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On Dec. 21, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled its shortlists for the 2023 Oscars in 10 categories, which included advancing 15 documentary features to the next round. A total of 144 documentary features this year were eligible, and those that moved on include All That Breathes, Fire of Love and Moonage Daydream.
Among the more surprising omissions was Mars Rover doc Good Night Oppy. Members of the documentary branch vote to determine the shortlist and the nominees for documentary feature as well as documentary short (15 films were shortlisted from 98 qualified shorts).
A list of the 15 documentaries on this year’s Oscars shortlist follows.
All That Breathes
Winner of the Cannes Golden Eye and Sundance Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema Documentary), All That Breathes follows two brothers in New Delhi racing to save a bird falling from the sky. Shaunak Sen directs the HBO documentary. It premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Documentary Competition. At Cannes, it won the Golden Eye for best doc.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Laura Poitras directs this documentary that follows the life and work of artist Nan Goldin as well as the downfall of the Sacklers, the family who was greatly responsible for the high death toll of the opioid epidemic and became a target of Goldin’s activism. So far, it’s won at the Boston Society of Film Critics Association and has been nominated for an award at the British Independent Film Awards, Critics Choice, Film Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards.
Bad Axe documents an Asian-American family living in rural Michigan in 2020, as they fight Trumpism and a pandemic to keep their restaurant and dream afloat. The film, directed by David Siev, is rated 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and already has a Critics Choice nomination and a SXSW Audience Award and Special Jury Recognition win under its belt.
Children of the Mist
Children of the Mist follows a Hmong teenage girl living in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, where girls in her culture marry as early as 14. But at school, Di learns that she may have an alternative.
Margaret Brown’s doc charts the stories of the descendants of survivors of the Clotilda, the last ship to carry enslaved Africans into the United States. The film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision and was released in theaters and on Netflix on Oct. 2. It was one of the National Board of Review’s top five documentaries of the year, and also already one the best historical documentary at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards.
Fire of Love
Fire of Love, directed by Sara Dosa, tells the story of scientists and lovers Katia and Maurice Krafft, who died in a volcanic explosion while they were capturing and exploring the volcano. Distributed by NatGeo/Neon, it’s already made significant strides in the awards circuit, banking several Cinema Eye Honors and Critics Choice nominations. It is rated 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s documentary tells the story of iconic singer songwriter Leonard Cohen through the legacy of his seminal track “Hallelujah,” and examines the song’s impact on other artists and the culture at large. The film is based on Alan Light’s 2012 book The Holy or the Broken, and in October was nominated for a Critics Choice Award for best music documentary.
For centuries, women in China forced into oppressive marriages wrote a private language among themselves, called Nushu. Now, two young women are obsessed with their language as they forge their own paths in their culture. The film, directed by Violet Feng and Qing Zhao, shines a light on women’s equality in China. The PBS doc has a 90 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.
A House Made of Splinters
A House Made of Splinters examines the children and staff of a home in Eastern Ukraine for children who have been removed from their homes while awaiting court custody decisions. Simon Lereng Wilmont directs the documentary.
Directed by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin, The Janes follows a group of women who were arrested and charged for running a clandestine network. Using code names and safe houses, they build an underground service for women to get safe and affordable abortions using just the name “Jane.” It is also up for best documentary feature at the Critics Choice Awards.
Last Flight Home
Two-time Sundance U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner Ondi Timoner returns with a verité portrait of her father Eli and his extraordinary life during his final days. The film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it was acquired by MTV Documentary Films shortly after.
Through never-before-seen footage, director Brett Morgan offers a new perspective on the life, art and legacy of the legendary David Bowie. It is the first film authorized by the Bowie estate and is titled after Bowie’s 1972 song of the same name. It had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and was released on Sept. 16 in the U.S.
Navalny revolves around Alexei Navalny, who was a Russian opposition leader who was poisoned with Novichok nerve agent in 2020 — he has consistently blamed Vladimir Putin for the attack. Directed by Daniel Roher, the film also premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary and Festival Favorite Award. It also scored best political documentary at the Critics Choice Doc Awards.
Retrograde, directed by Matthew Heineman, examines the last months of the 20-year Afghanistan war and tells the story of the relationship between American Green Berets and the Afghan officers they trained. With 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, THR chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg called the documentary “a beautifully photographed, generally apolitical glimpse of a tragedy.”
After a group of Brazilian farmers lay claim to a protected area of the Amazon rainforest, a young indigenous man and his mentor fight to save the forest and an uncontacted group living deep inside it. Like many on the shortlist, the documentary had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and has since scored wins at Sundance and three Critics Choice and seven Cinema Eye Honors nominations.
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