Oscars: 15 Documentaries That Must Be Seen

Citizenfour Building Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Radius-TWC

Citizenfour Building Still - H 2014

From an inspiring tribute to Roger Ebert to a tense encounter with Edward Snowden, these are the films on Oscar’s shortlist

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

1. Art and Craft 

Directors: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman; co-director: by Mark Becker

A museum registrar doggedly pursues art forger Mark Landis, who enjoys posing as a philanthropist by gifting museums with his faux Impressionist paintings in this portrait of an eccentric. "The film will appeal to art lovers, but some viewers who can hardly tell their Cezannes from Chagalls will find the story fascinating as well," wrote THR reviewer John DeFore when Art debuted at April's Tribeca Film Festival.

2. The Case Against 8 

Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White

The filmmakers follow legal odd couple Ted Olson and David Boies all the way to the Supreme Court to document the attorneys' successful effort to overturn California's ban against same-sex marriage. Also focusing on the plaintiff couples in the case Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, the film rode a growing wave of support for marriage equality as it won the documentary directing award at January's Sundance Film Festival and picked up audience awards from SXSW in Austin and the RiverRun fest in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Read more Snowden Doc 'Citizenfour' Tops IDA Documentary Awards

3. Citizen Koch 

Directors: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin

The filmmaking team that earned a feature doc Oscar nomination for 2008's Trouble the Water (which focused on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath) turns its attention to the flood of unlimited spending that washed over elections in states like Wisconsin in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. The film's title refers to conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, whose political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity underwrote the rise of the Tea Party.

4. Citizenfour 

Director: Laura Poitras

When he decided to blow the whistle on the NSA and its vast surveillance apparatus, Edward Snowden reached out to Poitras via encrypted email, and her cameras were present in his Hong Kong hotel room as his first revelations became public in 2013. The film received a standing ovation following its New York Film Festival screening in October and already has picked up best doc honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and the IDA Documentary Awards.

5. Finding Vivian Maier 

Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Winner of the John Schlesinger Award at January's Palm Springs International Film Festival, the film presents the never-before-seen street photography of Vivian Maier, who while working as a Chicago nanny had a secret life as a world-class photographer — though her talent was discovered only after her death. In his THR review, Boyd van Hoeij compared Finding with "Searching for Sugar Man but with almost instantly iconic photographs instead of music."

Read more Oscar Doc Shortlist: A Brutal Year to Have to Select Just 15 Finalists

6. The Internet's Own Boy 

Director: Brian Knappenberger

Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit and the political advocacy group Demand Progress as well as a champion of an open Internet, committed suicide in 2013 at age 26 while being prosecuted on federal charges for downloading academic journal articles from MIT's computer system. The film, which tells his story, was described by THR's DeFore as an "excellent newbie-friendly account of a story that rocked the web's cognoscenti."

7. Jodorowsky's Dune 

Director: Frank Pavich

Before David Lynch adapted Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel for the screen in 1984, the even more idiosyncratic Chile-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who helmed 1970's trippy Western El Topo, tried his hand. The predictably mad results, including work by set designer H.R. Giger (who later would work on Alien), are on view in this film, unveiled in May at the Cannes Film Festival. Interviewed in the doc, Jodorowsky proclaims that had he completed Dune, it would have been "the most important picture in the history of humanity."

8. Keep On Keepin' On 

Director: Alan Hicks

An audience favorite on the festival circuit — it has won prizes from Tribeca to Seattle — the film, shot over five years, captures the relationship between jazz great Clark Terry and a blind piano prodigy. Terry, now 93, who played in Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's bands, also mentored Miles Davis and Quincy Jones (one of this doc's producers). It all adds up to a feel-good alternative to the darker musical beats of Whiplash.

9. The Kill Team 

Director: Dan Krauss

Winner of the grand jury prize for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it debuted, the film delves into the moral ambiguities of battle. Krauss, Oscar-nominated in 2006 for his doc short The Death of Kevin Carter, about a South African photojournalist, zeroes in on Adam Winfield, a private moved to speak out against war crimes committed by members of his platoon in Afghanistan — only to find himself arrested and charged with murder.

See more Inside THR's First Documentarian Roundtable, Including Errol Morris

10. Last Days in Vietnam

Director: Rory Kennedy

A six-time Emmy nominee for documentary work, Kennedy revisits the 1975 fall of Saigon, going behind the familiar image of a helicopter on the embassy roof to discover U.S. government policies that refused to plan for an official evacuation as well as clandestine operations to save residents of South Vietnam. Wrote THR's Justin Lowe, "Kennedy's resourcefulness in obtaining fresh materials and strikingly frank interviews stands as a singularly affecting accomplishment."

11. Life Itself

Director: Steve James

The Chicago-based documentarian, whose 1994 film Hoop Dreams infamously was snubbed by the Academy's documentary branch, was on hand with a camera to witness movie critic Roger Ebert's final days in 2013. He combined those astonishingly intimate scenes with archival footage (including much verbal jousting between Ebert and his At the Movies cohort Gene Siskel) and affectionate remembrances from Ebert's many friends to create a film that's a love letter to movies, a tribute to the critic's resilience in the face of adversity and a moving look at the happiness Ebert found with his devoted wife, Chaz.

12. The Overnighters

Director: Jesse Moss

Winner of a Sundance special jury prize for its portrayal of a complex character as revealed through remarkably candid moments, this doc travels to the boomtown oil fields of North Dakota. There it finds Pastor Jay Reinke, who insists on using his Lutheran church as a makeshift shelter despite mounting opposition from his congregation, neighbors, town officials and the media.

Read more 'Virunga' Director Talks Oscar Buzz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Aggressive Lawyers

13. The Salt of the Earth

Directors: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

Wenders — who has earned feature doc Oscar noms for 1999's Buena Vista Social Club and 2011's Pina — joined with Salgado for a film about Salgado's father, Sebastiao, a master photographer. They picked up two awards in Cannes, including an ecumenical jury prize special mention that called Salt of the Earth "a compelling testimony of our time and a reflection of the human condition worldwide that shows the possibility of hope for humankind."

14. Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Director: Nick Broomfield

The director, whose 2003 doc Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer told the story of Aileen Wuornos (also the subject of 2003's Charlize Theron feature Monster), takes another walk on the wild side with his new endeavor. Unveiled in August at the Telluride Film Festival, Grim Sleeper investigates the case of a serial killer who terrorized South Central Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Although a suspect was arrested in 2010, his court case drags on as police continue to look at more than 100 unsolved murders. Broomfield takes to the streets himself to see what he is able to uncover.

15. Virunga 

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Congo's Virunga National Park is the setting for this documentary about the efforts of a small band of park rangers attempting to save endangered mountain gorillas from poachers, encroaching oil drillers and rebel forces. Commented DeFore in his THR review of the doc, which picked up two prizes at October's Hamptons International Film Festival, "The film is well-shot throughout, paying attention to the park's diverse wildlife and to moments of human drama that often have the flavor of a political thriller."