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Oscars: Documentary Field Is Strong With No Sure Bets

While it’s been a strong and crowded year for documentaries, the nonfiction Oscar race is just as unpredictable as this year’s narrative awards race.

The consistently unpredictable Academy docu branch narrowed down 124 eligible features to a remarkably strong shortlist of 15 back in December. That batch was whittled down to five nominees — “Amy,” “Cartel Land,” “The Look of Silence,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”

Even though high-profile, high-pedigree fare including Alex Gibney’s Emmy-winning “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” and Stevan Riley’s “Listen to Me Marlon” were left out, there remains five powerful, beautifully crafted movies from five formidable helmers.

And unlike previous years, each director has a real shot of winning. While “Amy” is the highest-grossing film of the quintet, it isn’t necessarily a shoo-in like last year’s Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” directed by Laura Poitras. That film garnered the 2014 Oscar after being the category’s front-runner for several months and winning every major docu award. Although “Amy” did win the PGA Award on Jan. 23.

This year guilds, festivals and critics’ hardware has been spread out among the five.

So far “The Look of Silence,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, has garnered some of the most prestigious doc industry prizes. Film took top honors at the Gotham, Cinema Eye and Intl. Documentary Assn. awards. Additionally, the pic, a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s 2013 Oscar nominated “The Act of Killing,” nabbed Venice Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, as well as best film awards from Fipresci, the European Film Critics and a Human Rights Night Award. The PGA-nominated doc is the only nominee to have landed an Indie Spirit Award nom.

Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land” also focuses on an unsettling, deeply troubling topic. In making his documentary about Mexico’s drug wars, Heineman put his life on the line to take viewers into the heart of the conflict, painting a disturbing, but continuously captivating, portrait of the war and all of its complexities. Sundance honored the film with two kudos for directing and cinematography while the IDA presented Heineman with the Courage Under Fire Award. Pic recently earned nods from the DGA and Bafta.

Joining Heineman at the Baftas will be “Amy” director Asif Kapadia. Helmer’s immersive portrait of the late, gifted British thrush Amy Winehouse offers an intimate, revealing look at the star’s tragic life. Kapadia’s “Senna” missed out on the shortlist back in 2011, but his inviting biopic has support, made clear with wins from the National Board of Review, Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., BFCA Critics’ Choice and the Women Film Critics Circle as well as guild nods from the PGA and DGA.

Fellow DGA nominee “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” directed by the prolific filmmaker Liz Garbus, is also is a portrait of a struggling artist. Previously Oscar-nominated for “The Farm, Angola USA” in 1999, Garbus mixes riveting archival footage with talking head interviews to create a rich, tough-love tribute to the exceptional artist/civil-rights activist. So far docu has taken home the Josephine Baker Award from the Women Film Critics Circle and a Black Film Critics Circle kudo.

And while Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” has garnered the least amount of hardware this awards season, don’t count this political juggernaut out. Like Netflix’s previous revolution doc, “The Square,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2014, “Winter on Fire” utilizes harrowing footage from the people on the ground and succinctly breaks down the complexities that led to revolution. Pic, which won Toronto’s people’s choice award, could also capture the hearts and minds of voters.

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