Oscars: The 15 Documentaries Most Likely to Make the Shortlist

By Friday, the Academy must narrow down the list of 151 potential contenders — THR's awards analyst offers his best guess about which they will pick.
A scene from "Cutie and the Boxer," an Oscar long-listed doc. Courtesy: RADiUS.

The members of the Academy's documentary branch have been asked to consider the merits of 151 doc features this year -- an impossible task -- and by Friday they must vote to determine which 15 of them will make the shortlist from which the five best documentary feature Oscar nominees will eventually be chosen. The shortlist will then be announced on Dec. 2.

Here is a look at the 15 docs that I believe are likeliest to wind up on the shortlist, along with the strongest arguments for and against their inclusion. (Warning: Do not read the sections about films you haven't seen, as my analyses may contain spoilers.)

1. The Square (Noujaim Films/Netflix Originals/Participant, 10/25, NR, TBA)

PRO: The Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim (Startup.com and Control Room) has pieced together an amazing on-the-ground record of the political revolutions that have unfolded in Cairo's Tahrir Square over the last few years. She gained access to activists on all sides of the issue, and by documenting their lives is able to humanize a conflict that seems incomprehensible to many non-Egyptians. Visually stylish and emotionally powerful, it premiered at Sundance, where it scored the documentary audience award (world cinema); subsequently played at Toronto, where it won the documentary audience award, and New York; and has since been featured in a lengthy New York Times article, scored a best doc IDA nom and had its streaming rights acquired by Netflix. Docs about hot-button issues have always done well with the Academy.

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CON: Not everyone wants to hear out members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others who have expressed anti-American sentiment.

2. The Act of Killing (Drafthouse Films, 7/19, NR, trailer)

PRO: First-time feature director Joshua Oppenheimer's eerie doc catches up with participants in the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide who proudly reenact their crimes for his camera. The resulting footage was eccentric and impressive enough to receive the endorsements of doc legends Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who signed on as executive producers and are "presenting" the film; a big New York Times profile; and best doc noms from the Cinema Eye Honors, the Gotham Awards and the IDA Awards -- no other film scored with all three groups -- plus the Puma Impact Award.

CON: Many are turned off by the idea of shining a spotlight on admitted and, in some cases, unrepentant murderers, likening it to filming the Nazis bragging about their crimes after the Holocaust. Some are more bothered by the reenactments, something to which the Academy's doc branch has always been averse, dating back at least to Morris' own The Thin Blue Line (1988), which was denied an Oscar nom -- although these are more transparently reenactments than those were. But the bottom line is that most weird docs that critics still remember -- think Sherman's March (1985) and Crumb (1994) -- were never embraced by the Academy.

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3. Cutie and the Boxer (RADiUS, 8/16, R, trailer)

PRO: Zachary Heinzerling's doc about two elderly, eccentric Japanese-American artists -- “boxing” painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, the animator Noriko Shinohara -- who have been married for 40 years is a charming and moving portrait of enduring creative passion and love. The film employs present-day and archival footage, as well as animated sequences, to bring their story to life. Since winning Sundance's award for best direction of a U.S. doc, it has gone on to receive a field-leading six Cinema Eye Honors noms (including best doc) and the IDA's emerging documentary filmmaker award.

CON: As lovely as the film is, it is not about a subject of any great social significance, which most Academy-embraced docs historically have been.

4. Blackfish (Magnolia/CNN Films, 7/19, PG-13, trailer)

PRO: Gabriela Cowperthwaite's deeply disturbing exposé about the way that SeaWorld has long procured and treated its orca whales -- and then blamed others for their violent behavior -- had everyone talking this summer, and continues to generate a lot of conversation thanks to its recent high-profile airings on CNN. The film recently received a best doc nom from IDA Awards, and could benefit from the doc branch's obvious interest in environmental matters (An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove both won the best doc feature Oscar and Chasing Ice made last year's shortlist).

CON: SeaWorld has vocally contested the film's allegations, which, rightly or wrongly, may leave doubt in some voters' minds about the accuracy of the film.

5. Tim's Vermeer (Sony Pictures Classics, TBA, TBA, trailer)

PRO: This passion project produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller -- yes, that Penn & Teller -- chronicles the unspeakably ambitious effort of the brilliant inventor Tim Jenison, Penn's longtime friend, to prove that Johannes Vermeer and those of his era were only able to paint with greater realism than their predecessors because they had some sort of tool to help them. Neither the filmmakers nor the subject knew what would happen when they began filming, but what did is funny, smart, shocking and truly groundbreaking -- and made the film the surprise hit of the fall festival circuit. The Academy's doc branch has always gravitated toward films about art and obsession, so a film about both would seem to stand a good chance with them.

CON: It is not clear whether the doc community is ready to embrace two wealthy magicians who were able to make their doc without the sort of history or struggle that most of them have experienced. So far, the film has been snubbed by all major awards groups.

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6. 20 Feet From Stardom (RADiUS, 6/14, PG-13, trailer)

PRO: Morgan Neville's crowd-pleaser takes viewers on a tour of the history of the music business and highlights many of the singers who were only seen or heard in the background, but without whom many of our most treasured hits would never have been possible. Much like In the Shadow of the Stars (1991), which won the best doc Oscar 22 years ago, it depicts the hard work and struggle of the people who aren't quite famous but could have been -- something to which some in the Academy may relate. Moreover, ever since the film's premiere at Sundance, its subjects have enjoyed a greater spotlight than ever before and have been performing frequently on behalf of the film and independently.

CON: The film has been snubbed by every awards group that recognizes docs, perhaps because it comes across as very glossy and produced -- not an inherently bad thing, but not what they're used to.

7. Stories We Tell (Roadside Attractions, 5/10, PG-13, trailer)

PRO: The young Canadian actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley, a best adapted screenplay Oscar nominee for Away From Her (2007), turns the lens on herself and her complicated family in this absorbing doc which ultimately takes a jaw-dropping twist. It played at virtually every major fall film festival en route to scoring best doc noms from the Cinema Eye Honors and IDA Awards.

CON: The third-act reveal is that most of what was shown in the first two acts was essentially a deception featuring reenactments. That is not going to please the doc branch members who feel that docs with reenactments are not real docs at all.

8. Casting By (HBO, 11/1, NR, trailer)

PRO: Tom Donahue recounts the heretofore overlooked history and underappreciated impact of casting directors throughout Hollywood history, largely focusing his lens on two of the legends of the professions, Marion Dougherty (who has since passed away) and Lynn Stalmaster, and employing interviews with more famous beneficiaries of their work to question why casting directors were the only above-the-title credit holders without a corresponding Academy branch. The Academy's board of governors subsequently voted to create such a branch, and Donahue and his producers were voted a special award by the Casting Society of America, at whose Artios Awards they received heaps of praise and a standing ovation.

CON: As infamously voiced in the film by Taylor Hackford, there are some who feel that the impact of casting directors is being overstated in this film.


9. The Last of the Unjust (Cohen Media Group, 12/13, NR, trailer)

PRO: The French director Claude Lanzmann, who is best known for his nine-hour doc Shoah (1985) -- for which he was famously snubbed by the Academy's doc branch -- is back with another Holocaust doc 28 years later, at the age of 87. This one focuses on Benjamin Murmelstein, who was the Theresienstadt ghetto's Jewish Council president during the war and was widely reviled by Jews after it for having collaborated with the Nazis. Much of the film's footage is drawn from a lengthy interview that Lanzmann conducted with Murmelstein in 1975 for Shoah -- the first that Murmelstein ever gave on camera -- but then decided to hold for a future film. The Academy's doc branch has a long history of recognizing films about World War II, generally, and specifically Holocaust docs -- this one's L.A. premiere is being co-hosted by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation -- and, based on the fact that Lanzmann was finally invited to join their ranks earlier this year, perhaps they now appreciate him in a way they did not nearly three decades ago.

CON: Fairly or not, some may dismiss this material as leftovers from Shoah that weren't "good enough," in Lanzmann's own view, to make it into that film.

10. American Promise (Rada Film Group, 10/18, NR, trailer)

PRO: In this emotional rollercoaster of a doc, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, a black married couple based in Brooklyn, document their son and his best friend for 13 years -- from their start of kindergarten through their graduation from high school -- as they attempt to fit in, make friends and succeed academically at a prestigious prep school where most of their classmates are white. It was awarded a special jury award at Sundance and subsequently played at the New York Film Festival, as well. I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School, a doc which followed students at an inner-city school for a year, was awarded the best documentary feature Oscar 20 years ago.

CON: Infamously, the branch snubbed another terrific film about black kids struggling to "make it" that was also shot over many years: Hoop Dreams (1994).

11. Let the Fire Burn (Zeitgeist Films, 10/2, NR, trailer)

PRO: First-time filmmaker Jason Osder has crafted -- exclusively with found footage from TV news archives and personal collections -- a gripping look at a 1985 clash between Philadelphia police and the radical urban group MOVE that resulted in death and destruction, some of which might have been avoided, it was later revealed, had the authorities not elected to "let the fire burn." The film has been recognized with best doc noms from the Gotham Awards and IDA Awards (which gave it a field-leading four mentions).

CON: Not everyone knows how to respond to a doc that doesn't have any narration or talking-heads to provide present-day context or commentary.

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12. Inequality for All (RADiUS, 9/27, PG, trailer)

PRO: Director Jacob Kornbluth and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, San Francisco-area neighbors and friends, teamed up to produce this engaging attempt to raise awareness and alarm about the widening disparity between the income of America's wealthiest citizens and that of everyone else in the country. Employing a cinematic approach not dissimilar to the one Al Gore used in the Oscar-winning doc An Inconvenient Truth (2006) -- the film is largely structured around Reich lecturing college students, with the aid of graphics, charts and other forms of presentation -- the film makes complex economic matters understandable and leaves viewers with newfound respect for Reich's tireless efforts on behalf of "the little guy." The film was awarded a special jury award at Sundance and has grossed $1.15 million, more than any issue-oriented doc since Waiting for Superman three years ago.

CON: It may be hard to convince some branch members to pick this film from their pile of 151, since the subject of the economy is one that causes many people's eyes to glaze over.

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13. After Tiller (Oscilloscope, 9/20, TBA, trailer)

PRO: Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's film delves into the contentious debate over late-term abortions in the wake of the 2009 murder of George Tiller, a doctor who provided them, and also follows the only four doctors in America who still provide them in spite of constant threats to their safety from opponents of the procedure. Religious conservatives find it unjustifiable under any circumstances, whereas others believe that certain extenuating circumstances -- such as the health of the mother being jeopardized -- make it acceptable. Like past doc Oscar nominee Jesus Camp (2006), it presents both sides of the issue without editorial judgment and sends you out of a screening more frustrated than ever at the great divide that separates them.

CON: If there is one subject that may be even less appealing to branch members than the economy, it is abortion. There is just a sense that we have all seen this sort of story before.

14. Seduced and Abandoned (HBO, 10/18, NR, trailer)

PRO: The inimitable Oscar-nominated filmmaker James Toback and his pal Alec Baldwin decided to shoot a doc at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival that would illustrate the challenges of getting movies financed today by trying to get one financed themselves. At various stops along the Croisette, the dynamic duo speaks with financiers to movie stars to film critics, and it becomes clear -- in the most funny and amusing of ways -- just how hard it is to get anything original or inventive off the ground anymore, let alone anything made by two guys who are not the "names" they once were. The Academy's doc branch has periodically recognized films about films, and they could do a lot worse than this one which, appropriately enough, premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

CON: Because of the nature of the film that Toback and Baldwin were trying to make -- grabbing stuff quickly in locations over which they had little control -- its production value isn't as spectacular as some of its competitors.

15. Blood Brother (Tugg, TBA, TBA, trailer)

PRO: Steve Hoover's doc follows his best friend Rocky Braat, a young American with a dark past who left behind everyone and everything he ever knew to relocate to India, where he began working at an orphanage for HIV-positive kids. Hoover revisits Braat's past and observes him in action in India as he tries to do his part to help others and, in turn, find fulfillment himself. The film was a huge hit at Sundance, where it was awarded the grand jury prize (documentary) and the audience award (U.S. documentary).

CON: Rising from Ashes is another emotionally powerful doc on this year's Oscar longlist about a man who left behind the life he knew to help people in a far-flung foreign country.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg