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Fifteen documentary features, out of 159 submitted, have been shortlisted for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature – and most are available to watch online right now.
In what has been a very strong year for non-fiction, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences‘ announcement this week includes films on war, social justice, politics and entrepreneurs, as well as music history, an international yachting competition, and the exploration of space.
Though a few are in theatrical engagements, most of the films below are available to stream now (via services such as Amazon, Netflix or Vudu), or are available On Demand or on cable pay services (including HBO). Details, along with trailers for each film, are below.
Catch them before the Academy announces its nominations in this category on Monday, January 13, 2020.
The films, listed in alphabetical order by title, are:
Directors Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche profile the Jewish-Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemela, a diminutive bulldozer of a woman who confronts the Israeli legal system as she defends Palestinian political prisoners, including one just 13 years old. Right-wing critics in Israel condemned the film, which has won top awards at several international film festivals. A Producers Guild of America Award nominee, “Advocate” bowed at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Opens in theatres January 3, 2020.
After a General Motors factory in Michigan closed, costing 20,000 workers their jobs, a Chinese automobile glass company moved in as saviors, rescuing many of the American workers’ livelihoods (but barely, with salaries less than half of what they’d made with GM). The movie has some laughs with its culture clashes between the Michigan workers and their Chinese overlords, who are at pains to understand the Americans they see as lazier and less productive, due to their “fat fingers,” but who also – gasp! – want to unionize. But a visit to the Fuyao Glass Company’s plant in China shows in even starker relief the differences between these two cultures. A Producers Guild of America Award nominee, “American Factory” was named Best Documentary by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and won the documentary directing award at Sundance. Stream via Netflix.
This documentary by Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) goes backstage at the famed Harlem theatre to explore its history, the roster of celebrated artists who have performed on its stage, and efforts to keep the Apollo Theatre relevant (and solvent) today as a performing arts space and a living museum of African American culture. Watch on HBO, HBO Now and HBO Go.
Using recently-discovered and never-before-seen 65mm footage and 11,000 hours of audio recordings from the National Archives of the Apollo 11 mission, director Todd Douglas Miller created a tense hour-by-hour document of the most incredible journey yet taken by Man – to set foot on another world, using barely-tested technology that pushed the outer boundaries of engineering and human ingenuity. There are no talking-head interviews looking back in hindsight, and no narration, because words can only fail us when talking about such a journey. A Producers Guild of America Award nominee, “Apollo 11” received the Best Editing Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The documentary is available to stream on Amazon, Google Play, Hulu and Vudu.
This experiential film – there is no storyline, narration or even identifiable locations – is a mesmerizing look at the power of water in all its forms, from the forbidding ice on Siberian lakes that, as the weather warms, cracks and opens up underneath cars being driven across it, to the mountains of water that terrify the sailors trying to pilot their puny craft through a storm-tossed southern sea, to torrents of rain battering Miami during Hurricane Irma. Filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky shot “Aquarela” at a high frame rate (96 fps), but it’s the starkness of his images, from polar regions to Angel Falls in Venezuela, that underscores how unforgiving Nature can be. Available to stream on Amazon, Google Play and Vudu (but no iPhones, please – if any of these films deserves to be seen on a large screen, it is this one).
“The Biggest Little Farm”
This film festival favorite is the sweet story of a young couple, and a dog, who decide to chuck their lives in the city and start a 200-acre farm north of Los Angeles. Over seven years, filmmaker John Chester and his culinary writer-wife Molly Chester transformed an arid plot of land that had long ago seen any productivity into the lush, verdant Apricot Lane Farms, home of sustainable agriculture and a panoply of livestock. But it’s not all sweetness, ’cause farmers have to deal with predators (coyotes and other varmints), pests (snails taking over their orchards), sick animals, drought, flooding and wildfires, and a million other things. A great introduction to young people who might want to grow up to be farmers, or at least better appreciate what farmers have to go through to grow our food. Stream via Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, or watch On Demand.
Feras Fayyad (“Last Men in Aleppo”) shows the horrors facing Syrians trapped in the middle of a civil war, and the herculean efforts of medical personal working in a subterranean hospital in a city under siege, where there is no room for patriarchy among the men and women of the hospital’s staff. A Producers Guild of America Award nominee. Stream via Amazon Prime.
“The Edge of Democracy”
Petra Costa’s intimate documentary examines the changes in Brazilian society over the past several decades, from a military dictatorship to a democracy that has suffered and crumpled under the corruption of two presidents – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (now jailed) and Dilma Rousseff (who would be impeached) – leading to the ascension of the authoritarian candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Stream via Netflix.
With video camera close at hand, journalist Waad al-Kateab compiled the gripping story of Aleppo under siege by Syrian forces and Russian warplanes, as she and her husband, a doctor in one of the few hospitals standing, give birth to a child in the midst of hell. A winner of a Golden Eye Award at the Cannes Film Festival and a Courage Under Fire Award from the International Documentary Association, “For Sama” is a Producers Guild of America Award nominee. Stream via PBS.
“The Great Hack”
Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s film examines the data scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, in which the personal data of prospective voters was illicitly harvested and weaponized in both the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum in the U.K. Stream via Netflix.
This beautifully-shot film by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov observes a Macedonian beekeeper, Hatidze, tending her ailing mother and her bees in a village that’s been pretty much abandoned, and how her life is upset by the arrival of what appears to be a family of squatters next door. Their intrusion brings friendship, at first, but then strife as they plunder her bees’ honey, threatening her meager livelihood. A Grand Jury Prize-winner at the Sundance Film Festival, and a Producers Guild of America Award nominee, “Honeyland” won the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Non-Fiction Film Award. The film is also on the Academy’s shortlist for Best International Feature Film, representing North Macedonia. Stream via Amazon, Google Play and Vudu; also available On Demand.
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“Knock Down the House”
Winner of the Audience Award at Sundance, Rachel Lears’ film follows four electoral neophytes – the progressive Democrats Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela – who ran in Congressional primaries in 2018 as a response to the election of Donald Trump as president. While not all of these women succeeded, they were representative of a popular backlash to the 2016 vote, and in the case of Ocasio-Cortez (who knocked out a Democrat who’d served in Congress for 20 years), became emblematic of the “blue wave” that took control of the House from the Republicans. Stream via Netflix.
This thrilling documentary with some jaw-dropping footage tells the story of Tracy Edwards, who at age 24 skippered an all-female crew on a 58-foot yacht competing in the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race, sailing 32,000 nautical miles from the U.K. to the edge of Antarctica and back. To say they were sailing in the face of misogyny was putting it mildly; Alex Holmes’ film recounts not only the sniffs of the media and the yachting establishment to Edwards and her crew’s endeavor, but also their shock once they realized these women knew what they were doing. Stream via Amazon, Google Play and Vudu, or watch On Demand.
In Mexico City, where there are fewer than 45 government-operated ambulances serving the entire metropolis, the slack is picked up by privately-run ambulances, such as the service provided by the Ochoa family. Director Luke Lorentzen tagged along with them on nights both eventful and devoid of income-generating accident victims. And while they seem eager to assist those who need help (and face the dilemma of treating patients without the ability to pay for their services), the Ochoas – who must contend with police seeking bribes and competing ambulances monitoring the same scanner frequencies – are not averse to transporting clients to privately-run hospitals much further away that, they know, will pay them in cash, even at the risk of their clients’ lives. Effectively shot and edited with some chilling imagery, “Midnight Family” gives a new definition for “ambulance chasers” as its subjects ponder ethical dilemmas that no one – least of all those with the fate of people’s lives in their hands – should have to face. Now playing in theatres. (Check here for screenings near you.)
“One Child Nation”
For more than 35 years the Chinese government enacted a cruel “one child” policy, meant to address a burgeoning population crisis. This film by Zhang Lynn and Nanfu Wang looks at the propaganda used to promote the policy, and its terrible costs, such as institutionalizing a sexism that devalued the lives of girls, increased infanticide and child trafficking, and forced sterilizations and abortions. A Grand Jury Prize-winner at Sundance, and a Producers Guild of America Award nominee. Stream via Amazon Prime.
The Oscars will be handed out on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles.
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