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Oscars Preview: Best Documentary Feature Race

Welcome back! Last week we did an extensive breakdown of the Oscars’ Foreign Language Film shortlist. Trying to predict which films will ultimately get nominated from the remaining possibilities. This week we’re tackling the Best Documentary Feature shortlist – a race which is somehow a lot less complicated in process, yet a lot more complicated to predict.

With the Foreign Language Film category, an entire page was needed to explain the labyrinthine system of simply getting to the shortlist stage. And from there, predicting the nominees involves the added complication of having no idea which Academy members vote on the Foreign Language Film shortlist, nor how many of them do it. It’s an exercise in trying to predict voting results without having any sense of the sample size, or even of the sample itself.  

The Documentary Feature Oscar is infinitely more straightforward in both the Who and the How. For one, we (basically) know who the voters are. The Academy has a documentary branch with around 400 members. (Gold Derby reported the branch was at 320 members in late 2017, and 85 additional documentary filmmakers were invited to join last year.) And as for procedure, it’s simple – the Documentary Branch votes. It’s really that easy!

Well, kind of. The complications in trying to predict the Documentary Feature Oscar nominees arrive from two primary sources: (1) the shortlist has a whopping 15 films on it (compared to only nine films on the Foreign Language Film shortlist), and (2) branch politics can enter the picture in a big way (unlike for Foreign Language Film, which has no Academy branch and involves voters from all branches).

Exactly how branch politics might manifest in the voting results is a bit of a guessing game, but documentarians are a relatively tight-knit group. Many members of the branch know each other and openly discuss how to combine efforts. Voting on the shortlist consists of members ranking their five favorites from the 15 choices, and one prominent member of the branch I recently spoke to told me that members frequently offer to trade second-place votes with each other (which effectively allows each accomplice to vote for their favorite film twice).  

There’s also a level of groupthink that can influence the proceedings. Many voters have an agenda and they’re looking at the big picture. The best example of this is what happened last year with Jane, the critically lauded Brett Morgen film about Jane Goodall created from newly unearthed and gorgeously restored footage. Jane made it to the shortlist, and many pundits labelled it as the frontrunner to win the Oscar. But then it didn’t even get nominated. Why? Well, if you believe the conclusion put forth in this piece from The Hollywood Reporter, the problem was that it was just too likely to win. Documentary Branch voters worried that if it got nominated – and was then able to be voted on by the entire Academy – it would obviously have won the Oscar. And apparently many in the Documentary Branch were sick of the Oscar simply going to the most successful and high-profile of the nominees. So they black-balled it.

RBG

Is that actually what happened? Who knows. But the exclusion of Jane from the nominees last year was truly bizarre, and the above explanation seems far more plausible than most others. Will something like that happen this year? Hold that thought and let’s get to the choices.

Here are the 15 films on the Documentary Feature shortlist:

Charm City

Communion

Crime + Punishment

Dark Money

The Distant Barking of Dogs

Free Solo

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Minding the Gap

Of Fathers and Sons

On Her Shoulders

RBG

Shirkers

The Silence of Others

Three Identical Strangers

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

From there, we should immediately split the list into two groups: the four box office juggernauts (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Free Solo, and Three Identical Strangers), and everything else (everything else). We’ll save the discussion about those four Goliaths for a bit later and instead tackle the 11 Davids first.

The incredible, beautiful, and heartbreaking Minding the Gap is undeniably in pole position. Not only is it bolstered by both the highest Rotten Tomatoes rating (100%) and the highest MetaCritic score (93) of all 15 shortlisted films, but According to IMDb’s awards listing, Minding the Gap has accumulated 51 wins and an additional 37 nominations. None of the other 14 shortlisted films come even close to those numbers. Minding the Gap won Best Non-Fiction Film from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, and it was one of only two documentaries to appear on Barack Obama’s much-discussed list of favorite films of 2018 (the other was Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). That’s simply an unbeatable resume, and if Minding the Gap gets snubbed of an Oscar nomination it should prompt an FBI investigation. Seriously.

From there, well, that might actually be it; Minding the Gap and the four box office hits could be our five nominees. That’s the safest bet on the board. But it’s also the most obvious and boring outcome, and this isn’t a category known for going chalk. So let’s assume that one or two of the four mega-hits won’t get in. What might be nominated instead?

Before we start mercilessly eliminating films from contention, let me just say that I’ve watched 13 of the 15 and they’re mostly fantastic works of filmmaking. (The Distant Barking of Dogs and Of Fathers and Sons are the two I wasn’t able to see.) This is a great shortlist and just because some of them have paltry Oscar chances doesn’t mean they’re not worth your time. They are.

Now, having said that, let’s make some quick cuts. Charm City is a potent look at how inner-city Baltimore residents cope with the crime that perpetually invades their daily lives, but voters may see it as The Wire-lite. Communion impressively feels more like a scripted film than a doc, but that may work against it (and it probably feels too slight either way). The Silence of Others, about Spaniards seeking justice for crimes they suffered decades ago under the Franco regime, may feel too distant and – perhaps unfairly – less tragic than its competitor, On Her Shoulders. And The Distant Barking of Dogs and Of Fathers and Sons are films that I have simply never seen or heard anyone say anything about. So we’ll assume those five are all out.

Hale County is my blind spot this year. The film just didn’t work for me. But a colleague awards prognosticator thinks it’s a masterpiece, and some are predicting it to make the final five. Regardless of my aversion to it, Hale County is almost certainly the purest “art film” on the list, and that’s traditionally not a quality that helps docs get past this stage. (For example, both Cameraperson and Heart of a Dog were shortlisted in recent years, but neither moved on from there.) I just don’t see its path to a nomination.

That brings us firmly into “could get nominated” territory. Dark Money, about how Montana politics adjusted to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allowed dark money political contributions to flow into the state for the first time in its history (and the fight of a few local journalists to keep the public informed), is a fascinating film that I hope more people see. But while highly investigative docs often break through to nominations, the other choices may just be too good this year.

On Her Shoulders is a gut-wrenching document of a Yazidi woman who survived genocide and sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS and telling her story to the UN. Despite the rough subject matter, the bravery being portrayed is incredible, and it may strike voters as the most urgent film among the choices. Unfortunately, they could also dismiss it as the most depressing.

Crime + Punishment, which is about whistleblowers fighting racial profiling and other discriminatory practices in the NYPD, has both a potent story and some arresting imagery. It’s stayed with me since I saw it at Sundance a year ago, though I wonder if it may feel too straightforward compared to the competition.

And then there’s Shirkers, which might be the most interesting film of the bunch. Director Sandi Tan chronicles the production of an indie road film she and her friends made in early-’90s Singapore, a film that was then stolen from them before it could be finished. Suddenly, 25 years later, the footage was returned to her. Shirkers is about the loss of art, innocence, and identity, and ultimately the value of creation. I think it’s our most likely giant killer.

But which giant will it topple?

Let’s try to put the box office success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22.8 million), RBG ($14 million), Free Solo ($12.3 million), and Three Identical Strangers ($12.3 million) into proper perspective. All four currently rank in the all-time top 30 for documentaries at the domestic box office. But it’s really even more impressive than that. When you remove all of the pop-star cash grabs (like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never), Disney/IMAX nature films, and gross Dinesh D’Souza propaganda machines from the list, suddenly Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Free Solo, and Three Identical Strangers all rank in the top-11 most successful documentaries ever.

In other words, these movies weren’t simply hits, they’re mega-hits. And almost all of the other actual films in the top 30 received Oscar nominations, with three exceptions: Bill Maher’s Religulous and the Michael Moore films Capitalism: A Love Story and Fahrenheit 9/11 (which was ruled ineligible). Because those three were by divisive figures, they don’t seem to hold much relevance for 2018’s quartet of hits.

Those previous nominees do, however, have something important in common—they were all released in different years. That means voters in the Documentary Branch have never before had to think about using more than one spot on their ballots for a huge hit. But this year, voters are suddenly forced to consider turning 80% of their ballots over to such films.

All of that is to say, we can’t look to history for much help on how this will go. Yes, it would be unprecedented for one of these films to miss out on a nomination, but it’s also unprecedented for any of these films to be competing against a similar success story (let alone three other similar success stories). Because of that, one or more of them may miss out. But which one?

Both Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Free Solo should be very safe. The former has been reducing audiences to blubbering messes for a full year (and has that Obama boost), and the latter is the most purely cinematic experience of any doc in recent memory. Free Solo is also a massive technical achievement; it’ll probably get a handful of first-place votes for every shot of one of its cameramen suspended off the El Capitan cliffside trying to get that perfect angle. Together with Minding the Gap, these are our three locks.

But RBG and Three Identical Strangers both feel vulnerable. If you’re looking for this year’s most likely candidate to get the Jane it-would-have-won snub, RBG is the obvious choice. Whether accurate or not, many probably believe it would be a sure-thing to win if it gets nominated, and that may be motivation for voters to stop it while they can. No matter how loved and compelling the legendary woman at its center is, RBG is a fairly boilerplate bio-doc. It’s less interesting than its competitors and would, from a filmmaking perspective, be an unfortunate winner in a year this loaded with incredible films. That may keep some voters away from it, and even voters that like it may feel a compulsion to prevent it from winning.

Three Identical Strangers is an utterly fascinating story and doesn’t shy away from asking big questions, but it also features one quality that the Documentary Branch notoriously dislikes – reenactments. It’s hard to say exactly how many votes such a (perceived) sin may cost it, but the branch member I spoke to is convinced it doesn’t even have a chance of making it into the final five.

The idea that all four hit films will get nominated seems just as unlikely as the idea that only two of them will. Three of them feels like the right number. And if only one of those big hits is missing out, I’m betting it’s Three Identical Strangers. It looks to have the biggest strike against it, and given the current health of the real-life RBG, there might be too much good will in her direction to deny a nomination for her eponymous documentary.

So here it is, our ranking of how likely the 15 documentaries on the shortlist are to receiving nominations, with the top five being the official predictions:

Minding the Gap

Free Solo

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

RBG

Shirkers

————————————–

Three Identical Strangers

Crime + Punishment

On Her Shoulders

Dark Money

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

The Silence of Others

Charm City

Of Fathers and Sons

Communion

The Distant Barking of Dogs

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