2024 Oscars: Best Documentary Feature Predictions

Nominations voting is from January 11-16, 2024, with official Oscar nominations announced January 23, 2024. Final voting is February 22-27, 2024. And finally, the 96th Oscars telecast will be broadcast on Sunday, March 10 and air live on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET/ 5:00 p.m. PT. We update predictions through awards season, so keep checking IndieWire for all our 2024 Oscar picks.

The State of the Race

With a fragile theatrical market for non-fiction features and a dwindling number of active documentary buyers, many Sundance 2023 films did not get picked up for distribution. As the top American film festival for docs, Sundance usually supplies as many as four out of the final five Oscar nominees each year.

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And usually by late summer, Oscar promotion is well under way. Last year, three Sundance grads — eventual Oscar nominees “Fire of Love” (Neon), “All that Breathes” (HBO), and the winner, “Navalny” (CNN) — were actively campaigning.

Ordinarily, the Sundance Grand Jury Prize U.S. Documentary winner would be snapped up by a distributor. Not this year. Only recently did popular veteran documentarians Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s innovative portrait of feminist poetry and politics, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” get acquired by HBO Documentary Films.

A popular Sundance film that could play well for Oscar voters is veteran Lisa Cortés’ well-reviewed music biodoc “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Magnolia/Max). While CNN Films’ documentary unit has been trimmed, CNN has started a robust campaign for the film, starting with it being broadcast on CNN at the beginning of September before going to Max. CNN’s “Little Richard” has a chance to follow “Navalny” as another Oscar contender.

Another idiosyncratic film portrayal did announce a home: Nicole Newnham’s “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” about the glamorous sex researcher and controversial feminist pioneer, finally sold to IFC Films and Sapan Studios. Another film that found a distributor was executive producer Lena Waithe’s transgender sex workers story “Kokomo City” (July 28, Magnolia), which won both jury and audience awards at Sundance NEXT and the Audience Award at the Berlinale Panorama. Another popular Sundance entry was veteran Peter Nicks’ “Stephen Curry: Underrated” (AppleTV+).

"The Disappearance of Shere Hite"
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite”Sundance

Sundance World Cinema entries that could build followings include Pulitzer Prize winner Mstyslav Chernov’s timely war journalist story “20 Days in Mariupol” (August, Frontline/PBS), which won the Audience Award, along with Madeleine Gavin’s North Korean exposé “Beyond Utopia” (October 23, Fathom Events/Roadside Attractions). If it lands a 2023 release, U.S. Documentary Director prize winner “A Still, Small Voice,” Luke Lorentzen’s follow-up to Oscar-shortlisted “Midnight Family,” could find a following.

Kino Lorber will push Berlin Golden Bear winner “On the Adamant,” about a floating psychiatric care center, from Nicolas Philibert. Paul B. Preciado’s “Orlando, My Political Biography” (Sideshow/Janus Films), the winner of four prizes at Berlin, also has played at many of the major fall festivals, along with Tatiana Huezo’s Berlin Best Documentary winner “The Echo” and Claire Simon’s “Our Body” (Cinema Guild).

The Academy confirmed that the international membership now represents more than 20 percent of the total voters.

Movies like “All that Breathes” and “Writing with Fire” from India, Oscar-winner “My Octopus Teacher,” from Australia, “Flee” from Denmark, “Honeyland” from Macedonia, and “The Mole Agent” from Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi all landed Oscar nods. Alberdi could return with “The Eternal Memory” (August, MTV Documentary Films), a Berlin entry and winner of the Sundance World Cinema documentary jury prize, a four-hankie romantic story about Alzheimer’s that could resonate with the senior Oscar voters that favored Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” Similarly, like “Writing with Fire,” TIFF 2022 debut “While We Watched” (July 14, BritDocs/POV) documents recent changes in Indian media, and has built such ardent supporters as John Oliver.

Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora appear in The Eternal Memory by Maite Alberdi, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
“The Eternal Memory”Courtesy of Sundance Institute

One-week Oscar-qualifying runs in six major cities demand resources, as does participating in major and regional festivals, International Documentary Association screenings, and other doc series with Q&As. However, a small distributor and marketing budget does not mean all is lost, as surprise documentary nominee “Writing with Fire” and international nominee “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” proved in 2021.

At Cannes, three-time documentary Oscar nominee Wim Wenders debuted 3D artist portrait “Anselm” (Sideshow/Janus Films) about Anselm Kiefer, which also played the fall fest circuit. Respected and admired, Wenders scored the lifetime achievement award at the Lumiere Fest, accepted a Telluride tribute silver medallion, and is head of the jury in October’s Tokyo International Film Festival. Cannes entry “The Mother of All Lies” won Best Directing in Un Certain Regard, and tied for the Best Documentary award with edgy Competition title “Four Daughters” (Kino Lorber). Jury chief Kirsten Johnson (Emmy-winning “Dick Johnson Is Dead”) will be talking up both titles stateside.

Tribeca premiered two slices of baseball history, Oscar nominee Sam Pollard’s “The League” (July 12, Magnolia), a chronicle of the long-defunct Negro leagues, and Oscar-winner Morgan Neville’s “The Saint of Second Chances” (fall, Netflix).

This summer, when the awards team behind AppleTV+’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” realized that the field of Oscar contenders was thinner than usual, they threw the title into both Emmy and Oscar contention. The Davis Guggenheim-directed doc about the hugely popular TV and film star fighting off the vicissitudes of Parkinson’s and reflecting on his past looks good for an Emmy win and Academy rules also make it possible to pick up an Oscar slot.

A still from Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”

It doesn’t work the other way. Only a movie that doesn’t land an Oscar nomination can be submitted for Emmys, as Brett Morgen’s “Jane” did in 2017. With superb reviews for its innovative filmmaking that elevates “Still” beyond the hagiographic celebrity documentaries that are so popular these days, it has a chance at both the Emmy and the Oscar. One thing we can count on if that happens: The Oscars will change the rules again.

NatGeo is promoting International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam Audience Award winner “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” (July 28), featuring the former presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine, as well as Telluride entry “The Mission,” from Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (“Boys State”).

Several films that did not make a big splash at earlier festivals have a chance to gain more ground at the fall festivals.

a still from In Restless Dreams
Paul Simon in Alex Gibney’s “In Restless Dreams” Courtesy Jigsaw Productions

Gaining an enhanced profile during the WGA and SAG strikes at the fall film festivals are established filmmakers like Alex Gibney (sales title “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon”), Roger Ross Williams (Netflix’s “Stamped from the Beginning”), Errol Morris (Apple TV+’s “The Pigeon Tunnel”), Matthew Heineman (“American Symphony,” picked up by Netflix), Raoul Peck (Amazon’s “Silver Dollar Road”) and Frederick Wiseman (four-hour “Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros,”  Zipporah Films) in which the 93-year-old director embeds inside a French restaurant that’s held three Michelin stars for more than 50 years.

Laura Poitras won her first Oscar for “Citizenfour” (Radius TWC) after premiering at NYFF, while her second nomination for “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (Neon) arrived after winning the Golden Lion in Venice (and playing NYFF again). Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro” (Magnolia) premiered in TIFF before playing New York. And Oscar-winner “Free Solo” (NatGeo) debuted in Telluride before playing Toronto.

Several European documentaries could enter the race later on, as did last year’s surprise Sundance nominee “A House Made of Splinters” — assuming they get some backing. This preliminary list is far from exhaustive. We will add more titles as the picture becomes clearer.

Contenders for the shortlist of 15 are listed in alphabetical order below. No documentary will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen the film.

“32 Sounds”
“The Deepest Breath”
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite”
“The Eternal Memory”
“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project”
“In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon”
“Kokomo City”
“The League”
“Little Richard: I Am Everything”
“The Pigeon Tunnel”
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”
“Stamped From the Beginning”

“20 Days in Mariupol”
“American Symphony”
“Bobi Wine: The People’s President”
“Beyond Utopia”
“A Compassionate Spy”
“The Echo”
“Four Daughters”
“It Ain’t Over”
“Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros”
“The Mission”
“The Mother of All Lies”
“Orlando, My Political Biography”
“Our Body”
“The Saint of Second Chances”
“Silver Dollar Road”
“A Still, Small Voice”
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”
“Stephen Curry: Underrated”
“To Kill a Tiger”
“While We Watched”

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