Oscars 2021: The Race for Documentary Feature Begins to Take Shape

Documentary filmmaking has become an exciting avenue in recent years as non-fiction storytellers seek new and innovative ways to share the truth of the world around us. Globally significant political exposés, celebrity biographies, and intimate family moments open up the world of film differently from their narrative counterparts.

The Documentary Feature category was added as an Academy Award in 1943, two years after special awards were presented for the films Kukan and Target for Tonight. In the early days, during and immediately after the war, the category was dominated by government-produced fare like the British Ministry of Information’s Desert Victory (1943) and the US Navy’s The Fighting Lady (1944).

After the war ended, the category continued with usually only two to three nominees per year. Walt Disney first won the prize in 1953 with the innovative nature doc, The Living Desert. Nancy Hamilton became the first female director to win an Oscar in 1955 for her biography, Helen Keller in Her Story. In 1963, the category was expanded to five nominees.

AMERICAN FACTORY (2019) — Courtesy of Netflix

The most recent winners include Icarus, a film that started as an investigation into doping in the cycling world and became a political thriller that uncovered a much bigger international sports scandal. The following year, a much different sports story, Free Solo, told the story of Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb the infamous El Capitan by himself. And last year’s American Factory examined the cultural struggles as a Chinese corporation purchased a shuttered GM plant in rural Ohio.

This year’s collection of documentaries continues the tradition of fascinating and diverse topics. There are portraits of cultural and political figures, including John Lewis: Good Trouble, The Way I See It, I Am Greta and All In: The Fight for Democracy. There are inspirational, intriguing, and eye-opening stories like Dick Johnson Is Dead, Boys State, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, and The Truffle Hunters. And there are films that will frustrate audiences and (hopefully) motivate us to some sort of action (Time, Coded Bias, Welcome to Chechnya).

With hundreds of entries this year, it’s difficult to rise to the top. Tuesday morning, the International Documentary Association (IDA) announced their nominations, which came from 365 feature submissions. From that group, the Best Feature Nominees are Romania’s Collective (also the country’s International Feature submission), Crip Camp, Gunda, MLK/FBI, The Reason I Jump, Denmark’s Reunited, Kenya’s Softie, Time, The Truffle Hunters, and Welcome to Chechnya.

This announcement follows the recent Critics Choice Documentary Awards, which rewarded Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead with the top prize. Other nominees included Athlete A, Belushi, Crip Camp, Feels Good Man, The Fight, The Go-Go’s, Gunda, Mr. SOUL!, My Octopus Teacher, The Painter and the Thief, A Secret Love, The Social Dilemma, and Time.

There are still several months for the eventual Oscar nominees to gain the attention of voters. Notices from these precursors help with the process of narrowing the focus down to a shortlist which will be announced in February. Oddly, being the frontrunner at this stage is sometimes bad luck as we saw recently when presumed winners Apollo 11 and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? weren’t even nominated.

The real question this year is about the mood of the country. Are voters going to want to give their focus and energy to political documentaries after having just come through the toughest political fight any of us can remember? Is a film about the mishandling of the pandemic going to be something anyone wants to watch or talk about when we (hopefully) finally have access to a vaccine but are still reeling from the aftermath? Or will this be a year for hopeful, more inspiring and optimistic documentaries to take center stage?

TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL (2020) — Courtesy of Neon

With those questions in mind, here are the top contenders for the 93rd Academy Awards Best Documentary Feature:

1. Dick Johnson Is Dead, dir. Kirsten Johnson (Netflix)

2. Time, dir. Garrett Bradley (Amazon Studios)

3. Boys State, dir. Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss (Apple TV Plus)

4. Totally Under Control, dir. Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanna Hillinger (Neon)

5. The Way I See It, dir. Dawn Porter (Focus Features)

6. John Lewis: Good Trouble, dir. Dawn Porter (Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media)

7. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, dir. James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham (Netflix)

8. Collective, dir. Alexander Nanau (Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media)

9. All In: The Fight for Democracy, dir. Lisa Cortes, Liz Garbus (Amazon Studios)

10. MLK/FBI, dir. Sam Pollard (IFC Films)

11. The Truffle Hunters, dir. Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw (Sony Pictures Classics)

12. Rebuilding Paradise, dir. Ron Howard (National Geographic Documentary Films)

13. Gunda, dir. Anita Rehoff Larsen, Victor Kossakovsky (Neon)

14. I Am Greta, dir. Nathan Grossman (Hulu)

15. On the Record, dir. Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering (HBO Max)

16. Kingdom of Silence, dir. Rick Rowley (Showtime)

17. Belushi, dir. R.J. Cutler (Showtime Documentary Films)

18. Assassins, dir. Ryan White (Greenwich Entertainment)

19. Be Water, dir. Bao Nguyen (ESPN)

20. Welcome to Chechnya, dir. David French (HBO)

What are your picks for the best documentaries of 2020? Let us know in the comments below!

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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