Hollywood Contenders – The Best Documentary Feature short list reduces the Oscar hopefuls to 15

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival - 25th Anniversary Screening of "Roger & Me" Presented by Michael Moore
Last night, the short list for Best Documentary Feature was revealed, whittling down the field of contenders to just 15. As always, there were some obvious picks and some surprises (both in terms of what was chosen and what wasn’t), but I think the overall list is pretty strong now. It’ll be hard for the Oscars to come up with a final five that isn’t very solid, but that will be on the Academy if they somehow mess that up. There’s more than enough quality to go around now, and that’s what I’ll be taking a look at in this piece. I’ve written about the Documentary Feature category a bit before, but now is a perfect time to do it again…

Of course, it wasn’t sunshine and roses for all. Among the many snubbed docs include Racing Extinction, (T)error, The Wolfpack, and many more. Just as surprising to me, Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief managed to get to this stage, despite obvious opposition from some in the industry. We could see Alex Gibney’s powerful documentary now continue on a path towards being the frontrunner here. There’s plenty of competition, but it’s one of the most seen docs of the group, and that’s always a plus here. Publicity (and/or box office) never hurts in the race for Best Documentary Feature, that’s for sure, even if it’s not a make or break thing. There’s still a lot to be decided, trust me there.

For reference, this is what the category has looked like recently, in terms of its winners:

2014 – Citizenfour
2013 – 20 Feet from Stardom
2012 – Searching for Sugar Man
2011 – Undefeated
2010 – Inside Job
2009 – The Cove
2008 – Man on Wire
2007 – Taxi to the Dark Side
2006 – An Inconvenient Truth
2005 – March of the Penguins
2004 – Born into Brothels
2003 – The Fog of War
2002 – Bowling for Columbine
2001 – Murder on a Sunday Morning
2000 – Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport

As you can see, this branch of the Academy likes to nominate very important material most of the time. Obviously, every so often a lighter doc will pull off the win, but that happens only once in a blue moon. They’ve veered that way a bit more of late, but this year seems to favor serious fare, at the very least. There isn’t a truly “light” choice this year, in fact, so it’s overtly looking like a more serious slate of nominees when you get right down to it. That’s not a bad thing, either. Just something worth mentioning at this stage in the game, since we’re getting into true crunch time with these docs.

Looking at how this translates to Oscar, I think the main contenders for the nomination right now are Amy, Cartel Land, Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief, He Named Me Malala, Heart of a Dog, The Hunting Ground, The Look of Silence, Meru, Where to Invade Next, and Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Those ten will have to whittle down again to five, and I can’t say for sure that any are guaranteed spots in the lineup. My current prediction, as of today, is that they go with Amy, Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief, The Look of Silence, Where to Invade Next, and Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, but that’s just a hunch on my part. I’ll probably have a new set of predictions up on Friday and I may very well see the Documentary Feature race differently by then. Right now though, I think those are the frontrunners…

Here’s the 15 films shortlisted for the Academy to consider for Best Documentary Feature:

Amy, On the Corner Films and Universal Music

Best Of Enemies, Sandbar

Cartel Land, Our Time Projects and The Documentary Group

Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief, Jigsaw Productions

He Named Me Malala, Parkes-MacDonald and Little Room

Heart Of A Dog, Canal Street Communications

The Hunting Ground, Chain Camera Pictures

Listen To Me Marlon, Passion Pictures

The Look Of Silence, Final Cut for Real

Meru, Little Monster Films

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, The Filmmaker Fund, Motto Pictures, Lakehouse Films, Actual
Films, JustFilms, MacArthur Foundation and Bertha BRITDOC

We Come As Friends, Adelante Films

What Happened, Miss Simone?, RadicalMedia and Moxie Firecracker

Where To Invade Next, Dog Eat Dog Productions

Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, Pray for Ukraine Productions

Stay tuned to see which five are nominated by Oscar!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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