Don’t skip this year’s Oscar documentary category

Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land details the struggle between Mexican cartels and the vigilante groups rising up to fight against them. Photo courtesy of Public Radio International.
Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land details the struggle between Mexican cartels and the vigilante groups rising up to fight against them. Photo courtesy of Public Radio International.

It’s that time of the year again. It’s the week cinephiles make their predictions and rush to catch up on nominated films and pop culture connoisseurs prepare to critique the red carpet. But once again, the Oscar competition has been overshadowed by the important conversation around diversity in Hollywood (#OscarsSoWhite). While the lack of nominee diversity is shameful, it’s still worth considering the full range of the nominated works.

If you want to enjoy a terrific and diverse slate of films while preparing for your Academy Award watching, check out this year’s feature documentaries. The big-budget scripted films get a lot of attention, but some of the most compelling stories are found in these true-to-life films. They’re listed in order of personal preference, with my winning prediction closing the list.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight

for Freedom

This one is first on my list because it’s the only one I haven’t seen. I hope to catch it on Netflix before the Oscars – it seems like it will bring dimension to the headlines about the conflict in Ukraine. But more interesting to me than reviews or the story line in this case is this film’s unique cinematography. Winter on Fire tells the story of how a civil rights movement erupted into a revolution through the footage of 28 different individuals. It is a notable example of citizen journalism enabling multiple and immediate perspectives on breaking news or complex events in remote or war-torn locations. It seems to be highly reminiscent of The Square, a 2013 film by Jehane Noujaim, which chronicled the Arab Spring in Egypt from the street perspective

The Look of Silence

This documentary is a follow-up to filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s first film about the 1960s genocide in Indonesia, The Act of Killing. That film shocked audiences by capturing the perpetrators of the genocide, re-enacting their crimes for the cameras brazenly and shamelessly. This film turns to the other side, with the brother of a victim confronting those responsible. Oppenheimer’s work is unconventional in approach, but, like many documentaries, it is helping to create real social change – in this case by further revealing the truth about heinous criminal acts that have gone unpunished. Look for this film on both Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

What Happened Miss Simone

Liz Garbus, the director of this wonderful documentary about the activist and musician Nina Simone, is the only woman nominated for an Academy Award as a director this year. Her film is a searing, personal look at a groundbreaking musician who raised her voice against injustice while facing her own internal conflict. It’s available on Netflix now and if you don’t know Simone or her music, this film is a great way to get exposed to an amazing artist.


This close-up story of Amy Winehouse’s meteoric rise to fame and subsequent fall from it is raw and harrowing, and should be required viewing for understanding celebrity from a different perspective. British filmmaker Asif Kapadia weaves together extraordinary behind-the-stage footage of Winehouse to convey her extraordinary talent, reveal intimate moments and force the audience to feel complicit with the voyeurism that isolated her to fight her demons alone. Amy is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

Cartel Land

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman went to the scene to capture the border story between the Mexican cartels and the vigilantes on the American side of the border determined to fight them. The violence and danger of the story make it an exciting film to watch – but the reality of the situation is sobering. Cartel Land premiered at The Sundance Film Festival last year and took home awards for best cinematography and directing in the documentary category. This is a Netflix must-watch.

But which film will win?  Historically, the documentary winner has often been the most commercial documentary, and many critics believe this year will be no exception, with music documentaries Amy (the favorite) or What Happened Miss Simone scoring the win. Amy is a great movie, and the Nina Simone film has important themes about racial inequity – and a female director – which may bring it extra attention due to the backlash from the mostly-white-male Oscars. But I think Cartel Land could be the surprise winner because of its momentum from a recent Director’s Guild Best Documentary win, in addition to voters being likely to applaud the director’s personal bravery in capturing the dramatic and distressing story.

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