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Influential Awards Bodies Reshape 2023 Best Documentary Feature Race

Crowdpleasers, festival winners, and biographical docs crowd the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature.

Good Night Oppy

“Good Night Oppy”

Prime Video

This article contains IndieWire’s past Best Documentary Feature predictions for the 2023 Oscars. We regularly update our predictions throughout awards season, and republish previous versions (like this one) for readers to track changes in how the Oscar race has changed. For the latest update on the frontrunners for the 95th Academy Awards, see our 2023 Oscars predictions hub.

We keep updating these predictions through the awards season, so keep checking IndieWire for all our 2023 Oscar picks. Nominations voting is from January 12 to January 17, 2023, with official Oscar nominations announced on January 24, 2023. The final voting is March 2 through 7, 2023. And finally, the 95th Oscars telecast will be broadcast on Sunday, March 12 and air live on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET/ 5:00 p.m. PT.

See IndieWire’s previous Oscars Predictions for this category and more here.

State of the Race

As streamers, broadcasters, and production companies keep adding documentary divisions, the number of worthy documentaries in awards play only increases every year. The Academy documentary branch members — a less predictable global community of filmmakers much expanded from the small cabal of yesteryear — have an ever-expanding queue of movies to screen. (Last year they were assigned 14 must-views.) So the early Critics Choice Awards, IDA Awards and Cinema Eye Honors nominations, plus DOC NYC’s influential and predictive Short List, become useful guides for what to watch.

The movies that landed both CCA nominations for Best Documentary Feature and the DOC NYC Short List are leading the fray: Margaret Brown’s Alabama slave saga “Descendant” (October 21, Netflix), volcano-chasing crowdpleaser “Fire of Love” (NatGeo/Neon), ’60s abortion story “The Janes” (HBO Documentary Films), Brett Morgen’s IMAX hit “Moonage Daydream” (HBO/Neon), and daring Russian exposé “Navalny” (HBO Max/CNN Films/Warner Bros.).

It doesn’t hurt that both “Fire of Love” and “Moonage Daydream” qualify as box office hits ($1.7 million and $11.8 million worldwide, respectively).

Although Laura Poitras’ Venice Golden Lion winner “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (HBO/Neon), a riveting portrait of artist-activist Nan Goldin, has been touted as a frontrunner for the documentary Oscar and even a Best Picture candidate, the film landed DOC NYC’s Short List of 15 but missed the CCA’s Best Feature list of ten, while scoring slots for Best Director and Best Political Documentary; on awards night the film went home empty-handed.

The big winner at the CCA Awards, with five trophies including Best Documentary Feature, was heart-tugging NASA saga “Good Night Oppy,” which tracked the extended life of a plucky Mars rover. If this film makes it to a nomination, it could prove a crowdpleaser with the wider Academy, much like “My Octopus Teacher.”

DOC NYC’s Winner’s Circle program has also yielded Oscar nominations, including 2020’s “The Mole Agent” and 2021’s “Writing with Fire.” This year’s CCA-nominated “Aftershock” and “Bad Axe” are in that section, as well as two-time CCA nominee “Riotsville, USA.” Not making either the Winner’s Circle or the Short List cut are CCA-nominated “The Automat,” “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” “Good Night Oppy,” and “Sidney.”

“The Territory”

Sundance

At the influential Cinema Eye Honors, “Fire of Love” and “The Territory” dominated the feature nominations with seven each, followed by “All That Breathes” with six and “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” and Payal Kapadia’s “A Night of Knowing Nothing” with four. Five women were nominated for Outstanding Direction, with “Beba” director Rebeca Huntt and “Descendant” filmmaker Margaret Brown joining Sara Dosa, Payal Kapadia, Laura Poitras, and Shaunak Sen in the category.

Leading the film nominations at the IDA Awards were “All That Breathes” and “Fire of Love,” each with five. Meanwhile, films like “The Territory” and “Descendant,” which have been recognized by other awards bodies like the Cinema Eye Honors, were notably missing.

The documentary race starts every January at the Sundance Film Festival, which launches a slew of Oscar contenders. While there are notable exceptions (Oscar winners “Citizenfour,” “Free Solo,” and “My Octopus Teacher”), most eventual documentary Oscar nominees launch at Sundance. Landing nominations for 2022 were Sundance 2021 debuts from Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen (Neon’s animated immigration saga “Flee”) 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 the Sundance World Documentary jury prize was Shaunak Sen’s documentary “All That Breathes” (October 21, HBO Documentary Films), a lyrical portrait of two brothers who rescue the predatorial black kites circling in the polluted air above New Delhi, which took home the Cannes 2022 documentary jury prize, landed on the DOC NYC Short List and scored six Cinema Eye Honors and five IDA nominations.

Both the Sundance 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. After recovering in Germany, he bravely returned to Russia amid fervent throngs of supporters — and was slapped in jail. The film landed both the CCA Bronze award for Best Feature and Best Political Documentary, made the DOC NYC Short List, and was nominated for the Cinema Eye Honors for Outstanding Nonfiction Feature.

Also landing on the DOC NYC Short List was The World Cinema Documentary Audience Award-winner “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 and six Cinema Eye nominations. Darren Aronofsky is a producer on the project.

Fire of Love

“Fire of Love”

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, and went on to score the Silver Award at the CCA Awards as well as Best Archival documentary, plus seven Cinema Eye Honors and five IDA Awards nominations, and a slot on the DOC NYC Short List.

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, which scored a CCA Best Feature nomination, as did the winner of the U.S. Documentary’s Creative Vision, “Descendant,” from Indie Spirit-winner 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; the movie also landed on the DOC NYC Short List.

Not collecting any Sundance prize but making an impact were “The Janes” (HBO Documentary Films), Oscar nominee Tia Lessin (“Trouble the Water”) and Emma Pildes’ shocking and timely look at Chicago’s late ’60s underground abortion network, as well as Ondi Timoner’s touching family tribute “Last Flight Home,” to be released via Sheila Nevins’ MTV Documentary Films. “The Janes” scored a CCA Best Feature nomination and both were included on the DOC NYC Short List.

Two family portraits from young Latin American filmmakers landed on the DOC NYC Short List: Sundance entry “Mija” (Disney Original Documentary), directed by Isabel Castro, focuses on a young L.A. manager who nurtures musicians and her family before herself, and TIFF 2021 premiere “Beba” reveals New Yorker Rebecca Huntt’s dysfunctional family; Huntt notched a Best Director nomination from the Cinema Eye Honors.

Cannes introduced a high-profile nonfiction contender from Brett Morgen: midnight premiere “Moonage Daydream” (Neon), the IMAX-bound kaleidoscopic portrait of David Bowie, which later notched both CCA Best Feature and DOC NYC Short List mentions and landed an IDA Awards nomination for Best Music Documentary. Will the Academy documentary branch embrace Morgen, who was snubbed with Emmy-winning Goodall crowdpleaser “Jane”? Shortlisting “Moonage Daydream” would show how much the expanded doc branch has changed.

Finally, there are a spate of biographical docs about entertainers looking to break in. Making a splash at Telluride was Chris Smith’s “’Sr.’” (Netflix), an intimate tribute to filmmaker Robert Downey, which made the DOC NYC Short List cut. TIFF premiere “Sidney,” producer Oprah Winfrey’s AppleTV+ bio-doc on the late great actor Sidney Poitier, directed by Reginald Hudlin (“The Black Godfather,” “Marshall”), made the CCA Best Feature nominations. Imagine Documentaries executive-produced a definitive Louis Armstrong bio-doc, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” (AppleTV+) directed by Emmy-nominated Sacha Jenkins (“Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men”), which made the DOC NYC Short List and IDA Awards Music Documentary nominations.

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”
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”
“Beba”
“Descendant”
“Fire of Love”
“Good Night Oppy”
“The Janes”
“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”
“Mija”
“Moonage Daydream”
“Navalny”
“Retrograde”
“Sidney”
“’Sr.’”
“The Territory”

Contenders:
“Aftershock”
“The Automat”
“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down”
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song”
“Last Flight Home”
“Lucy and Desi”
“A Night of Knowing Nothing”
“Nothing Compares”
“The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile”
“Riotsville, USA”
“Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams”
“Three Minutes: A Lengthening”
“Wildcat”

Long Shots:
“Battleground”
“Bitterbrush”
“Brainwashed”
“Civil”
“Cow”
“The Exiles”
“Framing Agnes”
“Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: The Final Elton John Performances and the Years That Made His Legend”
“A House Made of Splinters”
“If These Walls Could Sing”
“In Her Hands”
“Is That Black Enough For You?”
“Jerry Lewis: Trouble in Mind”
“Katrina Babies”
“Loudmouth”
“My Old School”
“No Simple Way Home”
“The Pawnshop”
“The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari”
“Young Plato”

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