Oscars 2017 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Short-Subject

Every year, as we lead up to the Oscars, I break down each of the 24 categories. I do this to familiarize everyone with the category; what the trends are, how the guilds and stuff help (or don’t), etc. I also do it as a precursor to my giant Oscar ballot. I get most of the heavy lifting out of the way here, so that way when I get to the article, I’m just kind of riffing on how I think it’ll turn out and talking myself into all the bad decisions. It’s like college. And this is the pregame.

How these articles work is — I give you all the previous winners and nominees of each of the categories, then tell you how accurate each of the respective guilds and precursors are in what they vote for versus what wins the Oscar, tell you how each of them voted this year, then give you this year’s category, along with a quick rundown of how we ended up with that category (what was a surprise, etc). After that, I rank each of this year’s nominees in terms of how I see them right now in terms of their likelihood to win. Which is nothing more than my perception (notice that underline, even though you won’t) of how the category seems at the moment based on everything I know and have seen. Which will give you a general sense of the favorites.

Today, we’re talking Best Documentary Short. The category you don’t care about but just wanna know who’s gonna win so you can win your pool.

Year Best Documentary (Short Subject) Winners
1941 Churchill’s Island
1942 The Battle of Midway

Kokoda Front Line!

Moscow Strikes Back

Prelude to War

1943 December 7th
1944 With the Marines at Tarawa
1945 Hitler Lives
1946 Seeds of Destiny
1947 First Steps
1948 Toward Independence
1949 (tie) A Chance to Live

So Much for So Little

1950 Why Korea?
1951 Benjy
1952 Neighbours
1953 The Alaskan Eskimo
1954 Thursday’s Children
1955 Men against the Arctic
1956 The True Story of the Civil War
1957 No Award Given.
1958 Ama Girls
1959 Glass
1960 Giuseppina
1961 Project Hope
1962 Dylan Thomas
1963 Chagall
1964 Nine from Little Rock
1965 To Be Alive!
1966 A Year Toward Tomorrow
1967 The Redwoods
1968 Why Man Creates
1969 Czechoslovakia 1968
1970 Interviews with My Lai Veterans
1971 Sentinals of Silence
1972 This Tiny World
1973 Princeton: A Search for Answers
1974 Don’t
1975 The End of the Game
1976 Number Our days
1977 Gravity Is My Enemy
1978 The Flight of the Gossamer Condor
1979 Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist
1980 Karl Hess: Toward Liberty
1981 Close Harmony
1982 If You Love This Planet
1983 Flamenco at 5:15
1984 The Stone Carvers
1985 Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements
1986 Women – for America, for the World
1987 Young at Heart
1988 You Don’t Have to Die
1989 The Johnstown Flood
1990 Days of Waiting
1991 Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment
1992 Educating Peter
1993 Defending Our Lives
1994 A Time for Justice
1995 One Survivor Remembers
1996 Breathing Lesosns: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien
1997 A Story of Healing
1998 The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years
1999 King Gimp
2000 Big Mama
2001 Thoth
2002 Twin Towers
2003 Chernobyl Heart
2004 Mighty Times: The Children’s March
2005 A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
2006 The Blood of Yingzhou District
2007 Freeheld
2008 Smile Pinki
2009 Music by Prudence
2010 Strangers No More
2011 Saving Face
2012 Inocente
2013 The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life
2014 Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
2015 A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
2016 The White Helmets

No precursors, just a shortlist of ten. Of the ten, three were New York Times docs, and none of them made it on. Netflix got one on. Based on what I saw from the trailers and such, only one film (Kayayo, the Living Shopping Baskets) seemed right up their alley and was a surprise omission. Otherwise, they were all pretty solid docs.

One thing I do each year is tell you what the last ten years of winners were, so you can get an idea of what generally wins in this category, issues-wise:

  • 2016 — The White Helmets, aka men who save people from the rubble of buildings in Syria
  • 2015 — Honor killing in the Middle East.
  • 2014 — Hotline for veterans having PTSD problems.
  • 2013 — Holocaust survivor plays music every day and used music to overcome the horrors she’s encountered in her life
  • 2012 — Homeless girl paints in order to overcome her situation and surroundings.
  • 2011 — Doctor who performs surgeries on Iranian women who have had acid thrown in their faces
  • 2010 — School in Israel has kids from 30 different countries and all different backgrounds coming together to learn
  • 2009 — A girl with a deformity overcomes the prejudice against people with her condition (in her country, people with her deformity are usually left for dead or cast aside) to make music
  • 2008 — A little girl in India is given surgery to fix a cleft palate.
  • 2007 — A dying police officer wants her death benefits to go to her partner, but the state won’t allow it because they don’t consider same-sex relationships to be legitimate

This year, the subjects are:

  • A 95 + 96 year old interracial couple get married. Pretty soon, there’s a custody battle within their family that threatens to separate them.
  • A woman with mental illness is able to describe her mental state in art pieces.
  • About some women who try to help people against the ever-growing opioid crisis.
  • An upscale French restaurant hires ex-cons to be part of their kitchen and wait staff
  • A black woman is the victim of a brutal traffic stop


Best Documentary Short-Subject


Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405


Knife Skills

Traffic Stop


5. Knife Skills — This is my favorite of the documentaries, just because I really like the idea of a bunch of ex-cons being taught French cuisine and actually learning how to work in a restaurant. I don’t really know anymore just what people respond to in this category, but my gut says, this one isn’t it. So I’ll call it a fifth choice, even though, as per usual, this category feels like anything could win.

4. Heroin(e) — It’s Netflix, and they won last year, and some people will think it wins based on that and based on Netflix’s power as a campaigner. And the three past categories have either gone to HBO or Netflix. Plus, the opioid crisis is a big deal issue. However, I don’t see what’s so affecting about this one. Maybe it’s a higher choice and I’m wrong. It could be like the suicide prevention hotline for veterans one. I didn’t particularly love that one, but it won. So I don’t know. This category is usually a crap shoot. Right now, I’m keeping all my options open, but I feel like the other three fit the category better, and the only thing going for this is “Netflix.”

3. Traffic Stop — Its HBO, which is very much up their alley, and is definitely a subject matter that’s in the news today… excessive police force. The dash cam footage is the most powerful stuff in this entire category. The rest of the documentary is them showing you who she is as a person. I think this has a legitimate shot and could come down with a win, even if I wouldn’t consider it a favorite.

2. Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 — They like artists overcoming obstacles. This one’s got all the mental illness stuff built in, and then shows you all these cool pieces she created. Plus, it takes place in LA. They like that too. This has them written all over it. Maybe it’s too cynical to assume this will win, but I’d definitely place it in the top three.

1. Edith+Eddie — This feels exactly like something they go for. 95 year old and 96 year old get married. Interracial couple. And they’re kept apart because of some exterior circumstances. Plus, it ends on a very emotional note. All around, the kind of thing they respond to. So I’ll make it the favorite, even though we should all know — in this and in Live-Action Short… there are no favorites.

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