With all of the changes in Oscar voting — and the changes in Oscar voters — that have taken place over the last few years, it’s hard to know how much of the conventional awards season wisdom to retain, and what can be thrown out. But one place where almost all bets are off is the documentary race.
Last year, any competent oddsmaker would have placed favorable chances for films like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers” to be shoo-ins for the final five nominees; both were hugely successful theatrically, and both tackled Oscar-friendly themes in the most audience-friendly ways. Yet both were shut-out. Likewise, such deeply intimate, personal, impressionistic works as “Minding the Gap” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” would have seemed like near-hopeless long shots, but both were rewarded with nominations. Nor was it even as simple as voters rejecting crowdpleasers for arthouse indies: the year’s winner, “Free Solo,” was easily the highest-grossing doc of the year.
With that in mind, here are 30 films that stand a good shot at Oscar attention — from box-office hits to festival favorites, cable conversation-starters, and fiery activist pieces from streaming services. Just keep in mind, the pump is well primed for yet another upset contender.
Director: Errol Morris
Though it flew further under the radar than director Morris’ previous docu studies of Robert S. McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, this portrait of Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon continued his exploration of controversial political figures.
Director: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Director winners at Sundance, Bognar and Reichert crafted this hugely timely chronicle of a U.S. manufacturing plant under Chinese management, the Participant film is the first effort distributed through Barack and Michelle Obama’s Netflix pact.
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Oscar-winning filmmaker Williams directed this history of the legendary Harlem theater, which served as the venue for the doc’s opening night debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
The highest-grossing documentary of the year thus far, closing in on $10 million, Miller’s film dazzled both audiences and the Sundance jury, which awarded this immersive, fly-on-the-wall depiction of the first manned moon landing with its documentary editing honors.
“Ask Dr. Ruth”
Director: Ryan White
Director White sat down with nonagenarian sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer for his film, which has already collected kudos from the Cinema Eye Honors.
“The Biggest Little Farm”
Director: John Chester
A box-office success with more than $4 million in grosses, Chester’s charming account of his attempts to maintain a Southern California farm won the top doc award at last year’s AFI Fest, and has picked up other fest honors since.
Director: Feras Fayyad
Oscar-nominated for “Last Man in Aleppo,” Fayyad returned to his war-torn homeland to make this unique portrait of an underground hospital, and the doctors and nurses who tend to those wounded in the war. Winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
Director: Alex Gibney
The ever prolific documaker Gibney dove deep into the world of Russian oligarchy for this expose centered on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, who was jailed by Vladimir Putin for reasons he — and plenty of others — believe was politically motivated.
“Cold Case Hammarskjold”
Director: Mads Brugger
Winner of a directing award at Sundance and a clutch of European fest mentions, Brugger’s film begins as an investigation of the 1961 plane crash death of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, before launching into far stranger territory.
“David Crosby: Remember My Name”
Director: A.J. Eaton
The ever-colorful boomer music icon gives an unusually candid account of his tumultuous life to filmmaker Eaton and producer/interviewer Cameron Crowe.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Kapadia, who claimed the Oscar for 2015’s “Amy,” helmed this all-archival footage collage of the Argentine soccer godhead. It premiered at Cannes and has since drawn plenty of attention on HBO.
“The Edge of Democracy”
Director: Petra Costa
IDA nominee Costa drew on autobiographical elements as well as considerable access to former Brazilian leaders Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva to craft this searing account of her homeland’s political strife.
“The Elephant Queen”
Director: Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble
Acquired by nascent film player Apple TV Plus after a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the nature doc was the result of four years the filmmakers spent following an elephant herd. Narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor adds some star power as he tells the story of a pachyderm matriarch leading a migration.
Director: Waad al-Khateab and Edward Watts
A rare film to approach the Syrian civil war through an entirely female perspective, al-Khateab and Watts’ film follows the former through five years of her life in Aleppo, including the birth of her daughter. The film has collected an extensive array of awards already, including both audience and jury prizes from SXSW and the Golden Eye at Cannes.
“The Great Hack”
Director: Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
In this Netflix doc, the directors attempted to underscore the dangers of data collection and Facebook though the story of Cambridge Analytica and the company’s whistle-blowing former exec Brittany Kaiser.
Director: Penny Lane
The often funny, entirely non-exploitative film offered a closer look at the oft-misunderstood Satanic Temple and its role in the battle for religious freedom. Film earned raves out of Sundance.
Director: Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov
Winner of a good dozen festival prizes — including three from Sundance alone — Kotevska and Stefanov’s account of a female Macedonian beekeeper has drawn rapturous responses, and won the Pare Lorentz award from the IDA.
“The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley”
Director: Alex Gibney
The Emmy-nominated exposé of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was a conversation-starter when it hit HBO in March, prompting debate over the credulousness of big tech.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
“Queen of Versailles” director Greenfield tackled yet another tale of precarious decadence, only this time the scope was much larger, taking as her subject the notorious former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, as she mounts a comeback into the nation’s politics.
“Knock Down the House”
Director: Rachel Lears
The film following four female candidates for Congress in 2018 struck gold when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez happened to not only win, but quickly become one of the most famous and magnetic young forces in American politics. A blue-state crowdpleaser par excellence, it has picked up audience awards at Sundance.
Director: Garrett Price
Using home video and substantial interviews with family and colleagues Price crafted this bittersweet elegy to late “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin, who the film reveals, was waging a secret battle with cystic fibrosis as he rose the Hollywood ranks.
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”
Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
The doc drew on wide-ranging interviews to paint an adoring picture of the great folk-rock singer, recently forced to retire from performing due to Parkinson’s disease. The film managed to draw a crowd, accruing just shy of $4 million at the box office.
Director: Alex Holmes
Reconstructing a major stride for equality that largely went missing from the history books, Holmes delves deep into the story of Tracy Edwards, who became the first female skipper — of the first all-female crew — to complete the Whitbread Round the World sailing race 30 years ago. The film did solid business theatrically in spring.
Director: Hassan Fazili
This harrowing autobiographical account documented the director’s own flight for life in Afghanistan after the Taliban put a bounty on him and his family. Winner of special mention from the ecumenical jury at the Berlin Film Festival, and a special jury prize from Sundance.
“Mike Wallace Is Here”
Director: Avi Belkin
Israeli filmmaker Belkin relied entirely on archival footage to forge this experiential portrait of the veteran newsman, while finding plenty of time along the way to comment on the gradual decline of journalistic authority.
“One Child Nation”
Director: Nanfu Wang and Zhang Lynn
The pair examined the legacy of the one-child policy in the People’s Republic of China, uncovering a chilling number of harrowing stories, as well as examining the long-term societal effects of a nation’s attempt to radically disrupt the family structure. The film won a jury prize at Sundance, as well as the grand jury prize at the Film Frame Documentary Festival.
“Sea of Shadows”
Director: Richard Ladkani
Winner of an audience award at Sundance, the environmental advocacy doc in the guise of a thriller, lures audiences into the fight to save the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale, from poachers and traffickers who are destroying its habitat in an attempt to procure a rare, cohabitating fish considered a Chinese delicacy.
“Tell Me Who I Am”
Director: Ed Perkins
Much like 2018’s “Three Identical Strangers,” Perkins’ docu tackles a highly unusual, emotionally charged sibling relationship, in this case twins whose ties are radically changed when one of them experiences severe memory loss after an accident, relying on his brother to help him re-create 18 years’ worth of memories.
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”
Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
The recent passing of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist certainly adds more resonance to Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary, yet the film would have been just as warmly received regardless, featuring intimate, in-depth conversations with Morrison that flow freely from the political to the personal to the literary.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
The powerful, widely despised lawyer — known for everything from the prosecution to the Rosenbergs to his work with Joseph McCarthy, his anti-gay witch-hunts and his mentorship of a young Donald Trump — gets an appropriately unflinching treatment.