenders, and 2022 was no different. While there are notable exceptions (Oscar winners “Citizenfour,” “Free Solo,” and “My Octopus Teacher”), most eventual documentary Oscar nominees launch at Sundance.

Making the Oscar shortlist for 2022 were Sundance 2021 debuts from Nanfu Wang (HBO’s China COVID exposé “In the Same Breath”), Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen (Neon’s animated immigration saga “Flee”), Jessica Beshir (Ethiopian khat exposé “Faya Dayi”), Camilla Nielsson (Greenwich Entertainment’s Zimbabwe portrait “President”); and rookie eventual Oscar-winner Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Searchlight/Hulu’s 1969 concert film “Summer of Soul”).

This year’s new pandemic era Sundance crop was equally impressive.

Winning jury prizes were Shaunak Sen’s World Documentary “All That Breathes,” a lyrical portrait of two brothers who rescue the predatorial black kites circling in the polluted air above New Delhi, and Ben Klein and Violet Columbus’ U.S. Documentary entry “The Exiles,” which combined 30-year-old archive footage shot by NYU professor/filmmaker Christine Choy with contemporary interviews with her and three activist exiles, who left China in the wake of their protests in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and never returned. HBO Documentary Films picked up “All That Breathes,” which won the Cannes 2022 documentary jury prize, for likely December release.

In contrast, both the Documentary Audience prize and Festival Favorite awards went to riveting docu-thriller “Navalny” (CNN/HBO Max), Daniel Roher’s film about the charismatic Russian opposition leader who survived poisoning by Vladimir Putin’s thugs and after recovering in Germany, bravely returned to Russia amid fervent throngs of supporters — and was slapped in jail.

Collecting the NEXT Audience Award was Chase Joynt’s documentary “Framing Agnes” (Kino Lorber) about media portrayals of trans people; the film also took home the NEXT Innovator Award. The World Cinema Documentary Audience Award went to “The Territory” (NatGeo), about the devastating effects of government-supported deforestation on indigenous people in Brazil. The film also earned the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Documentary Craft. Darren Aronofsky is executive producer.

NatGeo/Neon

NatGeo also grabbed Sara Dosa’s popular opening nighter “Fire of Love” (Neon) with a lyrical narration by Miranda July, which tracks through the decades two French volcanologists in love not only with each other but with the thrill of chasing erupting volcanoes around the globe. It collected the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award for U.S. Documentary.

Also winning Special Jury Awards: U.S. Documentary’s Impact for Change for “Aftershock” (Hulu), a provocative look at Black maternal mortality directed and produced by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, and U.S. Documentary’s Creative Vision for “Descendant,” from Indie Spirit-winner Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths”), who examines the American racial divide through the eyes of the residents of Africatown, near her home base in Mobile, Alabama. They are descendants of the last slaves brought to the U.S. coast by the schooner Clotilda, just before the Civil War. Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground purchased the film at the festival and will chase awards.

Not collecting any prize but making an impact was Oscar nominee Tia Lessin (“Trouble the Water”) and Emma Pildes’ shocking and timely look at Chicago’s late ’60s underground abortion network, “The Janes” (HBO Documentary Films), as well as Ondi Timoner’s touching family tribute “Last Flight Home,” set for the fall film festival circuit and release via Sheila Nevins’ MTV Documentary Films.

The Janes

“The Janes”

HBO

Tribeca and Cannes also introduced potential nonfiction contenders. Tribeca closed with Josh Alexander’s Al Sharpton documentary “Loudmouth” (June 16, Bron Studios). And Netflix is qualifying Nadia Hallgren’s “Civil,” about Ben Crump, which is produced by Academy members Roger Ross Williams and Kenya Barris.

The highest-profile Cannes documentary was Brett Morgen’s midnight premiere “Moonage Daydream” (Neon), the IMAX-bound kaleidoscopic portrait of David Bowie, while playing in Special Screenings was Ethan Coen’s “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” (A24).

Netflix has a robust slate hitting the fall festivals as well. Afghan filmmaker Tamana Ayazi and Oscar-nominated German filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen (“Watani: My Homeland”) co-direct “In Her Hands,” which profiles activist Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of a small province in Afghanistan. The film is executive-produced by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and Siobhan Sinnerton (“For Sama”).

Rookie filmmaker Elvis Mitchell’s “Is That Black Enough for You?” tracks the history of Black cinema, focused mainly on the ’70s, with archival and new interviews with many of the key players from the era. Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, and Angus Wall are executive producers. And Rory Kennedy (“Last Days in Vietnam”) returns to the Oscar fray with “The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari,” which portrays human bravery and resilience after a tragic volcano disaster in New Zealand.

SHOOT TO KILL, Sidney Poitier, 1988, ©Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection

Sidney Poitier

©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Also heading for the fall festival circuit is “Sidney,” producer Oprah Winfrey’s AppleTV+ bio-doc on the late great actor Sidney Poitier, directed by Reginald Hudlin (“The Black Godfather,” “Marshall”), as well as a spate of music documentaries. Disney Original Documentary and Disney+ will launch “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: The Final Elton John Performances and the Years That Made His Legend,” co-directed by “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” Oscar-nominee RJ Cutler and John’s life partner David Furnish, including concert performances spanning 50 years.

Disney+ is also releasing photographer Mary McCartney’s film portrait of the famed Beatles recording studio Abbey Road, “If These Walls Could Sing,” including interviews with her father Paul. And Imagine Documentaries is executive producing a definitive Louis Armstrong bio-doc, “Black & Blues: The Colorful Ballad of Louis Armstrong,” directed by Emmy-nominated Sacha Jenkins (“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men”).

Contenders for the shortlist of 15 (announced December 21) are listed in alphabetical order below; no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.

Frontrunners
“All That Breathes”
“Descendant”
“Fire of Love”
“The Janes”
“Moonage Daydream”
Navalny
“The Territory”

Contenders
“Aftershock”
“Bebe”
“Black & Blues: The Colorful Ballad of Louis Armstrong”
“Brainwashed”
“Civil”
“Framing Agnes”
“The Exiles”
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: The Final Elton John Performances and the Years That Made His Legend”
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song”
“If These Walls Could Sing”
“In Her Hands”
“Is That Black Enough For You?”
“Jerry Lewis: Trouble in Mind”
“Last Flight Home”
“Loudmouth”
“The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari”

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