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
|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|
|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|
|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|
|1971||The Hellstorm Chronicle|
|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?|
|1980||From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China|
|1982||Just Another Missing Kid|
|1983||He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing|
|1984||The Times of Harvey Milk|
|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|
|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|
|2012||Searching for Sugar Man|
|2013||20 Feet from Stardom|
|2016||O.J. Made in America|
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
The Edge of Democracy
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.
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