Best Documentary (Feature) Oscar Shortlist Overview



Every year, the Academy releases a shortlist of films that advance in numerous categories, one of them being the Best Documentary (Feature) category. The shortlist consists of 15 films, of which 5 will be nominated. I always have loved this category because it provides new perspectives on and human faces to issues we usually only hear about in the news.


This year, I watched the entire shortlist. Here are my thoughts:


ADVOCATE (Dirs. Philippe Bellaïche, Rachel Leah Jones) - A tough-minded, even-handed film that matches its subject, ADVOCATE follows Lea Tsemel, a Jewish-Israeli lawyer who defends Palestinians in court. Never less than engrossing, this film raises troubling questions and provides no easy answers.


AMERICAN FACTORY (Dirs. Stephen Bognar, Julia Reichert) - AMERICAN FACTORY follows what happens when a Chinese company takes over an American automobile glass-manufacturing factory and the tensions that arise with evenness and humanity. Bognar and Reichert never lose sight of the humans at the center of their story and craft a portrait that's as urgent as it is provocative.


THE APOLLO (Dir. Roger Ross Williams) — This tribute to NYC's historic Apollo Theatre by Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams is well-produced and lovingly told. The passion for its subject is evident throughout.


APOLLO 11 (Dir. Todd Douglas Miller) — Heart-poundingly suspenseful, immersive, and crafted from all archival footage (some of it is never-before-seen 70mm footage), APOLLO 11 is best experienced on the biggest screen possible. A landmark achievement that brings history to life in a way rarely achieved before.


AQUARELA (Dir. Viktor Kossakovsky) - AQUARELA may not be to everyone’s tastes, but what it is is a gorgeously photographed documentary about the power of water in all its forms. It also provides the strongest case for high frame rate projection yet, as its images are frequently jaw-dropping when projected like that.


THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (Dir. John Chester) - THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM is a humbling film about one couple’s years-long struggle to create a self-sustaining farm. In awe of life’s complexities and small miracles and shot through with a true sense of kindness, this is magical filmmaking.


THE CAVE (Dir. Feras Fayaad) — Oscar-nominee Feras Fayaad's TIFF Audience Award-winner, THE CAVE follows a female doctor working in an underground hospital in Syria. Impactful and disturbing, THE CAVE serves as a tribute to an everyday hero that also shows the human cost of the bombing of Syria.


THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Petra Costa) — Like FOR SAMA below, Petra Costa's THE EDGE OF DEMOCRACY is a highly personal film about a country on the verge. Taking a deep look into the decline of democracy in Brazil, Costa's film is brilliantly-edited and moves like a thriller.


FOR SAMA (Dirs. Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts) — Harrowing and devastating, FOR SAMA is as personal as filmmaking gets, as co-director and subject Waad Al-Kateab created the film to show her daughter what life was like before and after the bombing of Aleppo and why she and her husband decided to stay behind to help people. One of the year's best and now a four-time BAFTA-nominee.


THE GREAT HACK (Dirs. Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim) — With the Cambridge Analytica scandal as its launching point, THE GREAT HACK takes a hard, frequently unnerving look at data rights. A must-see that's completely terrifying.


HONEYLAND (Dirs. Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov) — Naturalistic and tragic, this Sundance Grand Prize-winner about a Macedonian beekeeper is one of the strongest in the category.


KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE (Dir. Rachel Lears) — Rachel Lears got very lucky that one of the progressive women she profiled running for Congress turned out to be AOC. Love or hate AOC and the other women in the film, their stories are truly inspiring, and the film itself is highly entertaining.


MAIDEN (Dir. Alex Holmes) - In telling the story of the first all-women team in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race, Alex Holmes explores an extraordinary story that’s emotionally involving and vivid.


MIDNIGHT FAMILY (Dir. Luke Lorentzen) - Nerve-wracking and beautifully shot, this cinema verite look at a private ambulance service in a wealthy section of Mexico City highlights an important issue facing Mexico today that also functions as a great work of cinema.


ONE CHILD NATION (Dirs. Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang) — An ambitious and far-reaching exposé of the multi-generational effects of China’s One-Child Polocy, this searing film is one of the best of this group.


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