Oscars: What the Doc Shortlist Got Right and Wrong, and Which of the 15 Will Make the Final 5

Life, Animated still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In a year in which the quantity and quality of film documentaries has been better than ever, it's gratifying to report that the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has included almost all of the cream of the crop on its shortlist of 15 from which it now will begin selecting five nominees: Cameraperson; Command and Control; The Eagle Huntress; Fire at Sea; Gleason; Hooligan Sparrow; I Am Not Your Negro; The Ivory Game; Life, Animated; O.J.: Made in America; 13th; Tower; Weiner; The Witness; and Zero Days.

Of the 15 titles that I projected would be on the shortlist, only two failed to secure slots: Miss Sharon Jones!, a Starz doc about the eponymous singer who passed away last month, which was directed by two-time best doc feature Oscar winner Barbara Kopple; and Off the Rails, a Film Collaborative doc about a man obsessed with public transit, which was directed by first-time filmmaker Adam Irving. Both recorded some of the higher per-theater grosses of any doc this year, which hopefully serves as some consolation.

With 145 films theoretically in contention, what does it take to rise to the top of branch members' screener piles and thus have a realistic chance of making the shortlist? Bryan Glick, director of acquisitions and theatrical distribution for Film Collaborative, says a doc needs a major profile-boost of a premiere at Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, Toronto or New York; and/or be distributed by HBO or Netflix; and/or screenings in at least 10 cities simultaneously. Otherwise, he postulates, it gets lost in the crowd. And this year, like every other year since the voting system was tweaked in 2012, all the shortlisted docs actually fit that criteria. (Point-of-reference: Miss Sharon Jones! met that criteria; Off the Rails didn't.)

It also doesn't hurt to make an appearance at the Savannah Film Festival's annual THR-moderated "Docs to Watch" panel, which highlights 10 doc features each year. Last year, four of the five eventual nominees, including the winner, were represented on it; so were six of the 15 shortlisted docs this year. (The other four: Miss Sharon Jones!, Off the Rails, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You and Andrew Rossi's First Monday in May.)

What are a few distinguishing characteristics of this year's shortlist?

For one thing, it includes not a single doc from HBO Documentary Films, which long has reigned as a titan in this category. In fairness, that unit's longtime chief, the legendary Sheila Nevins, predicted this scenario when I spoke with her last week, even though several of her 2016 titles, including Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing and Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, have been well-received. (Meanwhile, Netflix claimed two slots, for 13th and The Ivory Game, and Amazon one, for Gleason.)

Additionally, no fewer than three docs about race in America made the cut: 13th, I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made in America. O.J. has won every major doc prize that has been given so far — the Gotham Award, the National Board of Review Award, the New York Film Critics Circle Award, etc. — save for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's, which opted for I Am Not Your Negro. Even so, Nevins and others who admire O.J. have expressed skepticism to me that it ultimately will make the final five, since branch members are divided about whether a five-chapter, seven-and-a-half-hour doc made by ESPN should or shouldn't be regarded as a film.

There aren't many early indicators of how the branch feels overall, but their preferences usually align pretty closely with the rest of the doc community. Over the past four years, three other doc-world groups regularly have voted to determine their own shortlists (DOC NYC) or nominees (Cinema Eye Honors and IDA Awards) before the Academy's nominations are announced. All three groups agreed on just six titles during that span (2012's Searching for Sugar Man, 2013's The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell, 2014's Citizenfour and 2015's Amy and The Look of Silence). And all but one of those — the semi-controversial Stories We Tell — went on to receive an Oscar nom. This year, the three groups — as well as the new Critics' Choice Documentary Awards — agreed on four of the same titles: Cameraperson, Fire at Sea, O.J.: Made in America and Weiner.

At this particular moment in time, while I do feel that O.J. is vulnerable and Weiner might be, too (several branch members have told me they are repelled by its subject's continued misbehavior and possible contribution to Hillary Clinton's recent defeat), I'm still predicting nominations for both of them, as well as Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson has worked with many branch members and her film celebrates what they do), Gleason (Clay Tweel did a remarkable job of piecing over a thousand hours of footage into a deeply moving portrait of living with ALS) and Life, Animated (past doc short Oscar winner and current doc branch governor Roger Ross Williams' heartwarming portrait of a family coming together and through hard times).

All of our questions will be answered when Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 24.