Which Fall Festival Documentaries Have a Shot at This Year’s Oscar?

Citizenfour Edward Snowden

During the Toronto International Film Festival this month, I saw a few awards pundits championing Joshua Oppenheimer for back-to-back Oscar nominations. He was nominated this year for The Act of Killing, and now his follow-up, The Look of Silence, is receiving comparable rave reviews during the fall festival season. It would be great to see such a feat — as Scott Feinberg pointed out at The Hollywood Reporter, only Walt Disney has done it before (and he won both years) — but unfortunately The Look of Silence is not receiving an Oscar qualifying run this year. Drafthouse Films and Participant Media will open the sequel, focused on survivors of the 1965 Indonesia genocide, next summer. Expect a nomination instead in 2016.

Fall festivals are typically the place where Academy Awards contenders debut, but that’s mainly the case for fiction films. Documentaries rarely premiere at the Telluride, Venice, Toronto or New York fests and wind up with a quick turnaround into cinemas, even for a basic limited opening for awards eligibility. The Act of Killing, to give a relevant example, made its first appearance at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2012, well before opening in July of 2013. It took more than 16 months for the Oscar nomination. Similar long-distance runners have included Food, Inc., Darwin’s Nightmare and Encounters at the End of the World.

Although a few years ago the Academy pushed back its deadline for qualifying runs to the end of the year and it suddenly looked like TIFF would be a bigger player in late-entry doc contenders, that change may have only helped out three docs since — Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in 2011, The Gatekeepers in 2012 and The Square in 2013, the former of which was an anticipated sequel with distribution in place and the latter two of which debuted earlier at other fests (The Square in a different form). The majority are still regularly coming out of Sundance (The Square among them, too). This year’s hottest possibilities, such as frontrunner Life Itself, The Overnighters and The Green Prince also debuted at the January fest this year and have already opened theatrically.

The record does show three for three as far as fall festival debuts making the cut for that year’s Oscar, so current tradition indicates that at least one of the nominees from this year should be a recent premiere. Let’s take a look at the most notable titles, including those hitting the New York Film Festival beginning this weekend, to see if any qualify and if those have a shot.

The Look of Silence (Venice) — It would have been a great double play if this could be nominated this year, but alas it doesn’t open until Summer 2015 (via Drafthouse/Participant) and will likely be a strong contender for the 2016 Oscar.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper (Telluride) — Nick Broomfield’s best film in years still might not be good enough for the Academy doc members, unless they’re drawn by the Ferguson-relevant racism of the LAPD in this story about serial murders in South Central. Also, it doesn’t sound likely that HBO will rush it for a qualifying release ahead of its 2015 airing.

How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock on His Farm in Normandy (Telluride) — It would be nice to see the Academy recognize both Leacock and the late Les Blank, who co-directed this with Gina Leibrecht, in one swoop. But the lack of buzz I’ve heard on this so far isn’t promising, and as far as I can tell it has no distribution.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (Telluride) — Director Chuck Workman is a prior Oscar winner, in the live-action short category, and the Academy likes movies about movies, but this too seems to not have distribution yet.

Seymour: An Introduction (Telluride) — Ethan Hawke is also an Oscar vet, with three prior nominations spread over the supporting actor and adapted screenplay categories. Could he make a fourth in the doc feature category with his debut as a nonfiction feature director? The doc, about pianist Seymour Bernstein, has been garnering positive reviews, and Sundance Selects picked it up quickly before it even premiered. As of yet, they haven’t announced a release date.

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt (Telluride) — As noted, last time Robert Kenner debuted a film on the fall festival circuit (Food, Inc.), it took over a year for it to receive the Oscar nomination. This one, about scientists for hire against climate change and other issues based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, was picked up early by Sony Pictures Classics and will reportedly be released before the end of the year. With mixed reviews so far, there may not be enough talk about it to push it to Academy recognition, though, unless members want to give Kenner another shot.

Beats of the Antonov (Toronto) — Winner of the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at TIFF, this Hajooj Kuka doc on Sudanese culture and identity, does not appear to have U.S. distribution yet.

The Price We Pay (Toronto) — Harold Crooks’s doc focused on big-business tax avoidance is another of our favorites from TIFF, but it too has no U.S. distributor.

Sunshine Superman (Toronto) — This doc about BASE jumping pioneer Carl Boenish has had some great buzz and sounds like another Man on Wire type success. Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films recently partnered on its distribution (as they did in the past with Blackfish), the former set to release to theaters and VOD next year and the latter to air it in 2016. That doesn’t sound like the film is in contention for this year.

Iris (New York) — It’s been 40 years since Albert Maysles received his one and only Oscar nomination, with his brother David, for the short doc Christo’s Valley Curtain. I’d love more than anything to see him recognized again and finally honored with an Academy Award for this profile of 93-year-old interior designer and fashion icon Iris Apfel. With the world premiere still two weeks away, I haven’t heard anything on its worthiness, but also this film doesn’t appear to have a major distributor yet.

Citizenfour (New York) — This was a late festival addition, and yet it’s also probably the one with the best chances. The film is directed by an Oscar nominee (Laura Poitras, previously recognized for My Country, My Country), who is very popular in the doc community especially now that she’s been a representative for documentarian rights after revealing the harrassment she’s received from Homeland Security and she contributed to the Pulitzer Prize-winning reportage on the NSA’s domestic surveillance, and it’s about a very topical subject (Edward Snowden). While it hasn’t been seen yet, as the premiere isn’t for a couple weeks, Citizenfour does already have distribution from RADIUS-TWC, which is opening the film on October 24th.

That’s the distributor, by the way, that had this year’s Oscar-winning doc, 20 Feet From Stardom, and another nominee, Cutie and the Boxer. The Weinstein Company also won in 2012 for Undefeated. Now that I’ve seen their Keep On Keepin’ On and no longer believe it a strong contender, I believe this is TWC’s best shot at not just a nomination but also anyone’s best shot at beating Life Itself.

Some other films that are heavy hitters on the fall fest circuit may also have a shot, but these all made appearances at earlier events, namely Cannes. There’s Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, which has an official release date from Sony for January 15th but likely is getting an Oscar-qualifying limited opening ahead of that. Sony also has The Salt of the Earth from two-time doc category nominee Wim Wenders with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and according to Kris Tapley of In Contention they are doing a one-week qualifying run. The Syrian Civil War doc Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait seems like it’d be able to ride a wave of current events relevance, but it has no U.S. distribution yet.

And then Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, which is just terrific and maybe more Oscar friendly than some of his other recent works (and would make a good companion to sure-to-be-nominated biopic Mr. Turner), is opening theatrically this November, but I’m not sure if Zipporah Films or Wiseman are ever that concerned with registering for qualification. Hopefully voters can write it in anyway or at the very least give Wiseman an honorary Oscar next year.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.