Oscars: Doc Feature Race Begins to Come Into Focus

Netflix's 'American Factory,' Neon's 'Apollo 11' and 'The Biggest Little Farm' and Amazon's 'One Child Nation' are the only films that have been recognized by all four major documentary feature Oscar precursors.
Courtesy of Netflix; Courtesy of NEON; Courtesy of TIFF; Courtesy of Amazon Studios
From left: 'American Factory,' 'Apollo 11,' 'The Biggest Little Farm' and 'One Child Nation'

The film Academy's documentary branch is notoriously hard to read.

No single awards season precursor has proven to be an especially reliable predictor of what branch members will do when it comes to shortlisting 15 docs, nominating five or awarding one. That being said, when all of the major precursors pertaining to docs seem to agree on the same titles, it does usually suggest that the larger documentary community feels the same way.

Wednesday's announcement of the nominees for the International Documentary Association's 35th IDA Awards comes on the heels of similar announcements by the Savannah Film Festival's 'Docs to Watch' Panel (presented by The Hollywood Reporter and moderated by yours truly), which released its lineup on Sept. 24; DOC NYC, which put out a shortlist on Sept. 26; and the Critics' Choice Documentary Awards, which announced its nominees on Oct. 14. (Another big announcement, the Cinema Eye Honors nominations, will come on Nov. 7.)

So is there widespread agreement about any doc features thus far? Yes, four. Recognized by all four doc precursors were Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's Obamas-supported portrait of post-recession Middle-America, American Factory (Netflix); Todd Douglas Miller's lunar landing chronicle, Apollo 11 (Neon); John Chester's autobiographical The Biggest Little Farm (Neon); and Nanfu Wang's Chinese social study, One Child Nation (Amazon). Those, it would appear, are your Oscar frontrunners.

Meanwhile, recognized by three of the groups: Feras Fayyad's The Cave (NatGeo), Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's Honeyland (Neon); Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker (Showtime); Rachel Lears' Knock Down the House (Netflix); and Richard Ladkani's Sea of Shadows (NatGeo)

Included by two groups: Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona (HBO); Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy (Netflix); Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts' For Sama (PBS); and Alex Holmes' Maiden (Sony Classics)

And mentioned by one group: Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones' Advocate (Film Movement); Roger Ross Williams' The Apollo (HBO); Ryan White's Ask Dr. Ruth (Hulu); Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone's The Elephant Queen (Apple); Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim's The Great Hack (Netflix); Luke Lorentzen's Midnight Family (1091 Media); and Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old (Warner Bros.)

*Leaving Neverland (HBO) also received one mention, but, having first aired as a multi-part doc on television, it is not Oscar-eligible.