2020 Oscar Category Breakdown: Best Documentary Feature

Today is Best Documentary. Initially I tried to schedule this as late as humanly possible because this was one category I had zero idea about what was gonna happen. But, in the past ten days, this went from ‘I have no clue’ to ‘Oh, this is gonna win’. Which isn’t a gimme, but it sure does make it a lot easier to think about this one and not start to get panicked that any one of the five can win.

I am curious, though, if most people have any kind of rooting interest in this category or even knowledge of most of these nominees. I feel like unless you went out of your way to watch stuff… there wasn’t that one galvanizing documentary that it feels like there usually is (even if that doc usually gets left off this category). But that could just be a product of what this past year was.

Either way, here’s Doc Feature:

Best Documentary Feature

Collective

Crip Camp

The Mole Agent

My Octopus Teacher

Time

Surprisingly I did really well in guessing this category, which is about all I can say about it, since it’s not like there’s a straightforward route to how we get it and you can point to precursors. Most of the time, when guessing this category, it’s really just ‘I think they’re gonna like this one?’ This year, at least, we were helped by two of the nominees being up for Best International Feature, so you had to figure they had fans. Plus two more were generally considered really good docs and fit what would get on here. The only one that came on as a surprise (to me at least) was My Octopus Teacher, which has seemingly come in insanely strong despite being released with no fanfare and has picked up all sorts of critics awards along the way. So maybe it’s not the surprise I thought it was. The only thing that slightly surprised me with its omission was MLK/FBI, which, given how this category’s gone in recent years, seemed like a surefire choice. But guess not.

Anyway, that’s your category, and without real concrete precursors we’re pretty much left to guess what’s gonna happen. And, like I said, without that one doc you can be pretty sure about (like American Factory was last year), even if it’s not a sure thing like Searching for Sugar Man or O.J. Made in America, this category scared the hell out of me a week ago. But, it seems that one doc you can be sure about was in front of us all along and I just didn’t see it until now.

5. The Mole Agent — It’s a delightful documentary and it’s been one of the darlings of the year. But making the category and winning the category are two different things. I’m not sure this has that ‘it’ factor to win this and, no matter how I slice this one, it comes up fifth every time. Maybe you could argue for it fourth, but I don’t see this being in that upper echelon to compete for a win. Sure, it made two shortlists, but it only made one category. And it being foreign… I just don’t see it happening.

4. Time — This was critically acclaimed throughout the entire season and was on just about every list I looked at for precursor Documentary nominations. However… didn’t win any of them. Which, again, comes back to that point of ‘getting nominated is not the same as winning’. I don’t see that degree of public sentiment out there for either the doc itself or its message to make me think this is gonna win. I think it’s got some fans who’ll vote for it, but I don’t feel like it’s gonna compete based on what I’ve seen and based on what my experience has taught me to look for here. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. But that’s what I’m seeing based on what I see/know.

3. Collective — This made both the International Feature list and this list, so how could you not think there are fans of this out there who’ll vote for it? Plus, Another Round is clearly the favorite in International Feature and most people know it, which means that a lot of the votes this could get are gonna be funneled right here. Do I think that gets it over the hump? I don’t know, maybe. But one thing I do know — when you look at the docs that won this category over the past 15 years — and you know what? Let’s list all those now:

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
2019: American Factory

— When you look at what usually wins that category, you see one of three categories (some of which overlap):

A) Extremely populist (or just simply great) doc that everyone enjoys that had huge word of mouth before the ceremony and was basically a sure thing:

  • March of the Penguins
  • Man on Wire
  • The Cove
  • Undefeated
  • Searching for Sugar Man
  • 20 Feet from Stardom
  • Amy
  • O.J. Made in America

B) Doc that contains a major social issue at the forefront of Hollywood and society at the time:

  • An Inconvenient Truth (climate crisis)
  • Taxi to the Dark Side (U.S. use of torture, and by extension, the manufactured war in Iraq)
  • Inside Job (the systemic corruption that led to the housing crisis)
  • American Factory (the loss of American jobs to foreign workers/the increasing influence of China on the world)

C) The doc that became the favorite/sure thing once the populist doc that year got left off the final list:

  • Citizenfour (became the presumptive winner the minute Life Itself wasn’t nominated)
  • Icarus (became the presumptive winner the minute Jane wasn’t nominated)
  • Free Solo (became the choice as soon as Won’t You Be My Neighbor? wasn’t nominated)

To me, that list is super helpful, because it basically boils this category down to two choices and tells me why Collective, at best, is a dark horse. First, it’s foreign. And foreign docs don’t tend to win here. Look at the previous 15 winners… they’re all at least partially in English. That’s big. And also, there’s no real issue here. It’s just a really good doc about journalists uncovering corruption. It’s not like they’re looking at stuff in the U.S. regarding government corruption or anything like that. So I can’t see this being the choice on that level (even though admittedly it’s probably the best documentary on this list). I have to consider this a third choice just looking at what usually wins here.

2. Crip Camp — This is that populist doc that makes people happy and also has a bit of an issue there… which is the mistreatment of disabled people and treating them as though they can’t function in society. It’s hugely entertaining and probably would’ve been my default guess had I not seen what’s happened over the past two weeks. I still think it’s got a shot at it, but I’m not sure it can be considered the favorite, given how things have gone.

1. My Octopus Teacher — It just won BAFTA and it also won the PGA for Best Documentary. Plus it’s hugely populist, a la March of the Penguins and is just unabashedly emotionally manipulative, which… look at March of the Penguins… they love that shit. So I have to imagine the emotion of that will win out in the end. I think you have to consider this your favorite, even though it’s not nearly a sure thing by any stretch.

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