Mon. Aug 3rd, 2020

2016 Oscars: Documentary Feature



At the moment, Amy, the film about singer Amy Winehouse, is the clear leader to win Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars next week. It won the ACE Eddie, the PGA and the BAFTA and took the lion’s share of critics awards this season. The film was released by A24 and was a box office success ($8.4M). That seems to make it an easy favorite.

Cartel Land, about the drug cartels smuggling narcotics from Mexico to the U.S., won the DGA as well as two awards as Sundance last year for director Matthew Heineman. It was released by The Orchard and achieved a small but modest gross of $704K. But, it was also executive produced by Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and has a status of “importance” more than a music doc might.

The Look of Silence, from Joshua Oppenheimer, about a family that confronts the killer of one of their own in Indonesia, is his follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing (2012). The film won the International Documentary Association’s top honor, beating out two Oscar nominees – Amy and What Happened, Miss Simone? Although it won a handful of festival and critics prizes it’s been largely seen as the lesser of the two films and a win here would be surprising.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, about student uprisings in the Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, doesn’t bring much in the way of critic or festival support in the form of prizes but does mark Netflix as being able to secure spots here much easier than it can in the feature film categories. Like Cartel Land and The Look of Silence though it does bring a level of social and political importance and timeliness that does well in this category.

Then there’s What Happened, Miss Simone?, also from Netflix. From Oscar-nominee Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA – 1998), the film goes into the most intimate detail of the life of legendary singer Nina Simone. It might seem like the fact that there are two nominated documentaries about female singers would possibly cancel each other out but, not so fast. You only have to look to 2013 when another music doc, 20 Feet From Stardom, beat out much more “important” work, including Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.

Now that the entire Academy can vote on the winner here, the last two winners since the change in voting have shown that populist choices are going to be the most likely. While Amy has more going for it coming into Oscar night, I would urge you to consider What Happened, Miss Simone? as a very likely spoiler. Here’s why: while Amy‘s film making is superb (it uses only home video and media footage and does so brilliantly), I think we could see a large portion of the Academy turned off by the idea of “rewarding” the demise of Amy Winehouse through drug and alcohol addiction and she may be too “young” of a subject. That makes something like What Happened, Miss Simone?, of an era more in line with the majority of Academy voters, a strong possibility. But Garbus’s documentary takes on more than just singing. It details Simone’s civil rights activism and, in this #OscarsSoWhite year, it could be just the thing that tips the balance in its favor.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom and What Happened, Miss Simone? are available now on Netflix. AmyCartel Land and The Look of Silence are available for rental via YouTube, iTunes and Amazon.

Here are the predictions and rankings for Documentary Feature from The Gold Rush Gang:

What Happened,
Miss Simone?
Cartel Land3233342252313
The Look of Silence5544423343234
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s
Fight for Freedom


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