Best Documentary nominees

Oscars 2015: who will win best documentary?

Oscar documentary nomineesClockwise from centre, Finding Vivian Maier, The Salt of the Earth, Citizenfour, Last Days in Vietnam, Virunga.

With best foreign-language film having been partly reformed in recent years – more on that in a later column – best documentary is the fringe category for which the Academy most regularly takes flak. Last year’s victory for 20 Feet from Stardom (a perfectly good film) over The Act of Killing (an imperfectly great one) was a typical one: formal risk-taking rarely trumps emotional uplift, no matter how many precursor awards point in the opposite direction.

This year, however, it seems the Academy’s documentary branch has largely voted with their heads over their hearts, compiling a list low on peppy crowdpleasers and omitting the film many thought might be the sentimental favourite: Steve James’s affecting but hardly inspired Roger Ebert tribute Life Itself. Though some US critics have taken this as an affront to their own profession, they should be appeased if – as looks increasingly likely – voters side with the film that has dominated the awards circuit thus far.

That’d be Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s riveting, in-the-moment study of former CIA system administrator Edward Snowden and his fire-starting role in the National Security Agency surveillance scandal. Poitras’s connection to the material could hardly be more direct: the film-maker (a former nominee in this category for her Iraq doc My Country, My Country) was invited by Snowden himself, along with Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill, to collaborate in his planned data leak, and the film that has resulted from their covert hotel-room consultations is a journalistic coup of the first order. It’s arguably a triumph of content over delivery, but that hasn’t prevented Citizenfour – which boasts Steven Soderbergh among its executive producers – taking top honours from the International Documentary Association and every major US critics’ group, or becoming easily the highest grosser of the nominees.

While Citizenfour has the topicality vote all wrapped up, Virunga is the category’s most rousing feat of contemporary activism. The first feature-length effort from the splendidly named British documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel, the film depicts the range of forces threatening the survival of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, from the violent impositions of rebel military forces to the more insidiously alarming presence of British oil company SOCO International. The Academy is often sympathetic to environmentally themed documentaries – The Cove and An Inconvenient Truth both won in the last decade – and this Bafta nominee has the urgent structure of a thriller. Surprisingly, it’s the only film in the category to have also scored a nomination from the Producers’ Guild of America.

It’s been 40 years since the Academy last rewarded a documentary concerned with the Vietnam war, with the ordeal finally drawing to a close, and the wound still a fresh one on voters’ collective conscience. This doesn’t seem likely to be the year they reopen it, but Last Days in Vietnam makes a decent case for them to do so. Directed by Rory Kennedy – incidentally, the youngest daughter of outspoken Vietnam war opponent Robert F Kennedy – the film is a marvel of archival gathering, showcasing astonishing footage of Saigon’s fall that does much to contextualise America’s collective memory of the events at hand. Firsthand recollections from American and Vietnamese participants, Henry Kissinger among them, supplement this calmly reconstructed history; its slight favouring of the US experience certainly won’t harm its chances.

Two contrasting portraits of photographers made their way into the category; pundit logic dictated that only one would make the cut, but Academy voting doesn’t allow for slot-based strategy. The more widely predicted of the two actually has the lower profile: Finding Vivian Maier, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s fascinating exposure of the titular street photographer and her clandestine career. It’s a melancholy, fascinating study of artfully concealed artistry that perhaps errs a little on the side of self-conscious myth-building; some critics have questioned the moral responsibility of Maloof (the chief owner and curator of Maier’s work) to a deceased subject who clearly never wished for this level of attention. Also nominated for the Directors’ Guild award (alongside Virunga and Citizenfour) and the Bafta, it’s been popular on the festival circuit since 2013, but is probably a shade too low-key to grab the win.

A little heavier on spectacle is The Salt of the Earth, a glorious tribute to Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado that sees Wim Wenders extending his run of form in the documentary format. Co-directed with Salgado’s son Juliano, the film – winner of the Special Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes – is a more traditional effort than Wenders’ much-garlanded Pina, but no less dazzling. Beginning with Salgado’s name-making images of the Serra Pelada gold mine and expanding outwards to reflect on a larger career, Wenders hits on novel methods of demonstrating his subject’s visual fluency, even through potentially conventional talking-head passages. As a formal feat of filmmaking, it’s by far the most impressive of the five. Never acknowledged by the Academy for his narrative work, Wenders has now racked up three nominations in this category; if voters are in a lyrical mood, and fancy recognising a worthy career in the process, he could be the spoiler.

Will win: Citizenfour

Should win: The Salt of the Earth

Hey where’s ... The Overnighters? Jesse Moss’s taut, tough survey of migrant oil-field workers in North Dakota inspired critical comparisons to Steinbeck in its moral weight and complexity, and cracked the Academy’s initial 15-film shortlist. It deserved to go further.

Scribner The Same River Twice
Toy (Scribner)
  • Audio commentary with filmmaker Robb Moss
  • Filmmaker Q&A
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Filmmaker and crew biographies
  • Interactive scene selection
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