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Could This Be the Year of the Documentary Best Picture Oscar Nominee?

Everything is on the table with this year’s awards race

17 mins read

As the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) approaches, now is the time when pundits usually prepare their Oscar predictions. The September festival traditionally shapes the race and sets the frontrunners. Just look at previous TIFF People’s Choice Award winners like Green Book, 12 Years a Slave, Three Billboards, La La Land, and Jojo Rabbit, which all won Oscars and became Best Picture nominees. (Some even won that prize.) On the documentary front, recent TIFF People’s Choice winners like The Cave, Faces Places, and Free Solo all landed Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature and, in the latter case, won the prize.

This year is much different, both for the fall festival circuit and the Oscars. The Academy Awards shifted their annual ceremony to April 25, 2021 and will allow a special one-time exemption for eligible titles to forgo their theatrical runs in lieu of a streaming release (provided they originally intended to be “theatrical” films) as Hollywood navigates its survival amid the coronavirus pandemic. 2020 has seen few releases of dramatic films that are realistic contenders to withstand an additional two months of campaigning. Distributors are holding their Oscar hopefuls tighter than usual ahead of the fall festival circuit. Docs, meanwhile, are less costly and have niche audiences anyway, so they’re less risky to release via streaming or in the extremely limited theatrical runs that have arisen in the summer of COVID-19. These factors invite a question: will 2021 finally be the year that a documentary lands a Best Picture Oscar nomination?

Precedents and Parasite

When the Best Picture category expanded to ten nominees in 2009, many pundits believed the wider net would benefit animated films, independent films, world cinema, and documentaries. Nominations came for Toy Story 3, A Serious Man, Parasite, Amour, and even The Blind Side. But films like Amy, The Look of Silence, Inside Job, 20 Feet from Stardom, and American Factory couldn’t crack the top ten (or flexible 5 to 10 nominees) in the years since. There are precedents for high-profile cases of documentaries mounting Best Picture campaigns and falling embarrassingly short.

Most notably, the team behind Steve James’ Hoop Dreams felt sure it would land nominations for both Best Picture and Best Documentary, but received nothing but a Best Film Editing citation. Michael Moore, meanwhile, infamously withdrew his controversial Palme d’Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11 from the documentary race—partly to make the film available on television prior to the 2004 election and partly to set his eyes on the bigger prize after winning the doc Oscar two years prior for Bowling for Columbine. Again, nothing happened at the Oscars for Fahrenheit 9/11 despite it being a talking point of the year while grossing over $100 million.

Everything is on the table with the Oscars this year. This fact is especially significant on the heels of the historic win for Parasite in February as the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture. (An asterisked statistic since 2011’s winner The Artist was a silent French-American co-production.) Parasite’s win means the glass ceiling is broken for standards of what constitutes the usual Oscar fare—prestige pictures or middlebrow dad movies, generally. It also indicates that the newly renamed Best International Feature category doesn’t limit world cinema to the category that acknowledges it specifically. Before Parasite, many international films missed the Best Picture win or nomination in part because voters could simply give titles like Roma, Amour, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the Best Foreign Language Film prize and award establishment fare with the top banana.

However, while ten “foreign language” Best Picture nominees preceded Parasite’s win, no documentary has yet to be nominated in the top field. Feature documentaries, like international films, obviously have their own category, but Parasite proves that the Best Documentary prize needn’t be a barrier. There’s also hope for docs to expand beyond their unique category with 2019’s Honeyland — the Macedonian beekeeper film that landed an unprecedented pair of nominations for Best Documentary and Best International Feature. It lost both prizes but punched through a wall that contenders like Pina and Fire at Sea failed to crack. Honeyland proves that being a documentary isn’t a barrier to being one of the year’s best international films and vice versa, just as Parasite attests for “films” and “international films.”

The Branches

Articles have been written about the Academy’s reluctance to nominate documentaries for Best Picture in the past, and they often cite the perceived bias of docs as dry or “educational” as barriers. That perception is obviously inaccurate and upsetting with documentaries remaining relegated to one category despite being more popular and “fun” than ever. The real roadblock is the nature of the Oscars themselves. Individual branches nominate the categories for their respective fields and everyone sends their picks for Best Picture.

This framework means that cinematographers choose the cinematography nominees, the actors shape the acting categories, and the documentary branch picks the docs. When actors, writers, and directors comprise the bulk of voting members, docs hardly stand a chance for a Best Picture nomination. Time is limited, so it makes sense that actors will plough through screeners with lauded ensembles and skip the docs, just as make-up artists likely aren’t watching many animated films heading into the nomination round. Best Picture nominees often build support branch by branch, so documentaries are inherently disadvantaged.

The nature of the game explains why documentaries rarely appear in crafts categories like film editing and score, despite recent contenders like Amy, Jane, and Apollo 11 being widely praised for their technical achievements. (And mounting aggressive campaigns with middling success.) No documentary has ever been nominated for Best Director or Best Screenplay, despite Michael Moore winning the Writers’ Guild of America prize for Bowling for Columbine and many docs offering more inspired direction than the dramas that won Best Picture in their respective years. As A.A. Dowd wrote at The A/V Club when making the case for the inclusion of The Look of Silence outside the Best Documentary category, “Keeping documentaries imprisoned in their own five-film category devalues the craftsmanship that goes into them.”

The Docs of 2020

This year, however, Oscar voters don’t seem to have many viable options outside of documentaries. Non-fiction films have dominated releases on conventional streaming sites and virtual cinemas since indoor theatres shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. Few, if any, dramas released in 2020 are legitimate contenders for Best Picture nominations. As much as the critics love Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Delroy Lindo deserves serious consideration for his performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, neither film seems likely to land a Best Picture nomination since they’re too slow and a messy bloodbath, respectively. The fall festival line-up has only a handful of realistic contenders: Chloé Zhao’s hybrid drama Nomadland starring Frances McDormand, the lesbian drama Ammonite starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, and the Canadian co-pro French Exit with Michelle Pfeiffer, recently announced as the closing night pick for the New York Film Festival, to name a few.

This year’s truly viable Oscar contenders are all documentaries. For example, the Sundance Audience Award winner Crip Camp joined fellow Netflix title Da 5 Bloods as one of the first nine films released on screeners to Oscar voters. Crip Camp is one of the year’s most acclaimed films from critics and audiences alike, having provided an early balm of positive vibes during COVID lockdowns in March. The film’s expert editing and immersive sound design might appeal to technical branches looking for a stream when they can’t go to the movies.

Similarly, 2020 has its next RBG in John Lewis: Good Trouble. The inspiring portrait of the late civil rights activist and senator is one of the year’s most relevant films arriving just weeks after the Black Lives Matter movement exploded and mere days before Lewis passed away. Ditto the timeliness of the invigorating ACLU saga The Fight, which will likely bring Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres the Oscar nomination they should have landed for Weiner a few years ago. Welcome to Chechnya, on the other hand, offers a compelling account of the fight for LGBTQ rights in Russia and uses groundbreaking effects to preserve the anonymity of its subjects. There’s also Barbara Kopple’s Desert One, the Iranian hostage rescue-mission saga out next week, which as thrilling as Best Picture winner Argo and gets its facts straight to boot.

Voters even have a swell curiosity in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Like the works mentioned above, it’s one of 2020’s most acclaimed films and provided some of the best talking points. Critics can’t decide if it’s a documentary or a drama, but they agree that the Ross Brothers’ ruse of creating a replica of a pub and filling it with real barflies is refreshing auteur cinema. Rather than debate whether Bloody Nose is eligible for Best Documentary Feature, voters could simply acknowledge that it’s one of the year’s best works, period, by considering the film or the directors, if they want to be bold.

The Case for Boys State

Debuting this week on Apple TV+ is Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize winner for U.S. Documentary, Boys State, directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. Boys State feels like a shoo-in for a Best Documentary Feature nomination and it could go all the way to win. It is a thrilling, enrapturing, and invigorating experience as it takes audiences through a week long camp in which young men stage a mock election. The film speaks to the polarisation in contemporary U.S. politics with verve and swagger as it observes America’s future leaders lift bogus moves from the Trump playbook or choose to push progressive ideals at the risk of alienation.

Boys State is also an exceptionally well-crafted film that merits consideration for the prize on artistic finesse alone. Moss and McBaine’s coup, much like 2019’s winner American Factory, is their immersive observation that captures a diversity of perspectives. The editing is a dizzying feat that cuts together views from eight filmmaking teams scurrying through the Boys State locale to document moments both micro and macro that illustrate the intricacies of the camp. In a situation that afforded no second takes, the result is remarkable. These snapshots embody the greater polarization in American culture and provide thrilling character arcs and emotional punches. The film has everything it takes to win an Oscar. A drama with a similar spark, finesse, and entertainment value would likely be a legitimate Best Picture contender. So why can’t Boys State?

The Trump Factor

On one hand, documentaries may benefit from this erratic Oscar season. Doc filmmakers like Moss and McBaine and the Ross Brothers are strategists, who are familiar with campaigns that are less reliant on glitz and glamour. Strategists for dramatic films are rethinking and rebuilding without the usual in-person schmoozing that gives star-studded pics an edge.

Beyond the logistics of the race, the volatile climate of 2020 provides the ideal temperature for a film like Boys State to resonate. The Trump factor can’t be discounted and one could say that the appetite for films with bite is hungrier than ever. In this post-truth age with Fake News on the rise, documentaries continue to expand their audience while directly confronting the issues of the day. One could similarly attribute Parasite’s success to its ability to capture the zeitgeist. Subtitles don’t matter when the outrage Parasite conveys is universal.

Beyond being the few quality films available this year, documentaries embody what audiences need and crave in 2020. They provide windows into everyday experience at a time when we’re all at home. They confront an erratic superpower that’s thrown the world into four years’ of chaos and inspire us to fight for what’s right. Docs harness the spirit that we see in the streets. A film deemed great enough to embody a year in cinema should reflect the moment in which it emerged and touched audiences.

In 2020, these films are out there and they’re all documentaries. Now voters simply need to use the extra time on their hands and actually watch them.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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