This year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary are packed with goodies: all five films have received buzz on their own merits, and deserve to win. 124 films were up for nomination, making it a true honor to be in the running. It’s as tight a race as Best Picture, yet only one can win, a loss for the four excellent films. (Cartel Land, What Happened, Miss Simone?, and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom are streaming on Netflix; Amy and The Look of Silence are for rent on Amazon.)
Let’s take a look at shocking losses of the last 5 years.
Restrepo was nominated in 2010, but lost to Inside Job. Restrepo is, perhaps, better remembered. (Its 2014 sequel is Korengal.) Restrepo follows the 2nd Platoon of Battle Company over the course of a year in Afghanistan’s deadliest valley, Korengal. Available on Netflix.
Pina lost in 2011 to Undefeated, a documentary about a high school football team. A critical darling of art lovers worldwide, it is inevitably playing in New York City at any given time. Wim Wenders’ 3D ode to the choreography of Pina Bausch features her best noted work, performed in the city of Wuppertal. The camerawork and cinematography are outstanding. (Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club was nominated and lost in 1999.) Available on Amazon Video (free with Sundance Doc Club).
Paradise 3: Purgatory was also nominated in 2011; it’s the third installment in a series of compelling documentaries following the West Memphis Three. Wrongly imprisoned for 18 years, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin were suddenly released two months before the film’s HBO premiere; Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky focused then on the lives of the Three after the release after their Alford plea. Available on HBO Go.
How to Survive a Plague, the 2012 documentary about the actions and efforts of ACT UP and TAG in the early days of the (STILL ONGOING) AIDS epidemic lost to the very good Searching for Sugarman. But given the demographics of Oscar voters, it’s more than fair to say that its loss is entirely political. Available on Netflix.
The Invisible War is also from 2012. It explores the rampant sexual assault in the military, the lack of effort to stop it. Women are more likely to be raped than killed by enemy fire. The Invisible War won both a Peabody Award and an Emmy. Available through Amazon Video (free with Prime).
The Act of Killing lost the 2013 honor to 20 Feet From Stardom. Both were perfectly deserving. Killing finds the perpetrators of the 1965-1966 Indonesian massacre. Two of the men rose through the ranks of the death squads and killed over 1,000 innocent people in an enormous ethnic cleansing; today the men are proud, unapologetic, and in positions of political power. During the re-telling of the crimes director Joshua Oppenheimer has one of the men reenact the events, which is bizarre and horribly affecting. This year’s nominee The Look of Silence is Oppenheimer’s follow-up. Available on Netflix (theatrical release and director’s cut).
The Square was enormously popular upon its Netflix release in 2013, but likely suffered the affects of Netflix seeming less legit than the cinema. (This seems to have affected Beasts of No Nation, despite Netflix’s best efforts, though the Oscars’ inability to recognize Black actors didn’t help.) The Square examined the Egyptian Revolution; it won three Emmys. Available on Netflix.
Virunga was also released on Netflix. It lost the 2014 Oscar to Citizenfour. Virunga follows four people in Congo’s Virunga National Park protecting gorillas from war, poaching, and deforestation. The popularity of the documentary resulted in scrutiny against Soco International (who agreed to stop exploring the area for oil drilling). The film won many awards, including a Peabody. Available on Netflix.
Many critically acclaimed documentaries were never nominated: the epically long Shoah, Grey Gardens, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Prophet’s Prey, Senna, and Let the Fire Burn, the reason I wrote this article. (It’s so good! You can fin it on Netflix.) The exclusion of Hoop Dreams resulted in a change in the nomination system. The works of Errol Morris and Michael Moore are usually overlooked as well. (More did win for 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, and Morris shared a win with Michael Williams for 2003’s The Fog of War.)