Oscars 2019 Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Feature

Here’s how this works: every day leading up to the Oscars, I break down each of the 24 categories. The goal is to both familiarize everyone with the category itself (how it works, what its history is and how you go about figuring out what’s gonna win) while also making it easier to reference when I write my giant article with picks and everything. A lot of the leg work is already here. But really, the goal is to see if there’s anything to look for leading into Oscar night that could be a shortcut to me picking the category.

What we do is — I give you all the winners of the category throughout history, go over all the recent trends if there are any, discuss the precursors and whether or not they matter, and then we talk about this year’s category and how we got to it, and then just look at where we are and rank the nominees in terms of their likelihood of winning (at the current moment in time. Of course, things can and will change going into the ceremony). It’s all pretty simple. I’ve done this every year. Everyone should know the drill.

Today is Best Documentary Feature. The most broken branch in the Academy. Yet again, the best and most critically lauded documentary of the year has been left off the list, leaving yet another category that continues to be meaningless. Great job, guys.

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
2017 Icarus
2018 Free Solo

There are precursors, but typically they don’t matter, because the branch continues to leave off the best documentary of the year a lot of the time. That’s two years in a row (Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Apollo 11) the best documentary of the year got left off because of the branch is just stupid and their voting practices are deeply flawed. So we’re just gonna eyeball it as we usually do. And that almost always gives you a favorite and two top choices.

So let’s see what we’ve got this year.

Best Documentary Feature

American Factory

The Cave

The Edge of Democracy


For Sama

A very boring list, considering some of the stuff (Apollo 11, Maiden) on their shortlist. In the end, you’ve got three-to-four films the average public knows nothing about, and absolutely nothing to root for. This has truly become an irrelevant category. Great job, guys.

Anyway, just looking at this, I can already tell you how this is gonna go.


5. The Edge of Democracy — It’s a documentary about Brazilian politics. Sure, Netflix is behind it, but what makes you think anyone knows or cares? Look at all the previous winners? Does this fit? Not a chance does this go anywhere in the voting and is a clear fifth choice.

4. Honeyland — It’s nominated in two categories, which shows that it has some support. But it’s not broad enough for that to remotely consider it in an open vote. It’s not in English, and I went back 20 years and didn’t see a single winner that wasn’t largely in English, or at least narrated in English. That’s not a good sign. Can’t see this as being any more than a fourth choice at best.

3. The Cave — The director is in the news because the director was denied a visa to come support the film. And, if we remember The Salesman, that can be a rallying cry to get it votes. And in the end, maybe that could sway some people. However, this is a tall order for them — the film’s not widely available for people to watch and truly, in an open vote, the language barrier is a tough one to overcome. It’s entirely possible, but at the moment I’m seeing this as a third choice based on what other two nominees are here and what BAFTA does.

2. For Sama — BAFTA nominated this for Best British Film, Best Foreign Language film and Best Documentary. And Best Debut, but those first three are a big deal. BAFTA went crazy for this. Shouldn’t really affect things in an open vote here, but that does show a lot of support coming from that side of the pond. They did not nominate any of the other three below nominees in their category. So I want to see if this wins any or all of them to know where I should consider it here. That said, it’s also not in English, so I’m not sure I can consider it first choice even with all that support.

1. American Factory — It’s a documentary about an American factory being taken over by a Chinese company. It’s on Netflix, people know about it. And, the big factor… it was produced by the Obamas. Not directly, it’s their production company that made it. But still, people know it. Also, even though For Sama got all those nominations at BAFTA, this was right there with it. A quintessentially American story right there too. And if this wins BAFTA, it’s over. But even so, this just feels like it’s gonna win. I can’t see anything else being the front runner here. It’s like 2017, when Won’t You Be My Neighbor got left off and you just knew Icarus was gonna win, even despite the Aleppo documentary and Faces Places being on there. It just made sense. So until I see something else that can sway me (and there are two that maybe could), I’m thinking this wins.

– – – – – – – – – –


One response

  1. I REALLY freaking hope Honeyland or For Sama win this category and not American Factory.

    Fuck AMPAS’ Documentary branch. Why can’t their Feature category get treated like Animated Feature was treated in recent years? Let anyone opt in to stop the moronic snubbing of the presumed frontrunners!

    February 2, 2020 at 10:29 pm

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