Oscars: A Crowded Field of Doc and Foreign Contenders Has Begun to Emerge

THR's awards columnist recounts the most buzzed-about titles and passes along with industry chatter from the first six months of the year.
Left, courtesy of Showtime, right, courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'Risk' and 'The Square'

Earlier this week, I offered a look at the top Oscar prospects of 2017, so far, from the field of English-language narrative films. Now, as promised, I want to get into documentary features and foreign-language films.

The documentary feature race is shaping up to be deep, as usual. Top contenders out of Sundance include two films about Syria from previously Oscar-nominated filmmakers, Evgeny Afineevsky's Cries From Syria (HBO), a chronicle of the nation's civil war made from footage captured by activists and citizen journalists, and Matt Heineman's City of Ghosts (IFC/Amazon), about a group of citizen journalists in Raqqa, Syria; two spinoffs of environmental call-to-action films that previously captured the Academy's attention, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Paramount), a follow-up to 2007 winner An Inconvenient Truth, and Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Coral (Netflix), following his 2013 nominee Chasing Ice; and three films pertaining to murders, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis' Whose Streets? (Magnolia), about Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Yance Ford's Strong Island (Netflix), about the filmmaker's brother William Ford Jr., and Kitty Green's Casting JonBenet (Netflix), about child model JonBenet Ramsey.

Park City also saw the debuts of Bryan Fogel's Russian-sports doping exposé, Icarus (Netflix); Amir Bar-Lev's Martin Scorsese-executive-produced history of the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip (Amazon); Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz's Trophy (The Orchard), about big-game hunting; Amanda Lipitz's Step (Fox Searchlight), an inspirational Hoop Dreams-like study of a Baltimore girls' high school dance team; Joe Piscatella's profile of a young Hong Kong activist, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (Netflix); Brian Knappenberger's chronicle of the court case Bollea (Hulk Hogan) v. Gawker (the media outlet that published a sex tape in which Hogan appeared), Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (Netflix); and two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple's This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous (YouTube Red), about a trans personality on YouTube. The Grand Jury Prize winner was Dina (The Orchard), Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles' look at the unusual relationship between a Walmart greeter and customer and the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize went to Last Men in Aleppo (Grasshopper), a portrait of a White Helmet rescue worker.

In March, the SXSW Film Festival showcased I Am Another You (FilmRise), a portrait of a young Chinese drifter from Nanfu Wang, who was Oscar-shortlisted last year for Hooligan Sparrow; Mommy Dead and Dearest (HBO), a look at the odd case of a woman who was held hostage by — and then murdered — her mother, from the late New York Times reporter David Carr's daughter Erin Lee Carr; and the winner of the fest's Grand Jury Award for docs, Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary's The Work (The Orchard), which highlights an unusual prison therapy program.

Tribeca, a month later, brought LA 92 (National Geographic), from Undefeated Oscar winners Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, which recounts the white cops/black community confrontations of 25 years ago that sadly reverberate to this day; Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro's timely Get Me Roger Stone (Netflix); Elvira Lind's Bobbi Jene (Oscilloscope), the story of an American dancer who returns home after spending many years abroad; and two films that will get qualifying runs en route to CNN airings, Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez's The Reagan Show (Gravitas Ventures), a humorous look back at the media-courting efforts of the Reagan administration composed entirely of pre-existing footage, and Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell's Elian (Gravitas Ventures), which revisits the saga of Elian Gonzalez, a boy who got caught — literally and figuratively — between America and Cuba in 1999 and counts Oscar winner Alex Gibney among its EPs.

Also unveiled in April: Oscar winner John Ridley's Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (Lincoln Square), a powerful study of the racial tensions that led up to the infamous Rodney King case; and Matt Tyrnauer's Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (Sundance Selects), a look back at the contrasting views of city planning held by Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.

And then, a month after that, Cannes' biggest doc revelation was Risk (Neon), the latest work of Citizenfour Oscar winner Laura Poitras, which was made with unprecedented access to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who expected — but did not receive — an entirely flattering depiction. The film was re-edited after the fest to account for recent developments, and its final version screened for Academy members and received an Oscar-qualifying run in April, shortly before it was broadcast on Showtime.

Don't forget: An important early stop in the "doc Oscar season" is the "Docs to Watch" panel — featuring the filmmakers behind 10 top contenders — that The Hollywood Reporter sponsors and will moderate at the Savannah Film Festival for the fourth year in a row, on a date still TBA around Halloween.

As for the foreign-language film category, countries around the world haven't yet begun to make their official submissions, but film fests have helped to narrow their options. For instance, it's hard to imagine Hungary not entering On Body and Soul, which was awarded the Berlin International Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Bear, or Sweden not entering Ruben Ostlund's The Square (Magnolia), a send-up of the art world that won Cannes' Palme d'Or.

Other Berlin selections that could wind up at the Oscars include France's Felicite, which won the Grand Jury Prize; Chile's A Fantastic Woman (from Sebastian Lelio, the director of the country's 2014 submission, Gloria), which won the screenplay Silver Bear; and Finland's The Other Side of Hope, a dramedy from past nominee Aki Kaurismaki, who was awarded the best director Silver Bear — although the master's periodic boycotts of the Oscars might sway the country to pick Dome Karukoski's Tom of Finland instead. (It's worth noting, though, that the Academy has recognized the work of George C. Scott, Marlon Brando and Woody Allen, even though they have boycotted the ceremonies.)

Other Cannes entries with future prospects include In the Fade from Germany; Happy End (Sony Pictures Classics), the latest from Amour Oscar winner Michael Haneke, who has directed films submitted by multiple countries over the years; Iran's A Man of Integrity, which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section; Mexico's April's Daughter, which won the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize; 120 Beats per Minute (The Orchard), a film about the 1980s AIDS crisis, which won the Grand Prix; and perhaps Russia's Loveless (Sony Pictures Classics), which won the fest's overall Jury Prize — although Andrey Zvyagintsev's latest film, like his previous one, 2014's Leviathan (which won the best foreign-language film Golden Globe and was nominated for the corresponding Oscar), presents his country in an unflattering light, which may prompt the Russian Oscar committee to turn elsewhere, perhaps to Arrhythmia.

Finally, I can report some fresh news out of just-wrapped Karlovy Vary. The Cakemaker (Strand Releasing), which had its world premiere at the fest, and to which Germany and Israel can both lay claim, received the longest standing ovation in the fest's history — some 20 minutes, according to fest directors — and quickly had its U.S. distribution rights snapped up, so look out for that one, as well as the Czech film Little Crusader, which won the fest's Crystal Globe for best film, and Bosnia's Men Don't Cry, which was awarded a Special Jury Prize. Additionally, I've heard that A24 is lobbying the Academy to amend its rules so that the organization can consider an American film in a language other than English, namely Menashe, which is about — and performed in Yiddish by — Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn and which has gathered a loyal following after stops in Sundance, Berlin and, now, Karlovy Vary.

All submissions for the foreign-language film category must be made by 5 p.m. PST on Oct. 2.

In the meantime, expect to see many more high-quality doc features and foreign-language films unveiled at September's Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals.

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