Will Win/ Should Win: Breaking Down Oscar’s Best Documentary Feature Race

Amy is the Oscar frontrunner.


By Pat Mullen

The Oscars are this Sunday! Today is the final day for voting, and now that all the champagne parties and Hollywood hobnobbing is complete, POV think it’s time to break down this year’s race for Best Documentary Feature. Here’s a look at the five nominees this year, plus picks for who will win, could win, and should win Oscar gold. It’s a strong group of contenders this year, so any film is a worthy choice.

Amy: This superbly assembled archival film and 2015 box office champ for documentary puts the onus of singer Amy Winehouse’s death on all of us as director Asif Kapadia boldly implies that her death by alcohol poisoning was on some level a suicide to escape the all-consuming curse of celebrity. Amy heartbreakingly celebrates a talent lost too soon and incisively cuts at the celebrity culture that makes victims of its own stars.

Cartel Land: Anyone who was awestruck by Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario must watch Matthew Heineman’s eye-opening Cartel Land, which navigates both sides of the drug trade in Mexico and America. The film offers no solution to the problem because, at present, one doesn’t exist. It’s all a case of supply and demand, as Cartel Land reveals the incalculable losses of the drug trade. This raw, brutal, and incendiary film is an impressive exposé—and a potential spoiler for Amy given its recent upset win at the Directors’ Guild of America Awards.

The Look of Silence: Joshua Oppenheimer revisits the civil war and mass murders of 1960s Indonesia in his companion piece to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence. Silence takes a more conventional approach to the topic, so it might suffer in comparison for viewers hoping to explore another formally radical film. Silence still stings, since Oppenheimer gives an impeccably pointed interrogation through the eyes of family members left to mourn the victims.

What Happened, Miss Simone?: This nominee goes beyond the standard biopic as Liz Garbus creates a rich portrait of bipolar singer Nina Simone. The film doesn’t shy away from asking if “The High Priestess of Soul” undermined her star status by developing a radical voice, but Garbus smartly positions the danger in Simone’s outspokenness as a black woman within the racial tensions of the time. The film might be the best case for diverse stories this year.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom: The winner of the People’s Choice Award for Documentary at TIFF 2015, Winter on Fire offers filmmaking from the front lines. Director Evgeny Afineevsky melds activism with art by joining a chorus of Ukrainians as they occupy Independence Square to protest the corruption of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Like fellow Netflix doc The Square, Winter on Fire is an Occupy-era powerhouse that urgently captures the power of digital democracy.

Will win: 2015 was all about the music doc, which gives Amy an edge. It had the widest appeal and the most traction on the pre-Oscar circuit. The craftsmanship and breadth of research is equally compelling. Add to this list the film’s strong bevvy of industry support with wins at the Producers Guild Awards, American Cinema Editors, and British Academy Awards, and Amy looks to have a healthy lead.

Could win: Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing lost in 2014, so his comparatively conventional—but equally chilling—_The Look of Silence_ might have a better chance of garnering votes in a tight race. It has the most support from critics’ groups, so voters following the award season gongs might have taken the advice to watch the screener.

Should win: In a year defined by music docs, What Happened Miss Simone? deserves to stand tallest with its wonderful portrait of a singer, her demons, and the cultural backdrop that shaped her career. It’s simply the deepest, fullest, and most beautifully assembled film of the bunch.

Should have been there: POV has many fans who were rooting for Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog to be best in show.

Which film do you predict will win? Which film gets your vote?

For a look at the Best Documentary, Short Subject nominees, click here. Shorts are tricky to predict, but we’re rooting strongest for Lanzmann in a field with four very worthy contenders.

The Academy Awards air Sunday, Feb. 28.