Oscars 2020: Best Documentary Feature Shortlist

And we end with the Documentary Feature shortlist, because that was the one I decided was the one I was gonna focus on for this article. Because, back around Thanksgiving, I decided to start compiling everything I thought could potentially get nominated in the category so that when they eventually did release this shortlist, I’d already have a bunch covered and not have to worry about then finding them. It worked out, since I already had ten of the fifteen docs on hand and ready to go and then immediately found two more that day. And, even better, I knew the final three were ones I could see fairly easily.

So, long story short, I’ve watched all 15 of these in the past two weeks and am gonna give a full breakdown in this article, which will make my life easier in future articles and discussions about this category.

Here’s your Documentary Feature shortlist:

All In: The Fight for Democracy
Boys State
Collective
Crip Camp
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Gunda
MLK/FBI
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
Notturno
The Painter and the Thief
76 Days
Time
The Truffle Hunters
Welcome to Chechnya

Now, not having watched almost any docs this year before now and only knowing what ones felt like they were getting pushed for awards and such, the ones that feel like notable exclusions from this list are: Billie, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, City Hall, The Dissident, Giving Voice, The Human Factor and John Lewis: Good Trouble. Those I just felt they had pushed fairly hard or were ones I saw lots of praise for throughout the past month or two. Blood Nose, Empty Pockets in particular I heard a lot of people liked a lot. So it’s interesting that’s not there. But otherwise, this feels pretty standard. There isn’t any ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’, ‘Life Itself’ kind of snub on here, I don’t think.

I did cover all 238 eligible docs in another article, so I was at least conversant in the majority of these favorites. And, gotta say… not a lot of surprises on here. Maybe the Octopus doc is a bit out of nowhere for me, but other than that, most of these feel like ones I’d have figured would be in contention for this list.

To put a finer point on that, what I did in that article was look at what all 238 docs were about and pulled the ones that truly felt like they stood any sort of a chance at being shortlisted. That list was 35 films. I did it on instinct, hoping to get to 35, and managed to get to exactly 35, which is how I knew I was on track with the category. And then, from the 35, I tried to guess the shortlist of 15 exactly. Of the 15 I guessed, I got 9 right. Which is exactly what I did in guessing the International Feature shortlist. So I’ll call that a huge win. And then, also like I did in International Feature, when you look at the expanded list of contenders I picked, I got 13/15 right. And honestly — I picked 35 films from 238 and got 13/15 of them right. There’s really no negative way to slice that. There’s always gonna be one or two that get on out of nowhere that I couldn’t see coming. I will take 13/15 every single time.

The two that I missed were, as I mentioned earlier, the Octopus doc, which I only had heard about like a month ago randomly from a friend, and 76 Days, just because I figured anything COVID-related would be to much for them to go to at this point, given ongoing it all still is. But I kinda get it being there, since it focuses on those first days in Wuhan and has a very specific lens. Not sure it gets nominated for the same reasons I didn’t think it would be shortlisted, but I get why it’s here. Either way, 13/15… I feel wonderful about that.

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Now I’m just gonna go over what all 15 are about and where you can see them, should you want to:

All In: The Fight for Democracy — The documentary takes a look at the history, and current activism against voter suppression; barriers to voting that most people don’t even know is a threat to their basic rights as citizens of the United States. (This is on Amazon.)

Boys State — A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up. (This is on Apple TV+.)

Collective — Director Alexander Nanau follows a crack team of investigators at the Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor as they try to uncover a vast health-care fraud that enriched moguls and politicians and led to the deaths of innocent citizens. (This is available on PVOD.)

Crip Camp — Down the road from Woodstock, a revolution blossomed at a ramshackle summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, transforming their lives and igniting a landmark movement. (This is on Netflix.)

Dick Johnson Is Dead — A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life. (This is on Netflix.)

Gunda — Documentary looks at the daily life of a pig and its farm animal companions: two cows and a one-legged chicken.

MLK/FBI — Based on newly declassified files, Sam Pollard’s resonant film explores the US government’s surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. (This is available on PVOD.)

The Mole Agent — A private investigator in Chile hires someone to work as a mole at a retirement home where a client of his suspects the caretakers of elder abuse. (This is on Hulu.)

My Octopus Teacher — A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world. (This is on Netflix.)

Notturno — Gianfranco Rosi’s new documentary is an immersive portrait of those trying to survive in the war-torn Middle East. (This is available on PVOD.)

The Painter and the Thief — An artist befriends the thief who stole her paintings. She becomes his closest ally when he is severely hurt in a car crash and needs full time care, even if her paintings are not found. But then the tables turn. (This is on Hulu.)

76 Days — Raw and intimate, this documentary captures the struggles of patients and frontline medical professionals battling the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan. (This is available on PVOD.)

Time — Fox Rich fights for the release of her husband, Rob, who is serving a 60-year sentence in prison. (This is on Amazon.)

The Truffle Hunters — Deep in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, a handful of men, seventy or eighty years young, hunt for the rare and expensive white Alba truffle-which to date has resisted all of modern science’s efforts at cultivation.

Welcome to Chechnya — A group of activists risk their lives fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in Chechnya. (This is on HBO Max.)

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I’ve seen all 15, by the way. Since this article is more about the list itself and what I think is gonna get nominated, here’s just a quick list of how much I enjoyed each of them relative to the others (I’ll go over the list much more completely when we get to my personal ballot the day before nominations are announced):

  1. Crip Camp
  2. The Mole Agent
  3. 76 Days
  4. Gunda
  5. Collective
  6. MLK/FBI
  7. Time
  8. The Painter and the Thief
  9. Welcome to Chechnya
  10. Notturno
  11. Dick Johnson Is Dead
  12. The Truffle Hunters
  13. My Octopus Teacher
  14. All In: The Fight for Democracy
  15. Boys State

That’s just to give you an idea of where I’m coming from there. That has little to nothing to do with how I’m thinking the category is gonna shape up.

– – – – –

Now I have to figure out how I think the category is gonna shape up.

At this point, not a whole lot actively surprises me when it comes to this category, so I expect this, above most others (it’s this, Doc Short and Live Action Short that are the major three) to routinely throw on something that I reasoned had no shot of getting on. It’s almost inevitable. At this point, the surprise isn’t that happening but rather if I go 5/5. There’s also precursor categories here, but routinely they seem to ignore a lot of that and go with whatever they want. I don’t really listen to this since there are outside films that get on there that don’t make it on here, plus we’ve seen this branch routinely leave off the consensus best doc of the year. So I just reason through it as best I can and it serves me about as well as can be expected.

I’m not gonna go so deep into my analysis here, but with 15 shortlisted docs and only 5 getting on… you kind of have to draw some lines and just be willing to assume certain ones won’t get on. For me, I have four that right now I feel like I’m just not gonna guess. And it might even be five. I’m not entirely certain yet.

The doc that feels like the gimme this year is MLK/FBI. I feel like the title alone is enough to nominate it (plus it is a really well-made documentary. It’s not just one of those ‘vote for it because of what it’s talking about’ docs). I just can’t imagine leaving that off my list of guesses, even though I could easily see them leaving it off the category. I think that’s just one I’m gonna have to guess and go with. Also, Crip Camp and Time seem to be the docs most included on all those lists, so I almost have to include those as well. Then it gets interesting. Because there are three docs — Notturno, Collective and Mole Agent — that also were submitted in International Feature. Two of them (Collective and Mole Agent) are shortlisted there as well. THEN there’s Notturno, which is by the guy who did Fire at Sea, which was nominated in this category in 2016. So there’s a Honeyland situation, where something gets nominated on both like that one did last year, and there’s the Fire at Sea situation where the same filmmaker gets nominated again for making a film of a similar style to the other one he made.

Then there’s Welcome to Chechnya, which is about a timely issue and could potentially also be nominated in Visual Effects. Then there’s 76 Days, which is the timeliest doc on the list, detailing what it was like in Wuhan during the initial days of the outbreak. Then there’s Gunda, which is artistic and has a message at the end of it and could be one of those sneaky crowdpleasers (of a sort). Then there’s Truffle Hunters, which Sony Classics is behind and feels like one of those top-down kinda contenders. Then there’s Painter and the Thief, which is another one that feels like it could be a narrative feature (and almost feels like one as you watch it. Though Maiden was like that and they left that off). There’s options here.

Right now, based on nothing, this is my gut for how it could shape up. I feel like this category puts you in a good place for what’s most likely to happen, and I’ll wait and see what the rest of the precursors (consider very large quotes around that for this category) do before I finalize my thoughts. But I feel like I’m likely to end up with four of these five on my final category unless I convince myself of something else, and then that fifth spot (which right now is actually Notturno, of all things) could swap out for something else.

Collective

Crip Camp

MLK/FBI

Notturno

Time

Alternate: The Mole Agent

Dark Horse: Welcome to Chechnya

Surprise: 76 Days; Gunda; The Truffle Hunters

Shocker: The Painter and the Thief; Dick Johnson Is Dead

Don’t guess: All In: The Fight for Democracy; Boys State; My Octopus Teacher

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