Oscar Handicap 2018: Documentary Feature

FilmJerk.com continues its annual Oscar Handicap with a new (to us) category we’re tracking, Best Documentary Feature.

When I was younger, most of the times I had the opportunity to see a documentary was at a local repertory cinema, first the Art Theatre in Long Beach in my pre-teens years and then the Sash Mill Cinema in Santa Cruz during my teens and early twenties. I could (and often would) catch Martin Scorsese’s movies about his parents (“Italianamerican,” which famously featured Catherine Scorsese’s recipe for meatballs in the end credits) or his friend Steven Prince (“American Boy”), the weird-ass Sunn Classic movies like “Chariot of the Gods?” and “The Lincoln Conspiracy,” and the great music documentaries about Woodstock and Led Zeppelin and The Who. As I got older, it would not be too unusual for me to sandwich in a screening of “Manufacturing Consent” or “The Panama Deception” in between shows of “Doctor Giggles” or “Laws of Gravity.” Didn’t matter to me if it was a hauntingly beautiful three hour documentary about Leni Riefenstahl or an ugly 53 minute documentary about degenerate punk rock musician GG Allin, documentaries have always been an important part of my moviegoing life.

Sadly, the repertory theatre has, for the most part, gone the way of the dodo. The rep house was killed off by Blockbuster Video, which itself was killed off by online streaming services like Netflix. And while a number of people may bemoan the existence of Netflix as a cinema killer, I see Netflix as one of the best modern things to happen to certain types of films, such as documentaries. Instead of having to search out semi-obscure titles at cinephile-minded video stores like Video Free Brooklyn or Vidiots, anyone with even the cheapest of subscriptions can find a wealth of newer and archival documentary materials on the other end of their remote.

I bring up Netflix specifically as they have two nominees in this year’s field of Best Documentary Feature: Icarus, which is partly responsible for the ban on a number of Russian athletes at the just-concluded Winter Olympics, and Strong Island, in which a filmmaker takes a look at the circumstances surrounding the murder of his older brother years earlier. While these films did enjoy a token theatrical release in order to secure the opportunity to be awards eligible, we’ll never know how well these films would have seen by audiences in a theatre had they been acquired by a more theatrical-minded company like A24 or Cohen Media Group. A box office gross of a million dollars might have been an impossible task (none of the nominees this year or last year achieved that meager milestone), but now these films have the chance to reach a million viewers who are looking to the platform to supply more intellectual substance than the chance to binge watch thirty year old episodes of Doogie Howser. Which, to me, is the end game. Money is nice, but all artists really wants is to have people view their work.

But enough of my yapping, let’s get to the numbers…

The Breakdowns

1) If the lead director of the documentary is also a producer, that film has won in this category 38 of the last 39 years (97.4%). Advantage: Icarus, Strong Island
2) If the documentary is not the shortest of the nominees, that film has won here 36 of the last 39 years (92.3%). Advantage: Faces Places, Icarus, Last Men of Aleppo, Strong Island
3) If any of the producers are a first time nominee in any documentary category, that film has won 34 of the last 39 years (87.2%). Advantage: all five films. (And no, that doesn’t really happen all that often.)
4) If the film is primarily in English, it’s won here 33 of the last 39 years (84.6$). Advantage: Abacus, Icarus, Strong Island
5) If the film was released in to theatres, even if only for the bare minimum of eligibility requirements, before the nominations were announced, it’s gone on to win here 33 of the last 39 years (84.6%). Advantage: all five films (And no, that doesn’t happen all that often either.)
6) If the production was made primarily by Americans, it’s won here 29 of the past 39 years (74.4%). Advantage: Abacus, Icarus, Strong Island
7) If at least three of the nominees had reported theatrical grosses, the winner here came from amongst the top three grossers 18 of the past 25 years (72%). Advantage: Abacus, Faces Places, Last Men of Aleppo
8) If the nominee also won a similar award at the Critics Choice Awards (Best Documentary, Best Political Documentary or Most Innovative Documentary), it’s won here 10 times in the 16 years the BFCA has been handing out awards (62.5%). Advantage: Abacus, Last Men in Aleppo
9) If any nominee was nominated for the American Cinema Editors’ award for Best Editing in a Documentary, it’s won here 11 times out of the 17 years the ACE has given that award (64.7%). Advantage: none of this year’s nominees were nominated for an ACE Award, but we are keeping this in the breakdowns (along with the others where all nominees have the advantage) to keep the advantages and disadvantages consistent over the years.
10) If a nominee was also nominated for a Directors Guild Award for Best Documentary, it’s won here 14 of the 27 years the DGA has given out their award (51.9%). Advantage: Abacus, Iracus

By the Numbers

As much as we would love to see the legendary Ms. Varda win her first competitive Academy Award at the age of 89 (the oldest Oscar nominee ever), it does not appear this will happen unless the sentimental factor which cannot be factored in to the numbers kicks in.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, Mark Mitten and Julie Goldman): -1, -2, +3, +4, +5, +6, +7, +8, -9, +10 (181 of 319, 56.74%)
Faces Places (Agnès Varda, JR and Rosalie Varda): -1, +2, +3, -4, +5, -6, +7, -8, -9, -10 (163 of 319, 51.1%)
Icarus (Bryan Fogel and Dan Cogan): +1, +2, +3, +4, +5, +6, -7, -8, -9, +10 (236 of 319, 73.98%)
Last Men in Aleppo (Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed and Søren Steen Jespersen): -1, +2, +3, -4, +5, -6, +7, +8, -9, -10 (167 of 319, 52.35%)
Strong Island (Yance Ford and Joslyn Barnes): +1, +2, +3, +4, +5, +6, -7, -8, -9, -10 (235 of 319, 73.67%)

Thank you for taking the time to check us out.

All articles in this series:

Best Picture of the Year
Best Director
Best Actor and Best Actress
Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress
Best Cinematography
Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Animated Feature
Best Production Design
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Best Editing
Best Costume Design
Best Score
Best Sound Effects and Best Sound Mixing
Best Documentary Feature
Best Visual Effects