Oscars Documentary Feature Shortlist: Snubs, Surprises And A Netflix-Amazon Showdown

Netflix has dominated the Oscar documentary race the last few years, winning Documentary Feature in 2020 and 2018, but the release of the Academy shortlists Tuesday confirms it faces a battle this time around, from a rival streamer.

Amazon Studios landed two films on the feature shortlist—Time, directed by Garrett Bradley, and All In: The Fight for Democracy, directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés. Time, which touches on mass incarceration through the experience of one Black family in Louisiana, must be considered a solid favorite in the Oscar race, having tied for the Gotham Award and amassing multiple critics’ prizes.

Netflix made the Oscar shortlist, as expected, with its top two contenders—Crip Camp, directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, and Dick Johnson Is Dead, from director Kirsten Johnson. It also muscled in with mollusk-themed My Octopus Teacher, ensnaring in its tentacles a fifth of the 15 shortlist slots. But Netflix failed to make the shortlist with several of its other contenders including The Social Dilemma, Athlete A and Disclosure.

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The feature shortlist culled a record 238 qualifying films down a mere 15, so there were bound to be many disappointed filmmakers. Three of documentary’s most revered talents got the cold shoulder from Doc Branch voters: Errol Morris (My Psychedelic Love Story), Frederick Wiseman (City Hall) and Werner Herzog (Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds). Also left on the sidelines was Oscar-winning director Ron Howard and his National Geographic documentary Rebuilding Paradise.

Those omissions can’t be considered surprises. But A Thousand Cuts may qualify as the biggest snub. The film by Ramona Diaz about courageous journalist Maria Ressa, who has butted heads with Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte, shared Best Documentary with Time at the Gothams and last week earned a Producers Guild Award nomination.

A mild shortlist surprise came with the inclusion of Notturno, simply because Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary doesn’t boast a prominent distributor (Super LTD) and only released in virtual theaters late last month. It got a lift from hitting Hulu on January 29, just before shortlist voting began, and being named Italy’s official selection for the Oscars’ International Film category. Rosi earned an Oscar nomination for his previous documentary, 2016’s Fire at Sea.

Notturno did not make the International Feature shortlist that was also released today.

In the absence of major surprises, what stands out from the shortlist announcement is the incredible recognition for international filmmakers. There’s Italy (Rosi); Chile (Maite Alberdi, The Mole Agent, also on the International Feature shortlist); Norway (Benjamin Ree, The Painter and the Thief); Romania (Alexander Nanau, Collective, another International Feature finalist); Russia (Victor Kossakovsky, Gunda); South Africa (Pippa Ehrlich, My Octopus Teacher); and the UK (James Reed, My Octopus Teacher). Hao Wu, director of shortlisted 76 Days, is based in New York but hails from China. Continuing the international theme, The Truffle Hunters is set in the fungi-rich hills of the Piedmont region of Italy, and Welcome to Chechnya takes on LGBTQ hate crimes in the Russian Republic of Chechnya.

Among domestic films, what’s striking is how many deal in one way or another with the timely issue of racial injustice. Along with the aforementioned Time, there’s All In, which explores the long history of suppressing the African-American vote, and the recent work of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to tear down barriers to the ballot box. MLK/FBI, from director Sam Pollard, looks at the sustained campaign by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to harass and discredit the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Academy also released its shortlist of short documentaries, narrowing the list of films still in contention for an Oscar nomination to 10. Skye Fitzgerald’s Hunger Ward made the list, despite the director’s concern that his subject—children facing starvation in Yemen—might be too difficult for some voters to experience. Holocaust-theme Colette took a spot, as did the New York Times Op-Doc A Concerto is a Conversation, executive produced by Ava DuVernay.

The biggest snub was the omission of the award-winning Netflix short John Was Trying to Contact Aliens. But the streamer made up for that by landing several more shorts on the list: A Love Song for Latasha, about the 1992 killing of an African-America girl; the endearing What Would Sophia Loren Do?, about a New Jersey grandmother who finds inspiration in the titular Italian actress; and The Speed Cubers, about people who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less time than it took to read this article.

Below are the Documentary Feature and Documentary Short Subject shortlists. Nominations in all Oscar categories are March 15 and the 93rd Oscars are April 25 live on ABC.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

“All In: The Fight for Democracy”
“Boys State”
“Collective”
“Crip Camp”
“Dick Johnson Is Dead”
“Gunda”
“MLK/FBI”
“The Mole Agent”
“My Octopus Teacher”
“Notturno”
“The Painter and the Thief”
“76 Days”
“Time”
“The Truffle Hunters”
“Welcome to Chechnya”

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

“Abortion Helpline, This Is Lisa”
“Call Center Blues”
“Colette”
“A Concerto Is a Conversation”
“Do Not Split”
“Hunger Ward”
“Hysterical Girl”
“A Love Song for Latasha”
“The Speed Cubers”
“What Would Sophia Loren Do?”

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