And the Academy Award Nominees for Best Documentary are…OK, I’m jumping the gun a little on the Oscar nomination announcement, which happens this Thursday, January 16th. But I’m doing so because I think it’s fun to consider what goes into deciding which documentaries are the best of the year.

Is it because these five films are the best aesthetically? Because they have the most impact on the world? Because they are the most popular? Because of particular trends in the culture and proclivities of the academy voters? Or, because voters are playing favorites?

No surprise here; I think it’s a combination of all of the above. With the new voting rules just in their second year, it’s relevant to see who was nominated the first time that the entire documentary branch—about 160 voters—picked the five nominees: Searching for Sugar Man, 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War. Outside of Sugar Man, the eventual winner, these are important films. Serious films with serious things to say about the world (not just the USA) we live in.

With that in mind, here’s how I think it’ll play out this year. First, the locks:

The Act of Killing

Not only is this a well-told story (about Indonesian death squads) that reveals a great injustice, it also does so in a way that feels like a punch to the gut. You feel this film. There’s never a dull moment. It’s piling up awards and been toward the top of many “best of” lists. Plus, I’ve got inside reporting that Academy voters love it.

Stories We Tell

This beautifully told story about family is something that everyone can relate to on some level. The fact that it’s by Sarah Polley, normally a feature narrative actor and director, makes it all the more appealing. It brings some bling to nonfiction. Stories We Tell was also at the top of many “best of” lists of the year.

20 Feet from Stardom

Never knock the biggest crowd pleaser. And with close to $5 million at the box office, 20 Feet from Stardom is the most popular film up for contention. But it’s also about underdogs (backup singers)—which documentary branch voters can identify with.

The other two slots are harder to fill, but here it goes…

The Square

Like the films above, The Square is a really well-crafted documentary, so it has that going for it. But equally significant is that it’s about something geo-politically important—the Arab Spring and the failed revolution in Egypt—unlike the other probable nominees (besides Dirty Wars, see below, which is why I consider it a dark horse.) Also, director Jehane Noujaim’s association with legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (stemming from her work on, could have a magical effect on voters. If this film doesn’t get the nod, look for fingers to point at Netflix, the doc’s unusual distributor.


Like 20 Feet from Stardom, Blackfish has the advantage of having been popular with the mainstream (with over $2 million at the box office). Not only did it play on CNN, but it also received lots of positive word-of-mouth and press coverage for its impact on Seaworld. Films with palpable impact tend to get noticed. And, equally important, it’s about a cute, loveable (but don’t get too close!) creature, which voters return to, time and again (The Cove, March of the Penguins, etc.)

And here are the long shots…

Dirty Wars is a powerful film with high production values, and it got a lot of glowing press. But what it has most going for it is its subject matter—the use of drones—which could help it rise as an angry vote against the Obama administration’s betrayal of its liberal agenda. The other contender is Cutie and the Boxer, which has been recognized with lots of awards, and has the quirky artist as subject that voters have championed in the past. Each film has a solid chance, I think, but in Oscar prognosticating, as in gambling, it’s better to play the numbers than to go out on a wing.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen