In typical fashion, this year’s Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature began at Sundance, with the festival yielding several standouts.
Winner of the U.S. documentary Grand Jury Award was Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ Dina (The Orchard)–which follows autistic couple Dina Bruno and Scott Levin’s wedding preparations. STEP (Fox Searchlight) received rave reviews for its upli ing story of a transformative dance troupe at a Baltimore girls’ school, while Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan’s Whose Streets? (Magnolia Pictures) tackled Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. Then, there was Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen’s follow-up to Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth—An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Paramount/Participant Media).
Outside of these topical outings, a leading theme among this year’s Sundance offerings was the crisis in Syria, with three films covering the subject. From 2015 nominee Matthew Heineman, City of Ghosts (A&E/Amazon) follows a renegade group of journalists documenting ISIS at great personal risk; HBO’s Cries from Syria, from Oscar-nominated Winter on Fire helmer Evgeny Afineevsky, depicts the Syrian civil war using raw footage shot by local people, and Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen’s Last Men in Aleppo (Grasshopper Film), won the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury prize for its depiction.
And the Syrian subject didn’t end at Sundance: In fact, the Tribeca-debuting Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis (National Geographic) from former Oscar nominee Sebastian Junger and Emmy winner Nick Quested (Restrepo) looks to be a frontrunner.
While over one hundred docs will be running the Academy race, only 15 of those will make the December shortlist. Here’s the lowdown on who might make that first cut.
City of Ghosts (A&E/Amazon)
Oscar nominated for Cartel Land in 2015, Emmy winner Matthew Heineman is back with this in-depth look at Syrian activist group ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’—a band of local anonymous journalists who got together to report on ISIS after it conquered their home in 2014. Heineman follows them through their terrifying and awe-inspiring stand in the face of death threats and murder. The film was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and the Critics Choice Documentary Award.
Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis (National Geographic)
From Restrepo collaborators Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, Hell on Earth gives a broad view of the Syrian crisis, offering multiple viewpoints and expert interviews. It includes footage of a local family driven to desperation, Shia militias in Iraq, and Al-Qaeda fighters in Aleppo, with an inevitably horrifying look at the violence and brutality of ISIS. Overall, the film provides a terrifying and insightful explanation of how these extremists came to power.
Faces Places (Cohen Media Group)
Winner of the L’Œil d’or award at Cannes, this film from French New Wave legend Agnès Varda and street artist JR explores the friendship between the two creators despite their 55-year age difference as they work on their ‘Inside Outside Project,’ traveling France and producing giant portrait photographs of locals that they then paste onto walls and buildings, while conducting interviews with their subjects.
Jane (National Geographic)
Brett Morgen’s Jane explores the life and legacy of Jane Goodall, following her determined mission to study chimpanzee behavior, despite being untrained and largely ridiculed by the male-dominated scientific community. The film is taken from over 100 hours of previously unseen footage, shot by photographer Hugo Van Lawick. National Geographic sent Van Lawick to document Goodall’s work back in the ‘60s, and he would eventually become her husband. The film covers the couple’s romance, Goodall’s extraordinary life in the jungle and her revolutionary findings.
Capable of turning even the least likely cat lover, Ceyda Torun’s charming portrait of seven stray Turkish felines is also a unique and moving look at Istanbul and its human populace. Full of astute observations and metaphorical musings, this stealth hit packs an emotional punch as the cats receive surprisingly heartwarming gestures of generosity and love.
Cries from Syria (HBO)
Beginning with the murder and torture of young boys who wrote anti-Bashar-al-Assad graffiti, Evgeny Afineevsky’s film draws a six-year timeline of the war in Syria. The doc covers Assad’s brutal assault on his own people with the help of Russia, ISIS’ infiltration, and ultimately, the day-to-day horror of life in Syria, employing revelatory footage taken by activists, journalists, parents, young children and a defected general. Shocking, unbearable scenes make for a vital exposé of the truth of Syria’s situation.
Dina (The Orchard)
Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ sweet and enthralling love story follows Dina Bruno as she prepares to marry Walmart greeter Scott Levin. Winner of the U.S. documentary Grand Jury Award at Sundance, the film explores the autistic couple’s tentative steps toward the altar, while sensitively revealing the painful and unexpected hurdles in the pair’s history.
Writer, director and marathon biker Bryan Fogel originally intended to make a film exploring how easy it is for professional athletes to get away with doping. But during his research, Fogel happened upon evidence of a massive Russian doping cover-up. The resulting film covers the mysterious death of anti-doping officials, the possible ban of all Russian athletes from the 2016 Olympics, and the unraveling of a deeply corrupt system.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Paramount/ Participant Media)
Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth snagged the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2007, and this follow-up film from Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk was well-received at Sundance. Exploring Al Gore’s continuing fight for the environment in the face of an unsympathetic Trump, the film offers some hope when viewers might be expecting only doom and despair.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Netflix)
Chris Smith’s exploration of Jim Carrey’s four-month transformation into comic Andy Kaufman for the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon centers on behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot, taken by Kaufman’s former girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, and his writing partner, Bob Zmuda. The Spike Jonze-produced doc from Vice Documentary Films follows Carrey as he reviews this footage years later, reflecting on his and Kaufman’s lives.
Last Men in Aleppo (Grasshopper Film)
While Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara’s The White Helmets won the 2017 Oscar for Best Documentary Short, Feras Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo proves there’s still much more to say about the Syrian rescue volunteers named for their white protective headgear. We see the repetition of their nightmare task as they dig over and over again into the rubble to pull out dead children, their stoicism coming over as heartbreaking and unremitting pain.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (ABC)
12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley’s exploration of the decade-long lead-up to the LA riots takes an unflinching look at the city’s gang culture, drug use and the shocking police tactics that built to a disastrous and tragic crescendo. Although there are several offerings this year marking the 25-year anniversary of the riots, Let It Fall is a unique historical take on the elements that preceded the crisis.
Long Strange Trip (Amazon)
Amir Bar-Lev takes us on the ultimate Grateful Dead journey with this intensive exploration of the band’s archives. Since ESPN’s seven-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America won the Oscar, Long Strange Trip—which initially screened as a four-hour movie at Sundance before streaming as six episodes on Amazon—also qualifies in the doc feature category.
STEP (Fox Searchlight)
Winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance, Amanda Lipitz’s debut film was then snapped up in a bidding war—a rare situation for a documentary. STEP follows the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women’s step team―known as the ‘Lethal Ladies’–through their senior year, giving us a heartwarming look at the power of creative dance and teamwork to overcome daily hardship.
Whose Streets? (Magnolia Pictures)
Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ film tells the story of the 2014 killing of 18 year-old Michael Brown and the subsequent outcry from the point of view of those who were there at the time. From the Ferguson uprising, to the global reach of the Black Lives Matter movement, this film gives an authoritative storytelling voice to the black Ferguson community, focusing on letting activists and local citizens speak.