It’s a tough year for Oscar predictions. The documentary field looked like a clear call last fall, but recent weeks have shaken things up. Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed dominated the fall festival circuit and arguably emerged as the critical favourite, yet it struggled to gain traction once the industry guilds weighed in, netting the Spirit Award in what might be its last trophy. Fire of Love and Navalny, meanwhile, found second winds with the bodies that actually overlap with the Oscar voting pool. While Poitras probably landed the most votes from the documentary branch during the nomination round, it’s a three-way race with the more audience-friendly duo of Fire of Love and Navalny out in front.
Now that voting is officially closed, here are the films vying for Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary (Short Subject) this year, along with POV’s picks and Oscar predictions. -PM
Oscar Predictions: Best Documentary Feature
All that Breathes
Shaunak Sen’s beautiful documentary is the dark horse of the category. When you look at it, this documentary about two brothers operating a New Delhi bird clinic has the best track record among the nominees. All that Breathes made history as the first documentary to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (for world cinema) and the l’Œil d’Or at Cannes. The latter is especially impressive given the snooty festival’s aversion to documentaries and insistence on world premieres. All that Breathes also took the top prize at both the IDA Awards and the Cinema Eye Honours, and the doc prize at the American Society of Cinematographers Awards, which proves the doc crowd really loves it.
However, the film might struggle as an international indie competing against three heavyweight American productions. The Academy rarely awards international docs. But Sen’s poetic study of these brothers has universal resonance. The clinic’s care for birds, specifically black kites, evokes the larger backdrop of racial, cultural, and spiritual divides rippling through the city. All that Breathes remarkably examines the nature of humanity by considering how we treat our fellow creatures with whom we share this earth. It might be a longshot come Oscar night, but surely anybody who has seen All that Breathes will be thrilled if it wins. – PM
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is not only the best documentary of the year, but also the finest feature film, and a deserved Oscar winner. Laura Poitras’ profile of controversial, ground-breaking photographer Nan Goldin is remarkable: political, artistic and emotional. Throughout the film, Poitras uses a parallel structure, moving between Goldin’s on-going fight against the Sackler family, the makers of the devastating addictive drug OxyContin, and her history as a brilliant photographer in New York’s underground scene back in the ’70s and AIDS activist in the ’80s. Her campaign through P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in attempting to remove the Sackler name in museums and galleries around the world, where they had sought to create an impeccable reputation though billions in donations, provides a wonderful counterpoint to Goldin’s tale of becoming an artist and one of the leading voices of a generation that opened up the world to sexual diversity and then suffered through the terrifying pandemic of AIDS.
As Poitras’ film shows, Goldin spent time among queens, hookers, strippers, writers, hustlers, and thieves when she worked in a midtown Manhattan bar in the ’80s. Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her personal photographic recording of what she experienced during that dramatic, fraught period, became an immensely popular slide-show and eventually a best-selling book. But Goldin spent much of the ’80s shooting photos of beloved friends and lovers, who succumbed to AIDs. During the worst period of AIDS deaths, Goldin worked with many artists, radicals, activists and members of the LGBTQ community to effect changes in attitudes and funding, which took far too much time to be successful.
In contemporary footage, Poitras follows Goldin and her friends at P.A.I.N. as they attack the seemingly impregnable Sacklers, achieving victory with their names removed from such prestigious organizations as the Tate, the Guggenheim and the Met. The Sacklers had to give hundreds of millions to the families of their victims although they still survive, immensely wealthy and powerful.
What Nan Goldin achieved may not be a complete victory. But she and her friends have triumphed over billionaires, forcing them to lose their prestige and at least part of their power. Laura Poitras’ film tells the story of a great artist, Nan Goldin, who refused conventional success, but has triumphed on her own terms. – MG
Fire of Love
Last year’s winner Summer of Soul got its start on Sundance opening night, so last year’s Sundance opener Fire of Love pulls off the same feat, an Oscar win should solidify the Park City festival as the true launchpad for documentaries. (Although don’t expect the US doc competition opener Little Richard to be at the Oscars next year.) Director Sara Dosa, nominated with producers Shane Boris and Ina Fichman, delivered a truly exhilarating feat of see-it-on-the-big-screen cinema with Fire of Love. It’s the Top Gun for the documentary crowd. The film is especially impressive as an archival doc, even compared to last year’s toe-tappingly great Summer of Soul. It’s an accomplished technical work, but also a beautifully poetic tribute to Maurice and Katia Krafft for their work as volcanologists and filmmakers.
Some people complained that they didn’t learn enough about volcanoes while watching this doc, but that’s like dismissing Adaptation because one didn’t become an expert on orchids after viewing it. Fire of Love, like Adaptation, is a film about what it truly means to care about something passionately. In this case, Dosa harnesses the Kraffts’ passion for racing to the edge of the unknown and the film reflects the curiosity that fuelled their work.
In a year saturated with films about filmmaking, Fire of Love is worthy of celebration. It seems that the industry agrees. Dosa won the Directors Guild of America award, while film editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput scored the Eddie from the Editors Guild. Add those industry gongs to numerous film critics’ group wins, three awards from the Cinema Eye Honors, and two trophies from the IDA Awards, including the Kraffts’ for Best Cinematography, and Fire of Love hits all the right notes for industry esteem. Plus, how can you resist such cool footage? – PM
A House Made of Splinters
Denmark went zero for three last year with Flee. Unfortunately for the Danes, they’ll probably go home empty handed again this year. A House Made of Splinters, while a worthy nominee, is the longest of long shots in terms of Oscar predictions. It had a respectable festival run, including a Best Director win at Sundance for Simon Lereng Wilmont, but it hasn’t cracked through the field quite like the other four nominees have. It didn’t even have distribution when the nominations were announced, but that fact could be one point in its favour. Voters clearly responded to the film with pure love over other contenders with aggressive campaigns backed by major distributors. As with fellow nominee All that Breathes, Splinters is a beloved underdog.
It’s actually quite impressive that the film even scored a nomination. The citation shows good taste on the voters’ part, since Wilmont’s film is the best kind of observational cinema. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of Ukrainian children “orphaned” by war as their parents can no longer care for them due to PTSD and addictions caused by the violence. There’s some necessary light and catharsis to the film, too, as Wilmont delicately avoids heavy-handedness with rather bleak subject matter. It’s impossible not to be moved by this film. Where Splinters may factor into the race, however, is by potentially siphoning votes from Navalny. Both films deal with the fallout of Russia’s power plays and could appeal to voters with similar tastes. – PM
Journalists love to talk about “gotcha” moments, when the truth is revealed in all its gritty and unseemly reality despite every effort to keep things hidden. Canadian director Daniel Roher’s Navalny has a scene of such magnitude that it transforms an interesting but problematic profile of a Russian politician into an unforgettable film. For many, the revelation that occurs in Navalny is important enough to make it an Oscar victor. While it doesn’t have the heft of a winner to me, it’s understandable that many will advocate (and have voted for) the film.
Docs can happen fortuitously and that’s what occurred with this film. Roher was initially interested in making a doc about Christo Grosev and his brilliant work with Bellingcat, the idealistic citizens’ investigative network that has exposed deceit and scandals worldwide. Grosev dropped everything to work on the shocking poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the major Russian opponent to Putin. Near death, Navalny was saved by the intervention of a German medical team, but proving who did it was another matter.
Roher was on the scene, camera ready, when Grosev and Maria Pevchikh, Navalny’s anti-corruption leader, sprang their trap. Pretending to be fellow Russian agents, they got one of the poisoners on the phone to admit that he’d attempted to kill Navalny with a nerve agent. You actually see Navalny high fiving people in the room as the Putin spy goes on and on about his complicity in the near assassination of the major political figure.
During the rest of the film, Roher shows us Navalny as an enigmatic politician: a populist, who opposes Putin but may not be a fully committed social democrat. He comes off best as a family man, who loves his wife and children.
In 2023, with Putin showing his face as a terrifying war-monger and Navalny in prison in Russia, is the Daniel Roher film going to win the Oscar? It’s won prizes at Sundance, the Producers’ Guild and the British BAFTAs. We’ll soon see. – MG
Marc says: I’m going to stick with my favourite film of the year, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Quite frankly, I think it’s Poitras’ best doc yet—and she’s already won an Oscar. In this film, the old adage “the personal is political” is truly played out in the story of Nan Goldin, a great photographer, sharing intimate images of her friends, becoming an activist, fighting the Sackler family’s attempt to whitewash their reputation with funding for the arts. If it doesn’t win, I hope either Navalny, a fine political piece, or the beautiful Fire of Love takes the prize, but they’re definitely not my top choices.
Pat says: I’m stumped this year. I think it’s a toss-up between Fire of Love and Navalny, but my love for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed tempts me to predict it. I have a theory, though, that the doc crowd likes to share the wealth when it comes to awards. Docs by previous Oscar winners miss out on nominations as frequently as the year’s most commercially successful docs do. (Especially if they’re directed by Brett Morgen, it seems.) The fact that Poitras even landed a nomination when previous winners Morgan Neville and Jimmy Chin/Chai Vasarhelyi were surprise snubs for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and The Rescue, respectively, is impressive. No director has won a second Oscar in this category since Barbara Kopple for 1990’s American Dream, but if anyone should repeat that feat, it’s Poitras.
On the other hand, Daniel Roher basically made a Poitras film, and a great one at that, with Navalny and his film has the heat on the home stretch. After winning both the BAFTA and the Producers Guild Award, Navalny is holding up well after being the overall audience favourite at Sundance last year. Plus, there’s the opportunity to recognize the man himself, Alexei Navalny, by awarding the film that bears his name. I think Navalny will win with Fire of Love and All the Beauty nipping at its heels.
Marc says: All I have to add is that All the Beauty carries a huge emotional wallop as you realize how many tragedies Nan Goldin has dealt with in her life despite becoming a “name” photographer. Seeing her win a political fight against disreputable members of the 1% is so gratifying that one can hardly help from cheering. Again, I feel this film should win.
Pat says: All five of these films would have made my top ten list for the year’s best docs, so I won’t complain when the envelope is opened. However, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed and Fire of Love took the top spots on my list of overall favourites for the year at number one and two, respectively. I’m in awe of both films, but if I had to “Sophie’s Choice” it, I’d vote for Beauty. It’s Poitras’ best film and had such an impact on me. And how cool would it be to see Nan Goldin win an Oscar?
Should Have Been There
Marc says: The five Oscar choices are fine but I must admit to a mild disappointment that Moonage Daydream didn’t make it. Maybe you have to be of a certain age to love David Bowie and his many artful incarnations but, if so, I’ll confess to being an early and persistent admirer of him, his songs and the overall artistic project that he presented for decades. Brett Morgen’s film can’t completely capture the eclectic nature of Bowie’s work—what could—but its maximalist collage approach is a brilliant attempt at conveying what makes his music and artistry matter to so many of us now and forever.
Pat says: These films were my predicted five and they all deserve their nominations, so I won’t argue with the Academy’s choices. I do, however, take issue with the voters’ habit of overlooking the artistry that goes into making documentaries. Why, for example, was Laura Poitras not in the conversation for Best Director? Few artists leave such a definitive mark, and this sort of investigative work is Poitras in her element. (If an American drama won the Golden Lion and was the only film to play Venice, TIFF, Telluride, and New York on the festival circuit, most pundits would have it on every prediction list.) Likewise, it’s frustrating that Fire of Love and Moonage Daydream weren’t recognized for their film editing. Those archival docs simply would not be what they are without their masterful editing! Finally, a lot of people were surprised that Good Night Oppy missed the shortlist, but the fact that it also came up short on the visual effects shortlist only adds insult to injury. Other branches need to watch more documentaries!
Oscar Predictions: Best Documentary Short
The Elephant Whisperers
Director Kartiki Gonsalves offers a film that should appeal to everyone with The Elephant Whisperers. The Netflix doc is a beaut. The film observes South Indian couple Bomman and Bellie as they care for an orphaned elephant named Raghu and help the sacred creature thrive. The film is a sturdy production with a big heart. It probably makes for a great double bill with All that Breathes and, if they both win, one might say that Oscar voters have a “type.” – PM
This beautifully made doc follows a Russian marine biologist, who is left alone on a remote Siberian island to record the natural phenomena there. One morning, the eerie remote landscape completely changes as thousands of noisy walruses crowd his cabin and the whole vicinity. We see and hear them, odd, loud and harmless creatures who seem marooned on the island. When they leave, the biologist records their deaths, which number in the hundreds. Due to global warming, the walruses have less ice floes to swim onto and many can’t capture enough food to eat so they starve to death. A brilliant verité film, this is my personal favourite short. – MG
How Do You Measure a Year?
Jay Rosenblatt follows up last year’s nomination for When We Were Bullies with this portrait of his daughter, Ella. Rosenblatt asks her the same questions each year on her birthday. Ella’s answers are funny when she’s younger and increasingly thoughtful as she grows older, but let’s be frank: this film is more America’s Funniest Home Video than Boyhood. It’s a cute personal project, but awfully slight and not especially sophisticated in its production. This nomination surprises me, but parents might feel otherwise. – PM
The Martha Mitchell Effect
Martha Mitchell was a sweeping contradiction, the kind Americans love: a Southern belle, a rich conservative, a motor mouth, and a brave woman sunk by her own naiveté. It was her willingness to tell the truth about the Watergate scandal, which may have destroyed the presidency of Richard Nixon and caused her husband, Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, to serve time in prison. Effectively using archival footage, filmmakers Anne Alvergue and Beth Levison makes the case that Martha Mitchell was a victim of Nixon propaganda besmirching her as a deranged alcoholic while she was actually revealing what happened at Watergate. And that condition, which denounces people who are truth-tellers, is now called “the Martha Mitchell effect.”—MG
Stranger at the Gate
A very American doc, this recounts the tale of the spiritual transformation of ex-Marine Mac McKinney from an angry Christian to a peaceful Muslim. Oops. That’s the big reveal in a film that sets us up to believe that McKinney might actually be confessing to killing Muslims. Much of the doc focuses on McKinney’s difficult emotional journey back to America after being a “killer” in Afghanistan. Thanks to the intervention of the Afghan-American Bahrami family, who embrace him, Mac is able to move from a PTSD case to an adjusted individual. It’s a moving story but the manipulative hook, which lets us think that Mac might be confessing to killing Muslims in America, ruins the film for me. -MG
Marc says: The Elephant Whisperers. It’s this year’s My Octopus Teacher, a film with such charm that it’s hard to resist. Hey, if you loved octopuses, how hard is it to embrace elephants?
Pat says: The Elephant Whisperers. It has the Netflix moolah behind it, accessible subject matter, solid filmmaking, and very cute elephants.
Marc says: Haulout is a real documentary, one that Robert Flaherty and John Grierson would love. It’s a genuine observational doc, with no tricks and sly winks to the audience. You’re out there in the cold, listening to the walruses’ bleating, and the unflappable scientist dealing with his difficult situation. Nothing is pushed on you but it gradually becomes clear that a strange but attractive animal, the walrus, is dying because of climate change. As a viewer, you get to see the tragic truth of life and death in the far North. It’s rare to see such a clean, genuine documentary and I’d love to see it win.
Pat says: I think Netflix will win for the wrong movie. The Martha Mitchell Effect is my favourite in this race for its impeccably researched archival essay of the Washington socialite turned Watergate truth-teller. The film is especially admirable for finding contemporary resonance with its feminist take on gaslighting and women who speak up.
Should Have Been There
Marc says: I’ll say it again: Moonage Daydream.
Pat says: Justice for Nuisance Bear!