Oscars 2015 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Feature

Every year before the Oscars I break down each of the 24 categories. I do this to familiarize everyone with the category, how it works, what its history is, how it usually turns out, and also as a precursor to my picks article, allowing me to get most of the heavy lifting out of the way beforehand.

How these work is — I go over each category’s history, give you all the previous winners and nominees, then list the current year’s nominees. And then I’ll go over how each of the guilds (if there is a corresponding guild) have went, and how that corresponds to the Oscars (some guilds mean a lot to how a category will play out. Others mean nothing). It’s basically everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision when you make your picks on Oscar night. And then I also rank the nominees at the end in terms of where I see them in terms of their likelihood to win.

Today is Best Documentary. Which has gotten way easier the past couple of years. Now all we can do is overthink it.

Year Best Documentary Winners
1942 The Battle of Midway

Kokoda Front Line!

Moscow Strikes Back

Prelude to War

1943 Desert Victory
1944 The Fighting Lady
1945 The True Glory
1946 No Award Given.
1947 Design for Death
1948 The Secret Land
1949 Daybreak in Udi
1950 The Titan: Story of Michelangelo
1951 Kon-Tiki
1952 The Sea Around Us
1953 The Living Desert
1954 The Vanishing Prairie
1955 Helen Keller in Her Story (aka The Unconquered)
1956 The Silent World
1957 Albert Schweitzer
1958 White Wilderness
1959 Serengeti Shall Not Die
1960 The Horse with the Flying Tail
1961 Sky Above and Mud Beneath
1962 Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler
1963 Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World
1964 World Without Sun
1965 The Eleanor Roosevelt Story
1966 The War Game
1967 The Anderson Platoon
1968 Journey Into Self
1969 Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life
1970 Woodstock
1971 The Hellstorm Chronicle
1972 Marjoe
1973 The Great American Cowboy
1974 Hearts and Minds
1975 The Man Who Skied Down Everest
1976 Harlan County, USA
1977 Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?
1978 Scared Straight!
1979 Best Boy
1980 From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China
1981 Genocide
1982 Just Another Missing Kid
1983 He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing
1984 The Times of Harvey Milk
1985 Broken Rainbow
1986 (tie) Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got

Down and Out in America

1987 The Ten-Year Lunch
1988 Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie
1989 Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
1990 American Dream
1991 In the Shadow of the Stars
1992 The Panama Deception
1993 I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School
1994 Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
1995 Anne Frank Remembered
1996 When We Were Kings
1997 The Long Way Home
1998 The Last Days
1999 One Day in September
2000 Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport
2001 Murder on a Sunday Morning
2002 Bowling for Columbine
2003 The Fog of War
2004 Born into Brothels
2005 March of the Penguins
2006 An Inconvenient Truth
2007 Taxi to the Dark Side
2008 Man on Wire
2009 The Cove
2010 Inside Job
2011 Undefeated
2012 Searching for Sugar Man
2013 20 Feet from Stardom
2014 CitizenFour

There are pretty much no more rules for this category. Now that they changed the voting procedures, pretty much the most populist entry wins. Look at the last four. If that Roger Ebert documentary made the nominees list, that would have far and away won the category.

This year seems like it’s going to be cut and dry.

Best Documentary


Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

The most interesting thing about the nominations process here is that Netflix managed to get two nominees on. Which makes me wonder how the voting process went on that.

Otherwise, no Michael Moore here is interesting.

There’s a far and away winner in this category, so I’m not gonna think too hard on it.


5. What Happened, Miss Simone? — There are two music entries on the list. Only one of them can win. The other one has no shot.

4. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom — It’s political. These usually get nominated but don’t win. Remember The Square?

3. Cartel Land — I actually think if there’s any upset choice, this is it. But I’m leaving it third for now because at the moment, it hasn’t won a single meaningful precursor. Not that precursor really matters in this category, but if we’re going to look at anything, I want to see one that has at least gotten some support at large. Of the five on this list, I’d say this is not one of the top two people would put on to watch.

2. The Look of Silence — I think Cartel Land has more of a chance to upset than this, purely because the first one didn’t win. When has a sequel documentary actually won, especially if the first one didn’t? But this has other wins across the board. So, empirical evidence points to this being second at the moment. That said, I think we all know to pick them would be to overthink it. Since the race seems pretty closed at this point.

1. Amy — It should win the BAFTA, it’s won a bunch of critics awards all over the place, it’ll probably win the DGA (though it doesn’t necessarily need to, since they’ve got a very shoddy track record at best with the Oscars), it won BFCA, NBR. It lost PGA to a non-nominee, so that’s out. Plus that’s more about being socially conscious, and this isn’t that. It’s the movie that the most regular voters will see and like, and it should walk away with this category very easily. Oh, and the dude who made this also made Senna, which I think is considered one of the bigger snubs in the category over the past five years. I wouldn’t bet against this. And if I am, I certainly wouldn’t consider anything other than this the favorite going into the ceremony.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow is Best Foreign Language Film. And I know we’re all so fucking stoked for that.


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