As the 2021 awards season marches closer to its Academy Awards finale at the end of April, here’s a look at the five feature documentary films (and where to watch them) that have captured the attention of critics and audiences alike. The focus of the docs nominated this year veered toward social and political issues — public health care, disability rights, institutional racism. The one nature film to make the list, “My Octopus Teacher,” highlighted the importance of relationships and the fragility of life.
“Collective,” directed by Alexander Nanau
Alexander Nanau’s film is set in the aftermath of the devastating 2015 fire at Bucharest nightclub Colectiv. The documentary follows a group of investigative journalists at a daily Romanian newspaper, as they expose fraud and corruption in the country’s public health care system. “Collective” is the first Romanian film to receive an Oscar nomination — and it picked up two, including for best international feature film. Available to stream on Hulu.
“Crip Camp,” directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht
Barack and Michelle Obama produced “Crip Camp” for Netflix under their Higher Ground Productions arm. The documentary, codirected by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, takes a nostalgic look back at Camp Jened, a summer camp in Catskills, N.Y., for disabled teens in the ’70s. Many of the teens who attended the camp — which was imbued with the Woodstock spirit — went on to become activists for the disability rights movement. The film, considered a frontrunner for the best documentary win, premiered at Sundance in 2020, where it took home the festival’s audience award.
“The Mole Agent,” directed by Maite Alberdi
A spy thriller, but make it documentary — “The Mole Agent,” which premiered at Sundance in 2020, takes cues from the noir film genre. Maite Alberdi’s documentary follows Sergio Chamy, a recent widower who is hired by a local P.I. in Chile to go undercover into a nursing home, with charming effect. If it sounds like an unlikely premise, it’s because parts are contrived (documentary purists might enjoy the debate). Nonetheless, the film serves as a poignant exploration into aging, loneliness and human connection. Available to stream on Hulu.
“My Octopus Teacher,” directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed
The Oscars documentary shortlist included three films about animals: truffle-hunting dogs in Italy, a Norwegian pig and a South African octopus. The octopus prevailed with the (somewhat surprise) nomination of “My Octopus Teacher,” which has been widely described as “charming” and “delightful” since its release last fall on Netflix. As the title suggests, the film focuses on an octopus that lives in the kelp forest off of South Africa’s Western Cape, and the sea creature’s relationship with diver Craig Foster — and how that relationship influences Foster’s approach to the environment and his human connections.
“Time,” directed by Garrett Bradley
Filmmaker Garrett Bradley trains his camera on Louisiana woman Sibil Fox, and her multidecade efforts to appeal her husband’s 60-year prison sentence for an armed robbery in the early ’90s. The intimate film, rendered in black-and-white, reveals the enduring power of love and hope — while exploring institutional racism and presenting a strong case for prison reform. Bradley won the Sundance Documentary Directing Award in 2020 for the film, which was acquired by Amazon Prime after its Sundance premiere.
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