Oscars 2017 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Feature

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 is Best Documentary Feature. I waited until near the end to deal with this one because, like most people, I’ve got no fucking clue what will happen. Your almost de facto winner wasn’t nominated and the entire category just feels “meh” now.

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
2016 O.J. Made in America

No real precursors. Nothing we pay attention to, anyway. Though, looking at the past ten years… pretty much the film that felt like the favorite won almost all of those. Last year was a towering favorite. Amy was almost guaranteed its year. Citizenfour became a de facto favorite after Life Itself wasn’t nominated. 20 Feet from Stardom was against The Act of Killing, and, while it was a tossup, that felt like it was gonna be the choice. Sugar Man was a lock. Undefeated felt like the favorite. Inside Job was slightly before my time, but I think I did look at that one as the favorite. The Cove was for sure a lock, as was Man on Wire. Taxi to the Dark Side is before my time, so I can’t speak to that. But the other 9, I think we got the doc that felt like it would most likely win. Which tells me that we should just go with our gut and instinct on this.

Best Documentary

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Faces Places


Last Men in Aleppo

Strong Island

Very strange turnout. Generally the one category that turns out the most haywire each year is the one that’s most likely to be broken in terms of nominations process. And what categories does that routinely end up being? Song, Documentary Feature and Foreign Language Film. They pretty much got Song on track lately, and that feels for the most part okay. Foreign Language Film is still nebulous and has a lot of weird omissions, but it doesn’t feel utterly broken yet. Animated Feature might have just been damaged by the voting changes. I think we might need a year on that one to see for sure. But this one remains the most broken category. It feels utterly arbitrary and shit gets on that just makes you go, “What?”

So for instance — the shortlist was this:

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

Okay, cool. I know that most people, unless they’re deep into documentaries, may have seen like, three of these. I saw 14 of them, and really the only one I wanted to see most is the one I still haven’t been able to see. Go figure. That one is Ex Libris, a four hour documentary about the New York Public Library. Seemed unlikely they’d nominate it.

Then there’s Long Strange Trip, a four hour documentary about the Grateful Dead. Seemed unlikely they’d nominate that too. So sure. Chasing Coral is about how the coral reefs are dying and we’re responsible. Not really as powerful as dolphin killing and seemed unlikely they’d go there. Especially with An Inconvenient Sequel on there, a sequel to a doc that won this category. That being left off… not overly surprising, since they seem to be issue driven more than anything else. That and… it’s basically just another Al Gore TED Talk. I think they won’t be fooled again on that one. The last time I think him winning this was more about anger at him losing the election and six years of Bush in office.

Anyway — Human Flow… not their speed. City of Ghosts… thought that would be something they’d go for, especially with Cartel Land having been nominated in 2015. No idea what happened. LA 92 is a nice documentary about the LA riots, but I guess since it didn’t draw direct parallels to the current day, they didn’t care. One of Us is a great doc about hassidic Jews. Seemed unlikely as a nominee, but it was one of the better choices. And Unrest is about one woman’s condition that people have. Seemed unlikely that would resonate with them.

But then Jane… a gorgeous documentary about Jane Goodall… they left it off. Everyone felt that was the best documentary on the shortlist and it won a bunch of awards. And yet… somehow not on. And instead we get The White Helmets: Extended Edition, The Big Short: Too Real Edition, Agnes Varda taking pictures, Russians doping, and a police killing doc. Now… not bad choices… but they just feel uninspired. And what are we left with? How do we think voters are gonna deal with this?


5. Last Men in Aleppo — The White Helmets just won. And the documentary isn’t even that interesting after that. I don’t get how this is here, but now that it is… I can’t see them voting for it. They move off issues so fast. And Syria seems like last year’s issue. There are much bigger issues du jour than this. No way do I consider this anything other than fifth.

4. Abacus: Too Small to Jail — The housing crisis. The glow of The Big Short is two years old now. Maybe if this were in 2015, it might have carried a little more weight. But not now. It’s gonna feel too ‘been there, done that’ for them. Plus, when you look at it… they have to go out of their way to see this. The average voter will have maybe seen one or two docs in the category. This won’t be one of them. So that limits how many votes it’ll get. Very unlikely this wins.

3. Strong Island — It’s a Netflix doc, which helps. And it’s about a black man killed and whether or not justice was served. It’s told by his brother (who is the first transgender person nominated at the Oscars, which is pretty awesome, al l things considered), and just not the kind of documentary that is gonna grab most voters. The issue, sure. But the doc itself? Hard for me to think it’ll get stray votes over the other two. But it’s Netflix, so it’ll have had likely more eyes on it than otherwise. So I’ll say it’s a third choice. Not that I think this category goes more than two deep.

2. Faces Places — The recent dichotomy of the Documentary category is whether or not they’re gonna go with the ‘issue’ doc or the ‘fun’ doc. That is, the one about something everyone can get mad about, or the one that is more a portrait of a person or tells some cool story of a niche aspect of life. Amy Winehouse, a high school football team, backup singers, a dude who walks on wires. This fits that category this year. Agnes Varda, a living legend who is getting an honorary award this year and the oldest competitive nominee ever, goes around taking photos of people along with a French artist. It’s cute. Not sure it has the most eyes in the category, but it’ll get people voting for it because they’ve heard of it and love Agnes Varda. I think it’s a legitimate contender, and if the next nominee doesn’t win, this should. Not gonna go down as one of the great documentaries of all time (not that that should matter, since Hoop Dreams wasn’t nominated in this category), but it feels like they could make it the winner.

1. Icarus — This feels like your winner, doesn’t it? It felt like that to me the minute it got nominated. I look at it this way… Last Men in Aleppo feels like it shouldn’t have been nominated. Abacus feels like it should have been a normal fifth nominee, Strong Island feels like a normal fourth or fifth nominee. This felt like it would have been a third choice most years. But the minute I saw this list, this got pegged as the frontrunner. Just like Citizenfour did the year Life Itself wasn’t nominated. It’s a really engaging documentary, on Netflix, which means people saw it… and it’s about Russian interference in the Olympics. So 1) the Olympics just happened, and 2) Russian interference. In the news much? This feels like it’s your favorite all around. Will it win? Not necessarily. But it makes the most sense. So I’m sticking with that for now, since I’ve got nothing else to go by.

– – – – – – – – – –


One response

  1. It sucks that Steve James (Hoop Dreams and Life Itself, two should-have-been Doc Feature Oscar nominees) finally gets nominated here and has to settle for losing due to being a few years past issue relevance.

    February 26, 2018 at 1:39 pm

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