At the moment, Matthew Heineman’s American Symphony, which chronicles a year in the life of musician and Oscar winner Jon Batiste, feels like a pretty clear frontrunner for Documentary Feature and with the Obamas’ Higher Ground and Netflix backing it (as they did with doc winner American Factory four years ago), it’s hard to argue that it’s not. It played through the roof at Telluride, where it was picked up soon after, all of which work in its favor.
Frederick Wiseman is one of the most respected living documentarians but has never been Oscar-nominated for it. He received an Honorary Oscar in 2016 but his work has never been recognized with a competitive nomination. Can he do it with a four-hour doc about a 50-year old three Michelin star restaurant? Menus Plaisirs – Les Troisgros (Zipporah Films) is yet another in his canon of praised films for the 96-year-old filmmaker and it’s played well at Venice, Toronto and New York so far, with BFI London this week.
Wim Wenders is a unique position this year. Already a three-time Oscar nominee in this category (2000’s Buena Vista Social Club, 2012’s Pina, 2015’s Salt of the Earth), he’s very likely to make a return with Anselm (Janus Films/Sideshow), his 3D look at the life of German painter-sculptor Anselm Kiefer, which had and will have a robust festival run this year beginning with Cannes, then Telluride, BFI London and AFI FEST. Wenders also helmed Perfect Days, Japan’s official entry for the International Feature Film Oscar, which won Best Actor for star Kôji Yakusho at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
I can see a place in the shortlist lineup for Oscar nominee Raoul Peck’s Silver Dollar Road (Amazon Studios), Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (who also has Cassandro this year, his narrative directorial debut) with Stamped from the Beginning (Netflix) and Oscar winner Errol Morris with The Pigeon Tunnel (Apple Original Films). We also have some films that will vie for both a spot here and International Feature Film as official submissions, including 20 Days in Mariupol (Ukraine), Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (Estonia), The Mother of All Lies (Morocco) and Four Daughters (Tunisia).
This is also a category with a wealth of precursors, some of which help us find the fringe contender outside of the seemingly locked in ones. BAFTA, Cinema Eye Honors, the International Documentary Associations, the Directors and Producers Guild, and Critics’ Choice all play a part in the path for nominees here. After a brief reprieve with 2021’s sweeper Summer of Soul, the Critics’ Choice curse returned last year where their winner, Good Night Oppy, missed out not just on a nomination but on the shortlist entirely.
The Oscar shortlists will be revealed on December 21, 2023. Oscar nominations will be announced on January 23, 2024 and the 96th Academy Awards will be held on March 10.
Here are my 2024 Oscar predictions for the 15-film shortlist in Documentary Feature for October 2023.
- American Symphony (Netflix)
- Anselm (Janus Films/Sideshow)
- Silver Dollar Road (Amazon Studios)
- The Pigeon Tunnel (Apple Original Films)
- The Mission (National Geographic)
- Stamped from the Beginning (Netflix)
- 20 Days in Mariupol (PBS)
- 32 Sounds (Abramorama)
- They Shot the Piano Player (Sony Pictures Classics)
- Little Richard: I Am Everything (Magnolia Pictures)
- Kokomo City (Magnolia Pictures)
- Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros (Zipporah Films)
- Orlando, My Political Documentary (Janus Films/Sideshow)
- Every Body (Focus Features)
- Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (Greenwich Entertainment)
Next up: BS High (HBO Documentary Films), The Deepest Breath (Netflix), The Eternal Memory (MTV Documentary Films), Joan Baez I Am a Noise (Magnolia Pictures), Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (Apple Original Films)
Other contenders: Bye Bye Tiberias (TBD), Four Daughters (Kino Lorber), January 6th (Discovery Channel), The Lady Bird Diaries (Hulu), The Mother of All Lies (TBD), Nothing Lasts Forever (Showtime), Rojek (TBD), Song of Earth (TBD)