Oscars: ‘Icarus,’ ‘Jane’ and ‘Faces/Places’ Among Top Shortlisted Docs

Icarus -still 1-H 2017

The Academy’s documentary branch on Thursday revealed its shortlist of 15 films from which it will now pick five nominees before joining with the rest of the organization in picking a winner.

Of the surviving 15, the three frontrunners, it seems to me, are Bryan Fogel’s Icarus, a harrowing look at sports doping in Russia that led the International Olympic Committee to ban the country from the 2018 Winter Games; Brett Morgen’s Jane, a loving portrait of the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall using footage recorded at the outset of her career; and Faces/Places, French New Wave legend Agnes Varda and photographer JR’s chronicle of their unlikely friendship.

The other shortlisted films include several from people who have received prior Academy recognition: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, from perennial Oscar bridesmaid Steve James (Hoop Dreams); City of Ghosts, from Cartel Land nominee Matthew Heineman; Ex Libris — The New York Public Library, the latest study of an institution by 2016 honorary Oscar recipient Frederick Wiseman; LA 92, a look at the Los Angeles riots by the filmmakers behind 2012 Oscar winner Undefeated; and One of Us, a portrait of the dark side of Orthodox Judaism by Jesus Camp nominees Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

The list includes other veteran filmmakers — Amir Bar-Lev (with his epic Grateful Dead doc Long Strange Trip), Firras Fiyad (Syria doc Last Men in Aleppo) and Chinese activist Ai Weiwei (global refugee crisis examination Human Flow) — as well as two first-time directors: Yance Ford, with his remembrance of his slain brother, Strong Island; and Jennifer Brea, with a story about her battle with a mysterious illness, Unrest.

And there are two sequels, as well — perhaps the first two ever shortlisted: Chasing Coral, Jeff Orlowski's follow-up to his earlier climate-change doc, Chasing Ice; and Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's An Inconvenient Sequel, an update on An Inconvenient Truth (again featuring Al Gore), which won the best doc feature Oscar in 2007.

It’s worth noting that Netflix docs landed an impressive four of the 15 slots (Chasing Coral, Icarus, One of Us and Strong Island), Amazon one (Long Strange Trip) and longtime doc powerhouse HBO, in an odd twist, none.

The most surprising omissions are Risk, an insider’s look at the life of Julian Assange by Oscar winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour); Amanda Lipitz’s inspirational chronicle of Baltimore high schoolers, Step; Ceyda Torun’s box-office breakout Kedi, about Turkish cats; past Oscar nominee Evgeny Afineevsky’s Cries From Syria; another look at the L.A. riots, Oscar winner John Ridley’s Let It Fall: LA 1982-1992; Greg Barker’s Obama-era time capsule The Final Year; and Rebecca Miller’s profile of her famous father, Arthur Miller: A Writer.