Reality Check: A Look At This Year’s Documentary Hopefuls

Antonia Blyth
Deadline

Documentary competition is stiff for the five available Oscar noms this year, with several of the strongest contenders breaking out of Sundance, setting the stage for a tense race as far back as January.

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner (IFC) won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at the festival—the film follows the downward spiral of the politician with a penchant for inappropriate selfies and has already proven itself a quasi-comedic hit this year. HBO’s Jim: The James Foley Story snagged the Audience Award with its harrowing depiction of Foley’s abduction by ISIS, while Life, Animated (The Orchard) won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award for the moving and heartfelt story of a young autistic man expressing himself through a love of animated film.

Streaming services are definitely upping the ante too this year, with Netflix showing a particularly strong front with 13th, Selma director Ava DuVernay’s exposure of modern-day slavery; Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno; Audrie & Daisy, an exposé of sexual assault in U.S. high schools; and The Ivory Game, the title of which speaks somewhat for itself. Not to be outdone, Amazon offers Sundance standout hit Gleason, which follows the life of Steve Gleason, the former NFL player diagnosed with ALS.

With many more options on the docket, such as Going Clear director Alex Gibney’s Zero Days and ESPN’s critically-acclaimed eight-hour marathon OJ: Made in America, it seems the Academy might have a tough job whittling it down to a shortlist in December. But for now, here’s an educated guess at the top 15.

Weiner

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg may have thought they were making a film about Anthony Weiner’s run for mayor of New York. But when things took a sharp left turn with Weiner’s new sex scandal, the filmmakers rolled with the punches, to great effect. Aside from its Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the film just snagged the Best First Documentary award in the new documentary film Critics’ Choice offshoot, which honored 14 documentaries this month.

Gleason

Amazon was quick to snap up Gleason at Sundance, and it has since become a critics’ favorite, picking up a Critics’ Choice best documentary feature nom. Clay Tweel’s film takes us on an extremely close-up and personal journey with NFL player Steve Gleason, often in the form of Gleason’s own video journals, as he simultaneously faces ALS and first-time fatherhood. The result is an unflinching and uplifting look at a family under siege.

13th

Ava DuVernay’s blistering look at the U.S justice system focuses on a jaw-dropping ‘loophole’ in the 13th amendment, that effectively made slavery legally allowable in the instance of criminal conviction. The Netflix film details the cycle that created and perpetuates the skewed treatment of people of color within the system. The opener for the New York Film Festival– a first for a documentary—it also recently snagged three Critics’ Choice documentary awards.

O.J.: Made in America

ESPN’s nearly eight-hour, epic documentary took the Best Documetary prize at the Critics’ Choice Awards, and a limited theatrical release qualifies it for Oscar consideration. Split into five episodes as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Ezra Edelman’s project takes a detailed look at O.J.’s trajectory to fame—and subsequent descent into infamy—taking us back as far as the 1960s. Initially somewhat eclipsed in the public arena by the dramatized TV limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson, this extraordinary feat of journalism is about way more than “the trial of the century”.

Life, Animated

The message of Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated is nothing short of magical, as we meet Owen Suskind, a young autistic man who abruptly stopped talking as a child, but who found his way back to communication through animated films such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Already an Academy Award winner for his documentary short Music by Prudence in 2010, Life, Animated won Williams the documentary directing award at Sundance.

Amanda Knox

With two separate trial acquittals failing to quiet public suspicion over her innocence, and following two years of persuasion, Amanda Knox agreed to cooperate with this film, giving her version of events in a series of stark, straight-to-camera interviews. Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst’s Netflix doc effectively declares “Foxy Knoxy” innocent once and for all, in this gripping reexamination of the evidence in the 2007 Meredith Kercher murder. Interviews with bumbling local law enforcement and headline-driven press are the icing on the cake.

The Ivory Game

Coming out of Telluride, this Netflix project exposes the very real threat of extinction faced by elephants. Directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson (whose film Open Heart got a 2013 Oscar nom), it’s also exec produced by powerhouse environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio. The use of concealed cameras ups the edge-of-seat factor, while the film’s depiction of all sides of the poaching trade seeks real answers rather than simple pathos.

Miss Sharon Jones!

With Oscar wins in 1977 and 1991 (Harlan County U.S.A, American Dream), Barbara Kopple is back with a foray into the world of Sharon Jones, singer with The Dap-Kings. After being told she was “too old, too fat, too short and too black” to make it, Jones did just that at the age of 40. The kicker is, she also got Stage 2 pancreatic cancer. Kopple takes us on an incredible tour of the human spirit and the power of music; a poignant eulogy for Jones, who died last Thursday.

Zero Days.jpeg
Zero Days.jpeg

Zero Days

Following a loss for last year’s shortlisted Going Clear, previous Oscar and Emmy winner Alex Gibney returns with a terrifying journey into malware and its potential consequences. Could we survive a viral shut down? Is this all mere paranoia? Zero Days (Participant/Showtime) pulls back the curtain on the shady side of the internet and our often-unwitting reliance on computer systems.

Into the Inferno

Ever wondered what it’s like to stand on the edge of a volcano? Werner Herzog’s Netflix doc takes you there in lurid, terrifying detail, while documenting the reverence, fear and ritual of local people living under the imminent threat of eruption. Another Telluride premiere, this film was finished just shortly after the prolific Herzog’s Lo and Behold.

Fire at Sea

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea gives an up-close perspective of the international refugee crisis as it happens on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Only 70 miles away from North African shores, the island provides a first landing place for thousands of refugees, despite its having only one doctor. Winning the Golden Bear at Berlin, Fire at Sea is the result of 18 months of shooting, in which Rosi (El Sicario, Room 164) accessed an Italian Naval rescue ship, gained entry to the refugee encampment and depicted the realities of both the local and migrant communities.

Trapped

Dawn Porter’s film Trapped revisits the question of anti-abortion laws in the U.S., and their first-hand effects in the American South. With an emphasis on the day-to-day workings of clinics in Alabama, Texas and Mississippi, the film gets its title from TRAP (targeted regulations of abortion providers) and artfully discusses the strength of feeling around the topic.

Audrie & Daisy

While last year’s The Hunting Ground ripped the lid off colleges quietly sidelining sexual assault, Netflix’s Audrie & Daisy goes back to high school, where teen rape and its subsequent medieval-style slut-shaming can be deadly—as in the case of Audrie Pott, who committed suicide following an assault by her classmates at a party. Husband and wife directors Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) and Bonni Cohen (Inside Guantanamo Bay) follow Daisy Coleman, who was 14 when she was assaulted, then harassed online. Nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, the doc also boasts an original theme song: “Flicker”, by Tori Amos.

Newtown

The Kim A. Snyder-directed Newtown looks at the aftermath of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, in which 20 children and six teachers were killed. A Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance, it’s been lauded by the participating parents as a powerful ally in the fight against gun violence, while Snyder’s bare-bones use of family interviews lets the horrifying material speak loud and clear.

Jim: The James Foley Story

U.S. photojournalist James Foley had incredibly already escaped a kidnapping in Libya before he was abducted in Syria by ISIS. Directed by Foley’s childhood friend Brian Oakes (Living With Lincoln), HBO’s Jim: The James Foley Story may rightly exclude the online video of Foley’s execution, but it doesn’t shy away from depicting the horror of war, at times using Foley’s own footage to shattering effect. With Sting’s original song “The Empty Chair” (in competition with Audrie & Daisy’s Tori Amos theme), a Sundance Audience Award and an Emmy win already, Jim is surely a strong frontrunner.

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