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Chasing the Gold: A Dive Into the 2021 Best Documentary Feature Oscar Race Through the DOC NYC Short List

Chasing the Gold: A Dive Into the 2021 Best Documentary Feature Oscar Race Through the DOC NYC Short List

DOC NYC 2021, the largest documentary film festival in America, has revealed its influential Short List of films that has a very good track history of predicting the eventual Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees and the Academy shortlist. But before analyzing the 2021 Short List, let’s take a closer look at the track record of DOC NYC’s predictions.

The track record of DOC NYC

Every year, DOC NYC reveals a list of 15 titles predicted to be strong horses in the Oscar race. This “tradition” started in 2012 with only 10 titles and expanded to 15 in 2014.

Since 2012, the DOC NYC Short List has predicted 37 out of the 45 eventual Best Documentary Feature nominees. Plus, the list has always included the eventual Oscar winner except for last year’s which is yet more proof of how unprecedented, unexpected, and organic the My Octopus Teacher win came to be. 

Also, the DOC NYC Short List is a great predictor of the Academy’s 15 films shortlist. In the last five years, DOC NYC has predicted 47 out of the 75 films that ended up in the Academy’s Best Documentary shortlist. In its nine-year existence, DOC NYC has predicted an average of 9 shortlisted titles; its lowest accurate prediction was 7 in 2012 and the highest is 11 in 2019.

So, yeah. It’s clear that the DOC NYC Short List is highly influential as being there gives and being projected in the festival itself gives a definite boost of visibility to any potential contender. Now, let’s take a look at this year’s list.

The 2021 DOC NYC Short List

The following is not only an analysis of each shortlisted title and its possibilities in the race, but an encouragement for you, dear reader, to seek out these wonderful films. I haven’t seen all of them, but there’s a lot of good stuff to learn about our world here.

ASCENSION, Dir.: Jessica Kingdon (MTV Documentary Films)

Featuring breathtaking cinematography and masterful direction, this Best Documentary winner at Tribeca 2021 is an immersive exploration of the Chinese workplace culture. It’s nominated in the 2021 Gotham Awards and co-leads the Critics Choice Documentary Awards (CCDA) with six mentions. 

I wasn’t sure Ascension was going to be a strong contender due to its impressionistic nature, but MTV Films has done a tremendous job of getting it out there. This is one I can see in the Academy shortlist and eventual nominee list.

ATTICA, Dir.: Stanley Nelson, Traci A. Curry (SHOWTIME)

Currently sitting at 100% in Rotten Tomatoes, Attica is a visceral and relevant film about the largest (and bloodiest) prison uprising in the history of the United States. 

An important subject matter, skillful directing, critical praise, and key noms in the CCDAs. Despite its weird exclusion from the IDA Award shortlist, this is another one that looks to have its place secure in the Academy’s shortlist.

BECOMING COUSTEAU, Dir.: Liz Garbus (National Geographic)

Besides retelling the career of a legendary adventurer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau (Palme D’Or winner!), Becoming Cousteau is a crowd-pleaser with an important environmentalism message. It’s both a tribute, a redemption, and a warning assembled through smart editing.

There’s a lot of archival footage here, which, as we know, isn’t exactly loved by the Documentary branch. However, Becoming Cousteau has the heart, the message, and the subject to get far in the race. I agree with this prediction.

BRING YOUR OWN BRIGADE, Dir.: Lucy Walker (CBS/Paramount)

A documentary that premiered at this year’s Sundance festival, Bring Your Own Brigade follows the aftermath of Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history that burned 153,336 acres, destroyed 18,804 buildings, displaced and killed thousands of animals, and killed 85 people.

The film had a strong critical and audience reception and is directed by two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker (Waste Land), however, it has little buzz coming into the race and was snubbed by IDA and the CCDA. Definitely, one to keep your eyes on, but don’t get your hopes up.

FAYA DAYI, Dir.: Jessica Beshir (Janus Films)

I love this pick, but I have serious doubts about its real Oscar chances. Directed by Mexican Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir, Faya Dayi is a contemplative and hallucinogenic documentary that subtly explores the migration crisis in Africa while following the trade of khat, a psychotropic stimulant widely used in Ethiopia. Here’s the wonderful thing about this doc: through its artistic merits and storytelling structure, it tries to emulate the intoxicating effect of khat.

The film was nominated in the Gotham Awards, picked a Best First Feature nom in the CCDA, and it’s on the IDA shortlist. This DOC NYC mention is key in its aspirations to make it far in the race. However, its experimental nature will be a hard pill to swallow for many, so at this point, I have serious doubts about its nomination possibilities.

FLEE, Dir.: Jonas Poher Rasmussen (NEON)

An animated documentary about the harrowing tale of an Afgan homosexual migrant. This is Denmark’s Oscar submission and could be the first documentary to earn a Best Picture nomination. It’s a beloved film (currently sitting at 97% on RT) that could greatly benefit from a strong audience reaction (and ticket sales) to get that final push in the race. Despite its shocking exclusion from the IDA Awards shortlist, Flee is one of the two docs to beat in the race.

HOMEROOM, Dir.: Peter Nicks (Hulu)

The last film in Peter Nicks’ documentary trilogy about Oakland’s public institutions follows a group of students during their final high school year. It’s a portrait of young adulthood among a sea of change; a portion of this doc takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd protests.

Right now, I can’t see Homeroom making it into the Academy shortlist. Despite its subject matter (delves into the unsettling power of America’s police force) and good critical reception, it has barely any buzz and Hulu doesn’t have the best track record of pushing Oscar hopefuls.

IN THE SAME BREATH, Dir.: Nanfu Wang (HBO)

In my Sundance review, I described In the Same Breath as “peak documentary filmmaking” and I still stand by that. After being snubbed for the excellent One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang returns with a masterful work of investigative journalism that explores how the Chinese government covered up the COVID-19 outbreak and successfully turned it into a tool to exalt their political system. And Wang does this while always highlighting the human cost of it all.

In the Same Breath is a tricky one. I think it should be a shoe-in for nomination, but it has had trouble gaining buzz. And it’s been that way since its Sundance premiere when it was overshadowed by Flee, Summer of Soul, and CODA (all premiering the same night). Fortunately, it won the Audience Award at SXSW. Then it was silently dropped on HBO Max in August. I might be very wrong here, but I feel that audiences are stirring away from any COVID-19 related film. Would that be of any influence on the Documentary branch? Right now, the doc is nowhere to be seen in the CCDA nominations, but it’s on the IDA shortlist. This DOC NYC mention is a huge boost in its chances.

INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR, Dir.: Rachel Fleit (Discovery+)

The winner of the Special Jury Award at SXSW 2021 follows actress Selma Blair as she tries to adapt to life with multiple sclerosis. It currently has a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and has been effusively praised as moving and very honest. 

Introducing, Selma Blair isn’t being talked about much and recently dropped to Discovery+ with little noise. It’s not on the IDA shortlist but it’s nominated in the Best Documentary and Best First Documentary at the CCDA. My gut tells me that this won’t make it to the shortlist though as its distribution won’t be of much help.

JULIA, Dir.: Betsy West, Julie Cohen (Sony Pictures Classic)

From an awards campaign perspective, this one is very interesting. With the captivating The Lost Leonardo being snubbed by DOC NYC and IDA shortlist, should Sony Pictures Classic drop it altogether and focus its entire attention on Julia? I haven’t seen this portrait of famous American television chef Julia Child, but it seems to be an endearing crowd pleaser. Critics loved it and audiences will have a chance to react on November 5.

This might not be a popular choice with the very international Documentary branch at the Academy though. I might be very wrong here, but just like the famously snubbed Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Julia feels like a film for Americans about a famous American. However, that won’t stop it from getting into the shortlist.

PROCESSION, Dir.: Robert Greene (Netflix)

Although Procession has only been screened at a couple of film festivals (Telluride among them), it already has some positive buzz. The film follows six men who, during childhood, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests; they try to find peace through an experiment involving fictionalized scenes.

We’ll have to wait for November 19 for a full reading of this film’s chances in the race, but as of right now, it sounds like a powerful contender. Keep your eyes on this one.

THE RESCUE, Dir.: E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin (National Geographic)

Earlier on, I mentioned that Flee was one of the two documentaries to beat. The Rescue is the other one. After winning the Oscar for Free Solo, E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin turn their heads toward another incredible feat: the rescue of a soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. This isn’t a simple retelling though. The Rescue features never before seen footage, as well as incredible recreations, shot in a tank during the pandemic, of the rescue itself that are masterfully edited into the film. This is a documentary that exhibits impressive directing and artistry; it’s full of little but very important decisions that enhance the storytelling and create drama while never losing focus of its underdog narrative by highlighting the personalities of the divers involved.

The Rescue won the important TIFF People’s Choice Documentary Award (beating Flee) and had strong ticket sales, earning the best opening per-screen average for a non-fiction film in over two years. People seem to love it too and NatGeo has done a very good job of creating buzz around it. It should be an Oscar nominee.

ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN, Dir.: Morgan Neville (Focus Features)

The documentary about the life and career of Anthony Bourdain was all over social media, first because, well, the subject was a huge star, and then, because of a controversy involving the use of AI to emulate Bourdain’s voice, a fact that was unethically revealed and hand-waived by director Morgan Neville during an interview.

My first impulse is to say that Roadrunner doesn’t stand a chance in the race as it was hugely overshadowed by the controversy. However, Anthony Bourdain is such a popular and beloved figure that I’m sure many voters will attempt to watch the doc. Rotten Tomatoes gives more proof of this film’s popularity:  As of this writing, it has 139 submitted critic reviews and 250+ audience reviews. Only one documentary in this list has more review, and that’s…

SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED), Dir.: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Searchlight Pictures / Hulu)

By unearthing, rescuing, and exploring never-before-seen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Questlove has created a special documentary that connected with critics and audiences alike. It won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance 2021, it co-leads the CCDA with 6 noms, it is nominated in the Gotham Awards, and shortlisted by IDA. 

Summer of Soul will be on the Academy’s shortlist, but will it be nominated? It has lots of archival footage and the fact that most of its running time consists of concerts might cause issues in many voters. We’ll see.

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, Dir.: Todd Haynes (Apple TV+)

Apple TV+ will try to earn its first-ever Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination with Todd Haynes’ documentary about the highly influential American rock band. Critics loved it and the Cannes stamp of approval should give it a little push, but omissions from the CCDA Best Documentary category and the IDA shortlist could hamper its chances.

Additional contenders and predictions

According to DOC NYC, these 15 titles are the strongest contender. But, what else should we keep an eye on? Look out for Paraguay’s Oscar submission Nothing but the Sun, a powerful examination of the consequences of colonization; The First Wave, which follows an NYC hospital during the early days of COVID-19; Amazon’s My Name Is Pauli Murray, about the legendary lawyer and women’s rights activist; Val, the vibrant self-portrait of Val Kilmer; Fauci, about the famous epidemiologist; Not Going Quietly, the story of how Ady Barkan started an activist campaign after being diagnosed with terminal Lou Gehrig’s disease; The Lost Leonardo, the tremendous story behind the Salvator Mundi painting; Edgar Wright’s The Spark Brothers, a delightful doc about the underappreciated band; A Cop Movie, a Berlinale winner and highly creative hybrid of fiction and non-fiction about police life in Mexico City; the award-winning Writing With Fire, about a female-led newspaper in India; and Rebel Hearts, about a group of progressive nuns that fought for women’s rights.

Having said all that and taking into account DOC NYC’s shortlist, here’s my initial predictions of the Best Documentary Feature shortlist

  • A Cop Movie
  • Ascension
  • Attica
  • Becoming Cousteau
  • Flee
  • In the Same Breath
  • Introducing, Selma Blair
  • Julia
  • The Lost Leonardo
  • Procession
  • Rebel Hearts
  • The Rescue
  • The Sparks Brothers
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • The Velvet Underground

You can visit DOC NYC to find out more about where and when to watch the shortlisted features, as well as 120-plus other films. The festival will run in-person from November 10 to 18, and virtually from November 10 to 28.

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