Oscars 2016 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 typically goes, voting-wise, historically and also as a precursor to my picks article, allowing me to get most of the heavy lifting out of the way beforehand.

What I do is 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 voted, 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. So you know what the general favorites are.

Today is Best Documentary.

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
2015 Amy

No precursors that matter, and in a year like this, we don’t need to say a whole lot. We know what’s gonna win.

Best Documentary


Fire at Sea

I Am Not Your Negro

Life, Animated

O.J. Made in America

13th is an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.

Fire at Sea — Capturing life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a frontline in the European migrant crisis.

I Am Not Your Negro — Writer James Baldwin tells the story of race in modern America with his unfinished novel, Remember This House.

Life, Animated is a coming of age story about a boy and his family who overcame great challenges by turning Disney animated movies into a language to express love, loss, kinship and brotherhood.

O.J. Made in America — It is the defining cultural tale of modern America – a saga of race, celebrity, media, violence, and the criminal justice system. And two decades after its unforgettable climax, it continues to fascinate, polarize, and develop new chapters.

I’ve seen all five of these, so I actually feel qualified to wager an opinion this early in the process. Not that I really need to be overly qualified, since we all know how this one is gonna turn out.


5. Life, Animated — It’s too slight. It’s the only “light” entry in the bunch, but there’s no substance to it. The kid likes Disney and it helps him communicate. Awesome. I feel better. but no one’s gonna vote for this. It easily falls to the back of the pack, which is saying something, since in a year like this with all “serious” contenders, usually something like this manages to make third simply by being a breath of fresh air. Can’t see this having any shot at all.

4. Fire at Sea — I’m glad this was nominated. This was a terrific documentary about the refugee crisis that could have been a fictional narrative, it’s so well made. I don’t think this has any shot. People haven’t seen it, it’s Italian, not in English, and doesn’t give viewers that feeling of “I’m doing something by watching this,” or at the very least, “I feel much more informed now.” They want to either feel good or feel angry. This gives them neither, and I can’t see this toppling the achievement that is O.J. Made in America.

3. I Am Not Your Negro — The title alone is gonna turn white folks off. You know it will. It’s a very good documentary, but it’s not gonna appeal to the masses the way 13th would and the way O.J. does. This also hasn’t come out until just now, which is late to mount a campaign. I don’t think that can happen, with such a huge favorite and another documentary with similar themes by a major studio and filmmaker.

2. 13th — Ava DuVernay, Netflix, and a major, major social issue. This would be the favorite most years. If O.J. weren’t here, this probably would win. It could still win. If people want to vote socially, if Netflix throws enough money at it (don’t think votes aren’t bought, one way or another), if people reject O.J. as not being a legitimate feature doc, this could win. I don’t think you can rightly consider it the favorite to win, but if O.J. doesn’t win on Oscar night, this will be the film that beats it.

1. O.J. Made in America — The uphill battle for this was getting nominated. People were worried they wouldn’t consider an 8-hour documentary made for ESPN a feature. But they did, so now there’s nothing stopping it from winning. Except if people rise up and vote en masse for 13th, which is entirely possible. I call this a 75/25 in favor of this one taking it. If people haven’t already seen this, they’ve been told it’s great and that they should be a bunch of people. Voters aren’t stupid. They’re stubborn, and they’re particular, but they’re not stupid. They’ll take this, or they’ll take 13th. And you have to consider this the overwhelming favorite until that happens.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow is Best Foreign Language Film.


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