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Surprise Shortlist Entries and Notable Absences Shake Up Best Documentary Feature Race

The race has taken on a new dimension following the release of the Oscars shortlist December 21.

ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED, Nan Goldin leading protest to remove the Sackler name from galleries at the Louvre, Paris, 2022. © Neon / courtesy Everett Collection

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

Courtesy Everett Collection

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 — doggedly view dozens of movies to find the shortlist of fifteen, which will then be whittled down to the final five.

The frontrunners for nominations have been scoring across the early awards honors: the Critics Choice Documentary Awards, IDA Awards, and Cinema Eye Honors, plus DOC NYC’s influential and predictive Short List.

Among the contenders are several popular box-office hits, including Brett Morgen’s IMAX hit “Moonage Daydream” (HBO/Neon, $4.3 million domestic, $12 million worldwide), volcano-chasing crowdpleaser “Fire of Love” (NatGeo/Neon, $1.7 million worldwide) and Sony Pictures Classics’ Telluride 2021 entry “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song,” which scored over $1.5 million worldwide, and landed a CCA nod for Best Music Documentary.

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 by critics 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. However, the film scored four nominations for Cinema Eye Honors nominations and the Indie Spirit nomination and won Best Documentary at both the NYFCC and LAFCA.

The big winner at the CCA Awards, with five trophies including Best Documentary Feature, heart-tugging NASA saga “Good Night Oppy,” did not make the shortlist, in all likelihood because many branch members were afraid that if nominated, the crowdpleaser might win.

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, the section included David Siev’s Asian American family restaurant saga “Bad Axe” (IFC Films), which has been building steam since it debuted at SXSW, winning the audience award, and earned CCA and Cinema Eye nominations.

“Fire of Love”


At the influential Cinema Eye Honors, shortlisted “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. The latter did not make the shortlist, nor did Rebeca Huntt’s DOC NYC shortlist entry “Beba.” The Cinemas Eye Honors will be announced January 12, 2023. Leading the film nominations at the IDA Awards were “All That Breathes” and “Fire of Love,” each with five, and sure enough “All That Breathes” took home four wins including Best Feature and director, while “Fire of Love” won Best Cinematography and Writing.

Among the IDA nominees for Best Music Documentary, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” and Sinead O’Connor profile “Nothing Compares” did not make the shortlist, while Brett Morgan’s David Bowie IMAX feature “Moonstruck” did. (In a show of respect, the film was also shortlisted for Best Sound.)

A spate of biographical docs about entertainers did not land a shortlist spot, including Telluride debut Chris Smith’s “’Sr.’” (Netflix), an intimate tribute to filmmaker Robert Downey, which made the DOC NYC Short List cut, and 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”).

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, scored six Cinema Eye Honors nods, won four IDA awards including Best Feature and Director, and notched a PGA nod.

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 PGA and 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.

“The Territory”


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 nods and two IDA Awards wins, a slot on the DOC NYC Short List, and a PGA nod.

Also winning a Sundance Special Jury Award: the U.S. Documentary’s Creative Vision winner, “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 three CCA Documentary nominations, two Cinema Eye Honors nominations, a PGA nomination, placed on the DOC NYC Short List and the National Board of Review Top Five documentaries.

Collecting the World Documentary Directing prize was Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “A House Made of Splinters,” about a home for children awaiting custody decisions, which earned nominations from the Cinema Eye Honors nominations, European Film Awards, and the Indie Spirit Awards. Many voters in the documentary branch are international.

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,” 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.

Another family portrait from a young Latin American filmmaker did not make the shortlist cut: Sundance entry “Mija” (Disney Original Documentary), directed by Isabel Castro.

Cannes introduced Morgen’s high-profile nonfiction contender: 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. Surprisingly, the Academy documentary branch embraced Morgen, who was snubbed with Emmy-winning Goodall crowdpleaser “Jane.” Shortlisting “Moonage Daydream” shows how much the expanded doc branch has changed.



National Geographic

Matthew Heineman’s Telluride debut “Retrograde,” which chronicles up close the harrowing last nine months of the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan, was nominated for Best Political Documentary at the CCA Documentary Awards, and won the Producing Award at DOC NYC Feature. It also appears on the festival’s often Oscar-predictive Short List, and landed a PGA slot.

Two surprise entries on the shortlist were under-the-radar titles “Children of the Mist” (Film Movement), Ha Le Diem’s North Vietnam coming-of-age story about a teenage girl weighing her options in North Vietnam, and Violet Du Feng and Qing Zhao’s Tribeca 2022 debut “Hidden Letters” (PBS/Cargo Film), about a secret language deployed by generations of oppressed Chinese women, which earned a Cinema Eye nomination.

Contenders for the final five Best Documentary nominees are listed in alphabetical order below; no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.

“All That Breathes”
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”
“Fire of Love”
“The Territory”

“Bad Axe”
“Children of the Mist”
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song”
“Hidden Letters”
“A House Made of Splinters”
“The Janes”
“Last Flight Home”
“Moonage Daydream”

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