Oscars 2021: Early Best Documentary Feature Predictions

By Anne Thompson

Especially this year, Sundance looms large for documentary Oscar contenders.

One secret to success in the documentary Oscar race is getting into the competitive Sundance lineup. While notable recent examples of fall openers winning Oscars include “Citizenfour” and “Free Solo,” most nominees still get a boost at Sundance and became must-sees for documentary branch voters.

The Sundance 2020 list is massive. Emerging strong from this year’s festival were five Netflix titles, from Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht (audience award winner “Crip Camp: “A Disability Revolution,” produced by the Obamas), Lana Wilson (Taylor Swift portrait “Miss Americana”), Rachel Mason (kinky family bookstore “Circus of Books”), Sam Feder (“Disclosure,” about trans portrayal in media) and Kirsten Johnson (tribute to her father “Dick Johnson is Dead”), two from Neon (’90s Biosphere 2 saga “Spaceship Earth” and artist and muse story “The Painter and the Thief,”) and two from Magnolia (ACLU booster “The Fight,” from the filmmakers behind “Weiner,” and Alexander Nanau’s health system expose “Collective”), as well as Ron Howard’s heart-tugger “Rebuilding Paradise” (NatGeo), Bao Nguyen’s Bruce Lee biodoc “Be Water” (ESPN), A24/Apple’s provocative look at government “Boys State,” Amazon’s “Time,” by Garrett Bradley (the first black woman to win the Directing prize), and Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s foraging story “The Truffle Hunters” (Sony Pictures Classics).

Other festivals played a role in highlighting must-see documentaries. Directed by Ric Burns, “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” (Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber) debuted at Telluride 2019 before hitting the festival circuit; Victor Kossakovsky’s black-and-white portrait of a pig, “Gunda,” broke out at Berlin and was snapped up by Neon, while Rithy Panh’s “Irradiated” won the festival’s jury prize, and “Mayor” debuted at North Carolina’s Full Frame and won a prize at Denmark’s CPH: Dox; “Songs of Repression” won that festival’s top award.

But SXSW, Tribeca, Cannes, Telluride and other festivals were shuttered due to the pandemic, taking away launchpads for such docs as Dawn Porter’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (Magnolia), which had planned a Tribeca debut. The SXSW documentary jury did announce winner “An Elephant in the Room,” which seeks distribution.

Online, AFI Docs played “Rebuilding Paradise” before its July 12 premiere, which was packed with 6000 attendees, including the fire-ravaged community’s residents and first responders and Academy and IDA members. Debuting at AFI Docs after other festivals fell through was “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s follow-up to Oscar-winner “American Factory,” which is for sale.

This fall, festivals in Toronto and New York will offer hybrid showcases for such new entries as Errol Morris’s Timothy Leary documentary for Showtime and Lisa CorteĢs and Liz Garbus’ voter suppression film “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Amazon), focused on Stacey Abrams. “Fire at Sea” Oscar nominee Gianfranco Rossi’s “Notturno” was selected for Venice as well as Telluride and Toronto. Also slated for Telluride was Porter’s second film of the year, her portrait of White House photographer Pete Souza, “The Way I See It” (Focus Features), as well as Sam Pollard’s archive dive “MLK/FBI,” which will play Toronto.

Doc NYC in November will benefit from what the other festivals have learned, said director Thom Powers, who also programs for TIFF: “I’ll hear from those festival directors what works in connecting with audiences, what were the challenges. There’s a whole new language of technology. We’re learning about different platforms for marketing and ticketing. Filmmaker conversations will be available for free to watch anywhere in the world.”

And this year, critics will carry more sway than ever. Leading the fray on Metacritic with 86 are “Crip Camp” (which is viewable on the Academy’s online portal), and HBO’s innovative docu-thriller “Welcome to Chechnya,” which protects its vulnerable gay subjects with false VFX faces.

Despite everything, this year’s list of potential contenders is long, and more titles are forthcoming. Contenders for the shortlist of fifteen are listed in alphabetical order. No contender will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.

“Athlete A”
“Boys State”
“Circus of Books”
“Crip Camp: a Disability Revolution”
“The Fight”
“The Human Factor”
“John Lewis: Good Trouble”
“Miss Americana”
“The Painter and the Thief”
“Rebuilding Paradise”
“Welcome to Chechnya”
“9to5: The Story of a Movement”
“All In: The Fight for Democracy”
“Be Water”
“Bully Coward Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn”
“Crazy, Not Insane”
“Dick Johnson is Dead”
“The Dissident”
“An Elephant in the Room”
“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds”
“The Mole Agent”
“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life”
“On the Record”
“Some Kind of Heaven”
“Songs of Repression”
“Spaceship Earth”
“A Thousand Cuts”
“The Truffle Hunters”
“The Way I See It”

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