Having unfettered access to a subject is always the goal for a documentary filmmaker, particularly when there’s a risk the story might not be flattering in the end. But for two of this year’s shortlisted documentary features—the Edward Snowden pic CitizenFour and Life Itself, based on Roger Ebert’s memoir—filmmakers used frank conversations with people at critical moments in their lives to create complex, enduring portraits.

In fact, director Laura Poitras says there were no ground rules when she and journalist Glenn Greenwald first met with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room shortly after he leaked National Security Administration documents. “He knew I was bringing my camera,” says Poitras, whose film has been heralded by critics and pundits. “When we met, I think his expectations were that at any moment somebody could come in the door and he’d be taken away. He knew the risks he was taking.”

Although CitizenFour is widely expected to win the documentary feature Oscar this year, director Steve James’ Sundance favorite and National Board of Review choice Life Itself is a close second and certain nominee. James says he was grateful for the candor of Ebert and his wife, Chaz, along with the structure that the memoir provided. “It really is written in this elegiac tone of a guy who has been through a lot and has had a grand adventure in life and now he’s looking back on it and telling his story,” James explains.

Edward Snowden in CitizenFour
“(Edward Snowden) knew I was bringing my camera,” says CitizenFour director Laura Poitras.

While CitizenFour dominates predictions, there are four other nom slots, which could include Last Days in Vietnam, The Salt of the Earth (pictured top), Finding Vivian Mayer, Virunga, Keep On Keepin’ On and The Case Against 8 when noms are made Jan. 15. Here’s a look at all 15 shortlisted films.

Art and Craft

Oscilloscope Pictures

Directors: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman

Art forger and schizophrenic Mark Landis goes undetected for more than three decades as he mimics the world’s best-known painters and donates the works to charity. Cullman is a previous Oscar nom for 2011’s If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

The Case Against 8

HBO Documentary Films

Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White

The filmmakers take a detailed look at how a talented group of activists and lawyers set about defeating California’s same-sex marriage ban. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the Directing Award.

Citizen Koch

Variance Films

Directors: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin

This Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee follows the rise of the Tea Party following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, taking a close look at the role of billionaires David and Charles Koch. Deal and Lessin are previous Oscar nominees for the 2008 Hurricane Katrina doc, Trouble the Water.

CitizenFour

Radius-TWC

Director: Laura Poitras

Many pundits are making the case for Poitras’ Edward Snowden doc to earn a best picture nom, though that is destined to be an uphill battle. Nevertheless, the film enters the shortlist as a clear front-runner for the doc Oscar, having already earned accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle, as well as the Gotham Award, a Cinema Eye Honors nom and the International Documentary Association best feature award. Poitras earned her first Oscar nom in 2007 for My Country, My Country.

Finding Vivian Maier

Sundance Selects

Directors: John Maloof, Charles Siskel

When Maloof bought a cache of photographs in Chicago in 2006, it launched a years-long quest to find any information about Maier, who worked as a nanny but also took more than 100,000 photos during her life. The film won the John Schlesinger Award at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival and was nominated for an IDA Award.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

FilmBuff

Director: Brian Knappenberger

Internet prodigy and activist Swartz spent his life questioning the government’s restrictive policies toward the Internet. Five months before Snowden released NSA documents, Swartz killed himself because he was facing what many believed were overzealous hacking charges. The film was nominated for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Sony Pictures Classics

Director: Frank Pavich

In 1975, cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky assembled a team of artists and icons to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune, a project that would’ve included Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Although it never transpired, Pavich uses illustrations and interviews to demonstrate the creativity of Jodorowsky’s vision. Pavich was nominated for a Golden Camera at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Keep On Keepin’ On

Radius-TWC

Director: Alan Hicks

Mentor to Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, jazz musician Clark Terry continues to nurture new talent at 93 years old, including a blind pianist who has extreme stage fright. First-time filmmaker Hicks spent five years filming, and seven-time Oscar nominee Jones produced the doc, which has earned acclaim on the festival circuit.

The Kill Team

Oscilloscope Pictures

Director: Dan Krauss

When an infantryman attempts to alert the U.S. government about war crimes that its own troops are committing, his fellow soldiers threaten to kill him to keep him quiet. Krauss, who won the best doc award at the 2013 Tribeca Film Fest, earned his first Oscar nom for the 2004 short doc The Death of Kevin Carter.

Last Days in Vietnam

American Experience Films

Director: Rory Kennedy

During the confusing final weeks of the Vietnam War, U.S. troops have orders to evacuate all Americans but also are confronted with whether to risk treason to help frightened, fleeing South Vietnamese citizens before Saigon falls. Two-time Emmy winner Kennedy is best known for her 2007 HBO doc The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.

Life Itself

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Steve James

This portrait of Roger Ebert includes his early years as an accomplished and passionate journalist, his rise as a respected film critic and the final months of his battle with unrelenting head and neck cancer. Oscar nominee James incorporates footage with Ebert’s wife and some of his closest friends for the film, which the National Board of Review named best doc. It also has a Cinema Eye Honors nom.

The Overnighters

Drafthouse Films

Director: Jesse Moss

Unemployed workers flock to a small oil town in North Dakota with the hopes of getting back on their feet. Instead, they find few prospects and nowhere to go, so each night a local pastor converts his church into a dorm for the migrant workers. The film won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance this year and has a Cinema Eye Honors nom.

The Salt of the Earth

Sony Pictures Classics

Director: Juliano Ribero Salgado, Wim Wenders

Photographer Sebastiao Salgado, famous for his portraits of gold mining in his native Brazil, goes back home to find a countryside marred by drought and misuse. His son Juliano codirects, with two-time Oscar nominee Wenders, an intimate portrait of an artist who’s been to some of the most conflicted areas of the world. The IDA-nommed film also took home two prizes at Cannes this year.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

HBO Documentary Films

Director: Nick Broomfield

Broomfield, known for his previous crime docs, digs deep into the case of South Central Los Angeles serial killer Lonnie Franklin, who was arrested in 2010 after two decades of murders. The IDA-nommed film looks for answers as to why it took the LAPD so long to make an arrest.

Virunga

Netflix

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

As civil war rages in Africa’s Congo region, the continent’s natural resources are being decimated. Einsiedel takes a look at a small group of conservationists who have the very dangerous job of trying to save the endangered mountain gorilla population from poachers. Along with awards from the festival circuit, Virunga has a Cinema Eye Honors nomination.