Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

And then there will be five…

This Thursday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters will winnow down the documentary shortlist of 15 films to five nominees. I wasn’t going to write about it until, last week, I was at the Cinema Eye Honors awards ceremony which celebrates craft in nonfiction filmmaking and I spoke with a past Oscar-nominee who said, “Well, it’s obvious what doc is going to win the Oscars this year.” I agreed. And then we realized we were thinking of two different documentaries.

Well, that got me thinking that this year is more interesting than most, and that it’s worth an assessment at this point. For those of you out there who think silly award shows are irrelevant, I’d ask you to turn to two-time nominee Marshall Curry (Street Fight, If a Tree Falls) who told me, “The main reason that a nomination matters is because it means a lot more people will see your film. For documentaries, where marketing money is so scarce, it can make a big difference. And since we don’t make docs for the money, just getting the thing you have worked on for years in front of more people matters a lot to filmmakers.”

As for his career, Curry says, “The nominations have made fundraising a little easier but not a lot — I still get rejected for grants frequently. Maybe the best thing about the first nomination was that it convinced my parents that I wasn’t squandering my life. And the second one convinced them that the first one wasn’t just a fluke.”

So there’s much at stake. It might not radically change lives, but it will make a difference. I should note that it’s even more tricky figuring out which of the five out of 15 films will make the cut — there is always at least one unexpected pick — but I’m never shy to make a prediction.

This is the third year of the Oscars the new rules — in which the entire Documentary branch that picked the shortlist gets a second turn to narrow the list down to the nominees — and I’m starting to identify patterns. It’s more of a game than a science, so let’s have fun with it:

No Doubt:
Citizenfour: This is the film that that former nominee I spoke with considered a lock to win. Laura Poitras’ documentary about Edward Snowden is certainly a lock for a nomination. It’s an important, well-made film by a highly respected director who has worked with a lot of people in the industry, Sundance, etc. No questions here.

Life Itself: I’ve already made my case that Steve James’ film deserves a spot and this was the doc I was thinking about for a win at Cinema Eye. Again, a well-made film by a well-respected (and famously burned) filmmaker. No question.

Most Likely:
Keep On Keepin’ On: Now, the questions begin. This film, which hasn’t been high on other Oscar prognosticators’ lists, is an “inspiring true story” about a forgotten master of jazz and his relationship with a blind prodigy. Take a look at the past two documentary winners at the Oscars — Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom. Enough said. And with Quincy Jones producing, if this one gets the nod, it could go all the way.

Virunga: Can my beloved Virunga, about a national park in Africa where oil interests and corruption threaten gorillas and Mother Nature, make it to the next level? I think it has a strong shot, considering it’s a crowd-pleaser, beautifully shot, and backed by Netflix, which is quickly becoming a player in the doc distribution world. Alas, director Orlando von Eisnsiedel isn’t well known in doc circles and I’m not sure Leonardo DiCaprio coming on as exec producer drew or repelled doc branch voters. Not a sure thing.

Last Days in Vietnam: Here’s another one teetering on the brink; seasoned Director Rory Kennedy’s film aptly described by the title has the historical gravitas that makes it a strong contender.

The Long Shots:
Backed by HBO, The Case Against 8, which takes place in California where many voters reside, has a good chance of being a spoiler. Another California story is Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, about a Los Angeles serial killing spree. Broomfield has a long, celebrated oeuvre that could separate his film from the pack. Festival favorite The Overnighters could be that unexpected black sheep. The film has a lot of champions. But are they in the Academy? And, last, the visual arts can often win over voters, so Finding Vivian Maier, about the titular photographer, has a shutter of a chance.

I just don’t see the following films — Art and Craft, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Citizen Koch, The Internet’s Own Boy, The Kill Team, The Salt of the Earth — pushing ahead of the ones listed above. Could Art and Craft‘s quirky central character win the hearts of voters? Unlikely, but maybe. We’ll know for sure on Thursday.

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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