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Tales of Triumph and Iconic Personas: THR’s Guide to the Oscars’ Top Documentaries

AKA Mr. Chow

(HBO Documentary Films)

This portrait directed by Nick Hooker follows the life and career of painter turned restaurateur Michael Chow, the owner of the Mr Chow restaurant chain, as he returns to the art world with his first solo show in nearly 60 years. 

American Symphony

(Netflix)

Matthew Heineman switches gears from following the front lines of the Mexican drug war (the Oscar-nominated Cartel Land) and the early days of the COVID crisis in New York City (The First Wave), this time helming an intimate profile of Late Night With Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste as he balances an incredible year of professional success while aiding his wife, writer Suleika Jaouad, through her battle with a rare form of cancer. 

Anonymous Sister

(Seeking U.S. distribution)

Emmy Award-winning director Jamie Boyle chronicles her family’s collision with the opioid epidemic. The film, currently holding a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, is 30 years in the making.

Anselm

(Sideshow/Janus Films)

Twelve years after the Oscar-nominated Pina, the groundbreaking portrait of famed choreographer Pina Bausch, auteur Wim Wenders delivers another compelling 3D-shot documentary, this time focusing on the art of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer — one of two features Wenders has in the awards race this year, alongside Japan’s international feature submission, Perfect Days.

Bad Press

(Context Move)

Joe Peeler and Rebecca Landsberry-Baker direct this doc that follows the Muscogee Nation as it suddenly begins censoring its free press, and one reporter takes it upon herself to expose the government’s corruption. The documentary had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Freedom of Expression.

Beyond Utopia

(Roadside Attractions)

Madeleine Gavin directs this deep look at five families attempting to escape oppression in North Korea. The film, which centers on pastor Sengeun Kim, premiered this year at Sundance and won the audience award in the documentary competition.

Beyond Utopia

‘Beyond Utopia’ Fathom Events

Black Barbie

(Netflix)

Written and directed by Lagueria Davis, this timely doc — which premiered at this year’s South by Southwest, mere months before Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster smash — explores the history of the first Black Barbie, introduced in 1980, through the eyes of Beulah Mae Mitchell, who spent 45 years working at Mattel. 

Black Ice

(Roadside Attractions)

Hubert Davis’ Canadian doc exposes a history of racism in the world of hockey through the perspectives of Black hockey players. Drake, LeBron James and Maverick Carter are among the executive producers of the film, which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President

(Nat Geo)

In Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp’s doc, Ugandan opposition leader and former member of parliament Bobi Wine takes the biggest risk of his life by fighting the regime led by Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. Wine ran in the 2021 election and used his music to denounce Museveni’s regime. 

A Compassionate Spy

(Magnolia)

The film from two-time Oscar nominee Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail) tells the story of Manhattan Project scientist Ted Hall, who shared classified nuclear secrets with Russia.

Copa 71

(Seeking U.S. distribution)

Through the perspectives of the women who took part, this documentary chronicles the unofficial 1971 Women’s Soccer World Cup, an event mostly forgotten in soccer history. James Erskine and Rachel Ramsay direct, while Serena and Venus Williams serve as executive producers.

The Deepest Breath

(Netflix)

Directed by Laura McGann, this Netflix entry follows the dangerous sport of free diving and Italian free diver Alessia Zecchini as she attempts to break a world record with the help of safety diver Stephen Keenan. It had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Defiant

(Seeking U.S. distribution)

Oscar- and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Karim Amer (The Square, The Great Hack) directs and produces this doc about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, focusing on diplomat Dmytro Kuleba’s fight against Russian disinformation.

Defiant

‘Defiant’ Courtesy of TIFF

Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy

(Zeitgeist Films)

Nancy Buirski (who died in August) helmed this behind-the-scenes look at the making of the trailblazing 1969 film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, which remains the only X-rated film to take the Oscar for best picture. The doc explores Midnight Cowboy’s legacy while also examining the tumultuous era in American cultural history in which it was produced.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

(IFC Films)

Dakota Johnson narrates this documentary film about American-born German sex educator and feminist Shere Hite, who in 1995 renounced her U.S. citizenship and opted for German citizenship because she felt the German society was more tolerant of her endeavors and studies. She renounced her U.S. citizenship before her German application was accepted, however, making her stateless for some time.

The Elephant 6 Recording Co.

(Greenwich Entertainment)

C.B. Stockfleth’s film provides an inside look at the ’90s psychedelic rock collective that helped launch bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control and The Apples in Stereo.

The Eternal Memory

(MTV Documentary Films)

Augusto and Paulina have been together for 25 years, but eight years ago, Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, prompting Paulina to become his caretaker. The two work together to preserve his identity and his memories while fearing the day he no longer will recognize her face.

Every Body

(Focus Features)

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julie Cohen (RBG, My Name Is Pauli Murray) is back in the race with this feature that chronicles three intersex individuals and their experience with social pressure and nonconsensual surgeries performed on them as minors.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project

(HBO Documentary Films)

Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s film, which won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, follows the life of poet Nikki Giovanni and her place in revolutionary historical periods like the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Taraji P. Henson reads Giovanni’s poems.

Joan Baez: I Am a Noise

(Magnolia Pictures)

The folk rock icon looks back at her meteoric rise as a singer-songwriter, her professional and romantic relationship with Bob Dylan, her civil rights activism and her own personal and family traumas as she reflects on a storied music career.

Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of a Mind

(Greenwich Entertainment)

One of the most prolific — and private — contemporary American writers peels back the curtain to reveal the creative process that has produced an impressive number of novels, short stories, plays and poems. In Stig Björkman’s film, Oates also reexamines historical events that influenced some of her most memorable works, including the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick (Black Water, published in 1992) and the life and career of Marilyn Monroe (2000’s Blonde).

Kokomo City

(Magnolia Pictures)

The directorial debut of Grammy-nominated musician and producer D. Smith, this black-and-white film — executive produced by Emmy winner Lena Waithe — features four Black trans sex workers in Atlanta and New York City who intimately and unapologetically share the experiences of their profession. 

Lakota Nation vs. United States

(IFC Films)

America’s darkest moments in history are interrogated in this chronicle of the Lakota tribe’s efforts to reclaim their sacred lands in the Black Hills of South Dakota that were stolen in violation of treaty agreements. While looking back at the past, Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s doc also examines the Indigenous communities of the present and their continued resilience in the face of marginalization. 

The League

(Magnolia Pictures)

Oscar winner Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson executive produced this film from director Sam Pollard that celebrates the history of Negro League baseball. The film shines a light on the somewhat forgotten legends of the league like Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil while also highlighting the career beginnings of baseball legends Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

The League

‘The League’ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Little Richard: I Am Everything

(Magnolia Pictures)

Lisa Cortes directs this portrait of the rock ’n’ roll icon’s connection to queer culture, with such music legends as Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and Paul McCartney offering commentary. Dee Rees (Mudbound) serves as an executive producer of the film, which had its world premiere at Sundance.

Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story

(Amazon)

The prolific director and producer is the focus of Gelila Bekele and Armani Ortiz’s bio-doc, which revolves around his unexpected and meteoric rise to fame as a multihyphenate Black filmmaker who defied the odds in an industry in which he felt he didn’t belong. 

Menus Plaisirs — Les Troisgros

(Zipporah)

The legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman — at 92 years old! — embedded himself behind the scenes of La Maison Troisgros, the venerable restaurant in Roanne, France, that has held three Michelin stars for 50 years. 

The Mission

(Nat Geo)

In 2018, a young American missionary named John Chau was killed by arrows after he ventured to the isolated North Sentinel Island, a thousand miles off the coast of India and home to the Sentinelese, an Indigenous group that has refused contact with the outside world. Emmy-winning directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (Boys State) dive deep into the story using archival footage and interviews.

Mr. Jimmy

(Abramorama)

Akio Sakurai had been re-creating Led Zeppelin concerts note for note in small Tokyo clubs to honor guitarist Jimmy Page for 30 years — and then Page himself arrived at one of Sakurai’s shows. Inspired by Page’s blessing, Sakurai leaves his family and job behind to bring his act to Los Angeles, only to discover the American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

Mr. Jimmy

‘Mr. Jimmy’ Courtesy of SXSW

Occupied City

(A24)

Oscar winner Steve McQueen directs this film based on the book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, by Bianca Stigter. Having its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, the four-hour-plus epic chronicles Amsterdam under Nazi occupation during World War II.

Orlando, My Political Biography

(Sideshow/Janus Films)

French philosopher and activist Paul B. Preciado makes his directorial debut with this boundary-breaking doc, which assembles a cast of 26 trans and nonbinary people ranging from ages 8 to 70 to play the title character of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, in which the central character switches gender midway through the story.

Periodical

(MSNBC)

Lina Plioplyte’s film compiles a lineup of doctors, activists and celebrities — including Gloria Steinem and Naomi Watts — for an irreverent breakdown of the menstrual cycle and menopause while also examining the stigmas attached to women’s health. 

The Pigeon Tunnel

(Apple)

Oscar winner Errol Morris sits down with former MI5 and MI6 agent David John Moore Cornwell — better known by his pen name, John le Carré, under which he published numerous best-selling novels, including The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener.

A Revolution on Canvas

(HBO Documentary Films)

Co-director Sara Nodjoumi (working with Till Schauder) investigates the life and legacy of her father, painter Nikzad Nodjoumi, as she attempts to reclaim a collection of his artwork that has been hidden from view since the Iranian Revolution for its “treasonous” political content.

Silver Dollar Road

(Amazon)

Land developers consistently harass a Black family in North Carolina as they attempt to take their waterfront property. The documentary, based on a 2019 ProPublica article, comes from Academy Award nominee Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro).

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

(Greenwich Entertainment)

The Estonian submission for international feature follows a group of women who gather in a smoke sauna to wash their bodies, finding a sense of strength through conversations in which they share stories and secrets. 

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ Ants Tammik/Alexandra Film

The Space Race

(Nat Geo/Disney+)

This illuminating doc sheds light on the experiences of the first Black astronauts using decades of archive footage and interviews. Lisa Cortes (this year’s Little Richard: I Am Everything) and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza direct.

Stamped From the Beginning

(Netflix)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams produced and directed this film, based upon Ibram X. Kendi’s book exploring racial tropes and imagery that have been embedded in American culture. Kendi appears as a talking head alongside Angela Davis, Imani Perry and Brittany Packnett Cunningham.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

(Apple)

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about the beloved actor and activist Michael J. Fox, which traces his career and his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease at age 29, was nominated for seven Emmys, including outstanding documentary or nonfiction special.

A Still Small Voice

(Abramorama)

This film centers on a chaplain named Mati who is completing a yearlong hospital residency to provide spiritual care for patients. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and director Luke Lorentzen won the directing award in the U.S. documentary category.

Subject

(Greenwich Entertainment)

This meta exploration of the ethics of documentary filmmaking catches up with the subjects of well-known docs, examining the influence those successful features have had on the people who told their stories in front of the cameras.

Swan Song

(Blue Ice Cocs/CBC)

Dancer Karen Kain is the focus of this feature by Chelsea McMullan that takes a deep dive into the devotion of the members of the National Ballet of Canada, following them as they pursue a creative life while balancing the struggles that arise from their vocation. 

Thank You Very Much

(Seeking U.S. distribution)

Danny DeVito, Steve Martin and Marilu Henner take part in this documentary film about Taxi star, comedian and “song-and-dance man” Andy Kaufman, who died in 1984 of lung cancer at the age of 35.

32 Sounds

(Abramorama)

Directed by Sam Green (The Weather Underground, A Thousand Thoughts), this immersive doc — which features music from Le Tigre’s JD Samson — explores the way sound transcends borders and time and connects us to the world around us. (For more on this doc, see page 12.)

To Kill a Tiger

(National Film Board of Canada)

A local farmer in Jharkhand, India, demands justice for his 13-year-old daughter who was brutally gang-raped. The film, directed by Nisha Pahuja, premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

20 Days in Mariupol

(PBS)

Ukraine’s submission for international feature follows director Mstyslav Chernov and a team of Associated Press journalists who were trapped in the city of Mariupol after the Russian invasion of the country. First-time director Chernov and his colleagues bear witness to the atrocities of war.

Uncharitable

(Abramorama)

Filmmaker Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Oscar-nominated actors Maggie and Jake) makes his documentary directorial debut with this examination of the dark side of the philanthropy sector and attempts to introduce a new way to manage charitable organizations.

We Have Just Begun

(Seeking U.S. distribution)

The 1919 Elaine Race Massacre — the deadliest racial confrontation and labor action in American history — is the focus of Michael Warren Wilson’s feature, which attempts to shine a light on a misunderstood and nearly forgotten event that still has ramifications in the lives of Black residents in the Arkansas Delta region.

What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?

(Abramorama)

John Scheinfeld’s rock doc tells the story of one of the biggest bands of the 1970s whose fame peaked before political turmoil and internal conflicts brought the group down from its influential heights.

While We Watched

(PBS)

Indian journalist and NDTV news editor Ravish Kumar is the subject of Vinay Shukla’s film, which follows Kumar as he maintains his journalistic independence and integrity in the face of daunting challenges. 

While We Watched

‘While We Watched’ Britdoc Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Who I Am Not

(Greenwich Entertainment)

Two intersex people in South Africa — one a beauty queen, another an activist — share their unique experiences in director Tunde Skovran’s film, executive produced by Patricia Arquette. 

Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West

(Gravitas Ventures)

As the name implies, the documentary explores the world of wild horses in the Western U.S. For writer and director Ashley Avis, this isn’t the first foray into stories of horses: In 2020, she directed Black Beauty for Disney.

You Were My First Boyfriend

(HBO Documentary Films)

Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo dredges up a greatest-hits list of childhood trauma as she attends her 20-year high school reunion, compiling home videos and dramatic reenactments to interrogate the memories of her formative teenage years. 

Your Fat Friend

(Seeking U.S. distribution)

The anonymous blogger @yrfatfriend reveals herself as writer Aubrey Gordon in Jeanie Finlay’s portrait of how people view and treat fat people, with Gordon bravely facing her fans and critics upon the publication of her first book. 

Youth (Spring)

(Seeking U.S. distribution)

Wang Bing’s film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and follows young textile workers in China. It is intended to be the first of three films following these same characters. 

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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