Best Documentary Feature Oscar Shortlist: What Films You Need to See and Where to See Them


This year’s shortlist for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Almost all of the 15 semi-finalist titles are must-see films, many are among my favorites of the year and only one of them is something I don’t like at all. Plus, one of the frontrunners could wind up being the longest film ever to win an Academy Award.

And also there isn’t a single music doc in the bunch this year!

Just as I did last year at the request of readers, below is a ranking of what’s most-to-least essential to watch before the announcement of the Academy Award nominees on January 24, 2017 — when the contenders will be narrowed to five. This isn’t about best to worst so much as what will probably be nominated and what won’t and what deserves to be and what doesn’t.

In addition to sharing the order to see them in, I also let you know how and where to see them if available.

O.J.: Made in America
Nonfics Rating: ★★★★★
One of two great undertakings involving the O.J. Simpson murder trial, this one uses the courtroom circus as a centerpiece in what’s part biography of Simpson, part history of racial tension and assimilation in the U.S., particularly in Los Angeles. At 467 minutes, it has the room to be comprehensive in covering the before and after of the trial in an extraordinarily thorough manner, but it’s not just because it can include so much. What it includes and how, through editing, through director Ezra Edelman’s interviews, is what makes it so smart and satisfying and one of the most deserving of the Oscar. Already it’s won four Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and has been named best doc by various critics and other awards-giving groups. Because of its length, it will make history when it’s nominated, but it also will not likely win because not all Academy members will watch it.
Watch Now: Theatrical engagements are still happening here and there for the film in its entirety, or you can stream it in parts on, Hulu and other VOD services. It’s also out on DVD and on iTunes.

Nonfics Rating and Review: ★★★★
A fresh kind of first-person documentary, this feature by Kristen Johnson compiles footage from and shot for other films she’s worked on as a director of photography or cameraperson. The result is a powerful memoir combined with a portrait of the world over the past decade and a half combined with a deconstruction of the documentary form. It’s impossible to sell how great the film is by trying to describe it, but it’s wonderful. And it has a good chance at a nomination from peers who have either worked with her or simply respect her achievement. So far it’s a big winner at festivals, but it’s coming in hot for Oscar season.
Watch Now: In theaters (see playdates) and available to pre-order on Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD, out on February 7, 2017.

Nonfics Rating: ★★★★
A political documentary that would have been incredible in any year, this up close chronicle of Anthony Weiner’s scandal-ridden run for New York City mayor is even more fascinating as released opposite the 2016 presidential election. The film is a winner thanks to its priveleged access to Weiner’s home and campaign but also for the ways Weiner and his former aide, now director, Josh Kriegman (co-directing with Elyse Steinberg) clash in their joint knowledge of what this thing ultimately is, as a movie. Maybe Academy members will be too sick of the politician subject matter, but it’s too great a doc for them to pass on. Previous honors include big prizes at Sundance and the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards.
Watch Now: On Showtime On Demand or for purchase on Amazon Video, iTunes or on DVD.

Fire at Sea
Nonfics Rating: ★★★★
Gianfranco Rosi is finally getting his due in America thanks mostly to a surprise Golden Bear win at Berlin plus its being about one of the big world issues of our time, the migrant/refugee crisis in Europe. On the one hand, this film has also been officially submitted by Italy for the foreign language Oscar and like other docs before it could just wind up there and not in this category. On the other hand, it could go the other way and be this year’s Look of Silence. Or both! It’s a bit of a dark horse, as it’s been a festival and critical favorite but hasn’t really been talked about in the mainstream as others on the shortlist.
Watch Now: In theaters (see playdates).

Life, Animated
Nonfics Rating and Review: ★★
By far our least favorite title on the shortlist, despite the central story of an austistic person’s coming of age and his family’s struggle to get through to him being obviously heartwarming stuff. This is very, very popular with almost everyone else who sees it — audience awards have piled up all year for director Roger Ross Williams — and it will definitely win over a majority of Academy members, first in the doc branch for a nomination and then in the greater voting body for a strong chance at the award. The fact that Disney movies are a substantial part of the story, as in its questionable focus as a specific studio brand that reached the subject, Owen Suskind, will also resonate big time in Hollywood.
Watch Now: On Amazon Video, iTunes and other digital outlets or on DVD.

I Am Not Your Negro
Nonfics Rating: ★★★★
Raoul Peck’s latest film is a latecomer on the scene but is rising significantly with attention coming in the form of various accolades, including this week’s Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards win. Based on an unfinished James Baldwin book and featuring hearty clips of him as well as Samuel L. Jackson reading his words in voiceover, this is another doc on the list that looks at race in America. Concentrated on the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, it also constantly ties in current events to show how short a distance we’ve come on the issue. It could be too academic in its tone, but this also one of the places the Academy could look to for a remedy to the Oscars so white problem.
Watch Soon: Following a qualifying run, it doesn’t actually open for regular release until February 3rd.

Nonfics Rating and Review: ★★★
Complimentary to I Am Not Your Negro but very different in form, Ava DuVernay’s doc on race in America is a more broad primer on issues like the prison industrial complex and police brutality, but it all adds up to a powerfully communicated thesis on the continuation of slavery in the U.S. by way of an exception in the 13th Amendment. DuVernay’s film is the more digestable for the mainstream, its editing methods almost propagandic in the way they keep the viewer’s attention and maintain his anger at what he or she sees. Netflix will surely be campaiging strongly for its nomination, and in the end the Hollywood voting body of the Academy may want to recognize DuVernay since they did not recently with Selma, but ultimately this is the sort of issue doc that hasn’t won the Oscar in some time.
Watch Now: On Netflix.

Nonfics Rating and Review: ★★★★
I’ve long been a champion of director Clay Tweel as one of the most underrated names in documentary, and it’s great to see him finally being recognized on this level. It was a shame his last movie, Finders Keepers, wasn’t on the 2015 shortlist. Still, as brilliantly funny and tragic and altogether wonderful as this doc is, I’m not sure it will be what voters are interested in this year. Especially if they recognize Life, Animated and only want one film about a subject with some sort of handicap. It’s not been a big winner up til now, but to its advantage it is winning over pretty much everyone who sees it. The trouble is trying to sell such a tearjerker to more people.
Watch Now: On Amazon Video, iTunes, etc. and on DVD.

The Eagle Huntress
Nonfics Rating: ★★★
With obviously appealing landscape cinematography and an easily lovable subject, this is a crowdpleaser with some substance in its focus on a young Kazakh girl breaking through a male-dominated sport and society to compete in an eagle hunt contest. The direction by first timer Otto Bell is nicely artificial in its attempt to offer a narrative more than reality, but there are still a bunch of imperfections, such as Daisy Ridley’s unncessary voiceover work. If it makes it to the next level it’s because of a desire for something relatively light and cheery in the mix.
Watch Now: In theaters (see playdates).

Zero Days
Nonfics Rating: ★★★★
Alex Gibney made his best documentary in years, and for some reason it’s not one of the most talked about. Never mind that its subject is a specific act of cyber warfare and in general the promise that this is the new thing to worry about equivalent to nuclear bombs last century, it’s also a smooth nonfiction thriller that isn’t always easy to comprehend in detail but is always effective in tone and overall comprehension, and it does some terrific things with the form, particulalry the often visually stale talking head interview element. Aside from it not having much buzz or any prior honors, there’s also the matter of Gibney being a winner already, albeit almost a decade ago.
Watch Now: On Showtime On Demand and on Amazon Video, iTunes, etc. Also available to pre-order on DVD, which releases January 17, 2017.

Nonfics Rating: ★★★
A stunning achievement for its animated nonfiction storytelling and reenactment of the 1966 University of Texas sniper tragedy, this feature by Keith Maitland is impressive but somewhat empty of purpose on a legitimate level. Then it has a moment where it tries to tie the incident to shootings of this century and unlike the blatant relevance added to docs like I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, it doesn’t work here because the connection is too obvious — we already think of the relevance while watching — and too far removed. It’s worth seeing but its major flaws keep it from deserving awards. Others disagree, though, so there’s a small chance of its nomination.
Watch Now: In theaters (see playdates).

The Ivory Game
Nonfics Rating:★★★
I don’t have a lot to say good or bad about Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s documentary on elephant poaching other than it’s another Netflix title worth streaming if you have the service. It’s kind of going for the same subject area as Virunga, which was nominated, but it’s not quite on that level and so shouldn’t get a nomination. Of course, this is Netflix we’re talking about and they’ve been overly successful in getting their docs recognized even when its their lesser stuff. There’s a chance, but not a fair one.
Watch Now: On Netflix.

The Witness
Nonfics Rating: ★★★
Surprisingly true crime hasn’t had a big presence at the Oscars, outside of the third Paradise Lost installment, but this could change all that. It’s not particularly memorable for its filmmaking, yet the story of Kitty Genovese’s brother investigating the circumstances of her murder many decades ago is quite compelling. I’m glad it got this far, but I don’t see it going any further.
Watch Now: On Netflix and on Amazon Video, iTunes, etc. and on DVD.

Hooligan Sparrow
Nonfics Rating: ★★★
Wang Nanfu’s documentary on Chinese women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan is worthy of awards. We named it one of the best Human Rights Watch films of this year and we predict it will do well with Emmy nominations next year, as it played PBS’s POV series this fall. Like The Witness, it’s more of a small screen doc than others in this bunch, and while that hasn’t mattered in the past I think the Academy has been remedying this (notice there are no HBO docs on the shortlist this year). Its time will come.
Watch Now: On Netflix now and on DVD beginning December 13th.

Command and Control
Nonfics Rating: ★★
I disliked this one almost immediately for an admittedly picky reason: Eric Schlosser, whose book it’s based on is extremely prominent as a talking head, a redundancy I don’t care for. But I will say it’s a nice and shiny, well-produced and competently shot conventional doc, clear in its point and otherwise effective for its history and for being a chilling look at a nuclear missile accident. Next to Zero Days it seems old fashioned in topic in addition to style and it just doesn’t feel like something essential let alone worthy of an Oscar.
Watch Soon: Airing on PBS on January 10, 2017.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.