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Oscars 2017: Best Documentary Feature Shortlist

They also announced the Best Documentary shortlist this past week. Of something like 170 documentaries submitted for the category, they’ve narrowed it down to 15, of which 5 will be nominated. People have long said the documentary branch, in their decision-making, has been broken and needs fixing (for sure all the way back to Hoop Dreams, and I’m sure even further than that), and I’m sure this year is no different.

I am not a fan of documentaries, so I typically only come across a small handful throughout the year, most of which are either movies, music or sports-related, and I really only watch a bunch once they get shortlisted for the Oscars.

They announced this shortlist the other day, and I waited to write up this article because, as is my wont, I wanted to see as many of the films as I could. Of the 15 shortlisted docs, I had seen 4 of them already, which feels high for me (though I did get the fourth in like, a day or two before they announced the shortlist).

As of this posting, I’m up to 11. So that’s pretty good.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Chasing Coral
City of Ghosts
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Faces Places
Human Flow
Icarus
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Jane
LA 92
Last Men in Aleppo
Long Strange Trip
One of Us
Strong Island
Unrest

A quick rundown of what each is about:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail — A small financial institution called Abacus becomes the only company criminally indicted in the wake of the United States’ 2008 mortgage crisis.

Chasing Coral — Coral reefs around the world are vanishing at an unprecedented rate. A team of divers, photographers and scientists set out on a thrilling ocean adventure to discover why and to reveal the underwater mystery to the world.

City of Ghosts — A documentary that follows the efforts of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” a handful of anonymous activists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014. With deeply personal access, this is the story of a brave group of citizen journalists as they face the realities of life undercover, on the run, and in exile, risking their lives to stand up against one of the greatest evils in the world today.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library — A look within the walls of the New York Public Library.

Faces Places — Director Agnes Varda and photographer/muralist J.R. journey through rural France and form an unlikely friendship.

Human Flow — Human Flow is director and artist Ai Weiwei’s detailed and heartbreaking exploration into the global refugee crisis.

Icarus — When Bryan Fogel sets out to uncover the truth about doping in sports, a chance meeting with a Russian scientist transforms his story from a personal experiment into a geopolitical thriller involving dirty urine, unexplained death and Olympic Gold-exposing the biggest scandal in sports history.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power — A decade after An Inconvenient Truth brought climate change into the heart of popular culture comes the follow-up that shows just how close we are to a real energy revolution.

Jane — Using a trove of unseen footage, the film tells the story of Jane Goodall’s early explorations, focusing on her groundbreaking field work, her relationship with cameraman and husband Hugo van Lawick, and the chimpanzees that she studied.

LA 92 — Twenty-five years after the verdict in the Rodney King trial sparked several days of protests, violence and looting in Los Angeles, filmmakers examine that tumultuous period through rarely seen archival footage.

Last Men in Aleppo — After five years of war in Syria, Aleppo’s remaining residents prepare themselves for a siege. Khalid, Subhi and Mahmoud, founding members of The White Helmets, have remained in the city to help their fellow citizens-and experience daily life, death, struggle and triumph in a city under fire.

Long Strange Trip — A look at the 30-year career of The Grateful Dead.

One of Us — Penetrating the insular world of New York’s Hasidic community, focusing on three individuals driven to break away despite threats of retaliation.

Strong Island — Examining the violent death of the filmmaker’s brother and the judicial system that allowed his killer to go free, this documentary interrogates murderous fear and racialized perception, and re-imagines the wreckage in catastrophe’s wake, challenging us to change.

Unrest — When Harvard Ph.D. student Jennifer Brea is struck down by a fever that leaves her bedridden, she sets out on a virtual journey to document her story as she fights a disease that medicine forgot.

– – – – –

For logistics purposes (I think we all know how transparent I like to be on these things), I HAVE seen:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Chasing Coral
City of Ghosts
Icarus
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Jane
LA 92
Last Men in Aleppo
Long Strange Trip
One of Us
Strong Island

I have yet to be able to see:

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Faces Places
Human Flow
Unrest

Very excited to see Ex Libris. Though it’s FOUR HOURS LONG! As is the Grateful Dead documentary, but that one makes sense, given the band.

To get my personal opinions out of the way:

Abacus was fine. It’s basically the line from The Big Short where they say they blamed the housing crisis on “immigrants and poor people.” This is them going after a bank in Chinatown that caters to the local Chinese population. There’s some question as to whether or not the bank was doing something illegal versus operating on a more familial basis, but there’s definitely an element of scapegoatism there. Not something I see them particularly responding to in a post-Big Short world, where this topic has been covered, ad nauseam.

Chasing Coral is a semi-sequel to Chasing Ice, which documents how the coral in the oceans is going away because we’re terrible and killing the environment. There are nice underwater shots, but otherwise this is the same as all the other ‘we suck’ environmental documentaries that get shortlisted every year.

City of Ghosts is by the guy who did Cartel Land. I wasn’t a fan of that, and I’m not a fan of this. It’s about Syrian rebels trying to fight ISIS. I suspect, just like Cartel Land, this will be nominated.

Icarus I loved. I loved that it took that crazy turn midway through. I feel like Netflix gets things nominated and I feel like people liked this enough to vote for it.

An Inconvenient Sequel is fine. The original is what it is and this one is what it is. It’s just reminding us we’re still fucked. They might nominate it for political reasons, but I don’t know if it’s the winner.

Jane is really great. I loved the footage they dug up, and that Philip Glass score is just tremendous. That’s the star here.

LA 92 is like Jane in that it has great footage of the riots in 1992. I also like that it was looking back at those events, 25 years later, and not trying to tie them to the current day. Maybe that prevents it from being nominated or winning, but for me it made watching it way better.

Last Men in Aleppo is about the White Helmets. Which won for Documentary Short last year. Maybe they nominate it, but I feel like they’re very much about “we did that. What now?” so no matter what, it probably won’t win.

Long Strange Trip doesn’t seem like it’ll make the final five. I liked it, but I like music documentaries. It’s gonna be too long for a lot of people. That hurts its chances.

One of Us was absolutely incredible. Having grown up around that culture, I’ve always been fascinated by it. And the track this one took was just so captivating. The storyline of the abused wife fighting for custody of her kids, going up against an entire community who now believe her to be an outsider and is using all sorts of legal loopholes to try to thwart her is one of the most thrilling things I’ve seen this year, fact or fiction. LOVED this documentary.

Strong Island is pretty good. I really liked the angle it took, and the fact that the woman made it herself about her brother leant an emotional authenticity to it and kept me way more invested than if it were made by someone else.

– – – – – – – – – –

So based on this category (and extrapolating a bit, since I still have four to go), I would say the category I personally would vote for is:

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Faces Places
Icarus
Jane
One of Us

Maybe I don’t like Faces Places as much as I think I will, in which case I’d probably swap LA 92 on there. But I feel like these five are the ones where, in a situation where I’ve seen the entire category, I’d vote for them to be nominated.

– – – – –

Now that the subjective is out of the way, let’s look at this objectively. What will actually be nominated at the Oscars?

If we’re gonna simply run down the list and rate them all as either ‘low’, ‘medium’, or ‘high’ chances at a nomination:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail — low
Chasing Coral — low
City of Ghosts — high
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library — medium/low
Faces Places — high/medium
Human Flow — medium/high
Icarus — medium/high
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power — high
Jane — high
LA 92 — high
Last Men in Aleppo — medium/high
Long Strange Trip — low
One of Us — medium
Strong Island — medium/high
Unrest
— medium/low

That’s just based on my gut and literally nothing else. I don’t follow how precursors do and I have zero idea how certain other bodies factor into how things get nominated. Nor do I care, really. I’ll make my own mistakes. This is based purely on my knowledge, having done this for years, and my instinct, based on what they’re about and what I know they usually do.

I can’t see Long Strange Trip, Abacus, Chasing Coral, Ex Libris or Unrest being nominated. So that’s five right off the top.

Now, I think Jane gets on, and City of Ghosts certainly sounds like it’s their speed. Cartel Land was nominated, and I suspect this might be too. So leaving those as ‘given’ for the moment…

The White Helmets won last year. Are they gonna go back to that well with Last Men in Aleppo? I would think not, so my instinct is to say it won’t and just be wrong if it is.

LA 92 is about a major event and has huge implications for what’s going on today, so it’s a 50/50 call. They could leave it off because it’s not a political statement, or it gets on because they see the significance of nominating it. My instinct is to say yes right now.

One Of Us — I’d love to see it get on, but do they go there? No idea.

An Inconvenient Sequel — it doesn’t need to get on, but it’s a pretty open ‘fuck you’ to Trump, so I suspect they nominate it.

Icarus — would love to see it, and most people who saw it loved it. 50/50 all around for me.

Faces Places might be too arty for them. Doesn’t seem to fit at all, and might blur the line between fiction and documentary too much to appeal to the documentary purists.

Strong Island I just can’t call. My gut says no but keep it close in the running.

And Human Flow — based solely on a trailer it feels like the kind of nominee I wouldn’t guess but would probably be wrong about when the nominate it. I’m never good at these so why change things now? Also, it’s about the refugee crisis, so I don’t know how much they’re gonna go back to that, since they seem to turn over their issues each year. Once they feel they’ve addressed something, they tend to move on. It’s a harsh thing to say, but when you look at what they do, it’s not wrong.

So all that being said, right now, and now alone, this is what I would guess would be the list of nominees:

City of Ghosts
Icarus
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Jane

LA 92

If I somehow get 5/5 on this, I would be personally shocked.

Just glancing — Netflix always gets at least one nominee on. They have at least four here — Coral, Icarus, Strong Island, One of Us. Expect one of those to make it at minimum.

Then Inconvenient Sequel is political, it shows their support for Gore/Democrats, it’s a fuck you to the president, who Hollywood hates, and it’s the environmental choice. Makes sense all around, plus the previous film won the category. This shouldn’t win, but the nomination seems very likely.

City of Ghosts is by a previous nominee and is about ISIS. Feels like them even though I wouldn’t be upset to see it left off.

Jane feels like the lock of the category and might straight up win this. It’s gorgeous and has a lot of fans. If this doesn’t get nominated then I feel like I’ll tune out of the entire category, because as it is it’s a really boring year. This feels like it might be the ‘fun’ nominee of the bunch (which is saying something).

LA 92 has parallels to today and sort of gets into the police brutality thing a little bit. Feels like it would fit.

And Icarus — Russian interference in things. Also kinda fits.

I’m rationalizing my choices, but I feel like these are all films that I would expect to see on their list.

Right now, I’d say you have about 10 contenders that feel like they have a decent shot at making it on:

  • City of Ghosts
  • Faces Places
  • Human Flow
  • Icarus
  • An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
  • Jane
  • LA 92
  • Last Men in Aleppo
  • One of Us
  • Strong Island

Of those, some have positives and some have negatives. I, personally, don’t think Last Men in Aleppo makes it, and I don’t know if Faces Places makes it. Could they? Of course. I have no goddamn clue. I’m figuring this out as much as you guys are. The only difference is — I don’t know what I’m doing and am going purely on instinct. It’s more fun this way.

So over the next month I’ll try to see those remaining four and do very little work in the way of trying to figure out which way this category will end up going.

Also, if anyone wants to point me in the direction of Ex Libris, I’m totally down for that.

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One response

  1. I haven’t had the chance to watch many of the documentaries this year and, after an online music critic I follow tweeted that he had managed to watch all the Oscar nominees last year before the telecast, I intend to watch all the nominated films as well as the films of every final Oscar shortlist before the telecast too.

    I was pissed when David Lynch: The Art Life wasn’t in the general Oscar long list. That was my favorite documentary of 2017, full stop, but Janus Films chose stupidly not to submit it. I don’t even feel comfortable including it in my top 10 for 2017 anymore because it’s not contending for the Oscars.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a Filipino-American, but Abacus is actually my favorite of the shortlist. Sure, the topic has been discussed ad nauseam, but if the rather by-the-numbers Inside Job could beat Exit Through the Gift Shop, then Abacus deserves inclusion on the list. Plus, I just want Steve James to get a freaking nomination for once.

    I regret not watching Faces Places when it was screening here in Seattle.

    Jane was BEAUTIFUL, not just the footage, but yes, THAT SCORE! It sounded so Thin Blue Line to me and whaddya know, Philip Glass composed Jane’s score as well. If Abacus doesn’t get nominated and Jane does, then I’ll be rooting for Jane all the way.

    December 15, 2017 at 4:13 pm

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