Even with 124 films qualifying for a run at the Documentary Feature Oscar this year, the longlist from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences isn’t as extensive as in previous years. But as the doc branch sets to work narrowing the list down further, there’s a sense that this year’s race is still up for grabs.
While CitizenFour came out of last year’s New York Film Festival as the doc to beat, the class of 2015 comes from all corners. Amy is the boxoffice hit on everyone’s lips but Michael Moore’s return to form with Where to Invade Next looks set to give it a run. There are returning doc directors like Alex Gibney and Amy Berg as well as films from fresh-faced newcomers to the Oscar race, such as Cartel Land and Sherpa.
And then there’s Joshua Oppenheimer. Many felt he was robbed of his moment when The Act of Killing lost out to 20 Feet from Stardom in 2014. Re-examining the Indonesian genocide this year with The Look of Silence, could this be his moment?
There’s still time before Oscar announces its shortlisted 15 docs next month, so with an open field ahead, here’s an educated guess at what that list might look like.
Asif Kapadia’s look at the tortured life of Amy Winehouse, which just nabbed a nom from the International Documentary Association’s doc awards, leads the charge for music-themed pics, battling with the likes of Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue and Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Kapadia’s previous film, Senna, didn’t qualify for an Oscar, but won big at BAFTA.
Matthew Heineman’s exposé of Mexican drug cartels and the lives they tear apart is a fearless example of a doc’s power to look behind the headlines. The film follows a civilian coalition stepping in to fight and protect the ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Alex Gibney’s other film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, will go toe-to-toe with a big-budget feature version of the same story from Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin. Going Clear, which features interviews with a number of high-profile ex-Scientologists, already has challenged its biggest opponent: the church itself.
An Inconvenient Truth Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim didn’t know what to expect when he knocked on Malala Yousafzai’s door. The Nobel prize-winner turns out to be a typical teen: teasing her younger brothers, giggling over Roger Federer and demanding that the U.S. Commander-in-Chief halt drone warfare in the Middle East.
It’s hard not to be seriously troubled by the information contained within Kirby Dick’s searing examination of sexual assault on college campuses. Alleged victims are shrugged off while colleges’ coffers are stoked by fraternities and football. The filmmaker pulls no punches when it comes to connecting those dots.
The final film for documentarian Albert Maysles, who died shortly after the film’s release, this is a touching profile of fashionista Iris Apfel, whose inimitable style is drawn from a total lack of pretension. What makes the film such a treat is Maysles’ contrasting of Apfel’s modesty with the big egos of fashion.
Listen to Me Marlon
There are plenty of films about film this year—including Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words and Hitchcock/Truffaut—and many of them share a similar theme: the stars talking about themselves. Stevan Riley’s film, also an IDA nominee, draws on hundreds of hours of audiotape from Marlon Brando to weave its tale.
The Look of Silence
The Act of Killing hadn’t been released when Oppenheimer followed an optometrist named Adi as he confronted the people responsible for his brother’s death in the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s. Most documentarians favor a hands-off approach, but it has been Oppenheimer’s gentle nudging of his subjects that has resulted in breakthroughs more than 40 years after the fact. It just got an IDA nom.
Amy Berg’s other film of the year, Prophet’s Prey, focuses on the victims of Warren Jeffs and his Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints church. It details Jeffs’ capture, credited largely to the tenacity of private investigator Sam Brower and journalist Jon Krakauer (who’s also in the film Meru and wrote the book on which Everest partially is based).
While the aforementioned Meru details a mountaineering expedition from the perspective of the mountaineers, Jennifer Peedom’s film travels to Everest to give much-delayed credit to the Sherpa people who keep that mountain open. At basecamp for the 2014 avalanche, Peedom finds an incredibly tense relationship between local guides and their foreign climber clients.
Song of Lahore
When Sharia Law was imposed in Pakistan in the 1970s, it challenged a tradition of classical music that had stood for centuries. Song of Lahore, from Oscar-winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken, follows a group of Pakistani classical musicians as they travel to New York and work tirelessly to keep their traditions alive.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Taking its title from an essay by Maya Angelou, Liz Garbus’s intimate portrait of Nina Simone finds extraordinary strife and life-dominating frustrations behind the icon. When the filmmaker chooses to include Simone’s rendition of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the stakes are laid out. But Garbus’ IDA-nominated film rises to the challenge.
Where to Invade Next
Michael Moore travels the world “invading” other countries for their best ideas, such as France’s high-quality school meals, Italy’s five-week vacations and Germany’s unionized workforce. Moore’s trademark brand of good humor blended with home truths received a rapturous welcome at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. Has Moore got his groove back?
Winter on Fire
It’s hard not to think of Les Miserables while watching Evgeny Afineevsky’s frontline documentary about the student demonstrations in Ukraine over the winter of 2013-14. There are makeshift barricades, 12-year-old revolutionaries and stirring unrest. But there also is police brutality scarcely laid so bare, and this doc is no romance.
Taking the top doc prize at Sundance, Crystal Moselle’s film sure has changed the lives of it subjects, the Angulo family teenagers, who had rarely left their New York apartment and lived vicariously through the films of Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. Since its release the boys have traveled to their Mecca: Hollywood, CA.