Who, Where, & How Much? A Breakdown of the 15 Films that Made the Oscars' Doc Shortlist

What does it take to make the Oscars Feature Documentary Shortlist? At least three things: a top-tier festival premiere, a theatrical run, and a great movie. Oh, that’s all?!

It's a winding road, that's for sure. This year, 124 films were submitted after having qualified for the Academy Awards -- a huge feat all on its own. Of the 124, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have now chosen 15 for the shortlist. From this shortlist, featuring a dizzying array of good films, only five will emerge after a final voting round for the prime-time red carpet event that is the Oscars.

In the breakneck evolution of the documentary genre and the accompanying growth of mesmerizing docs being made, it’s been a challenge for the Academy to keep up. Over the last few years, the Academy has repeatedly changed its criteria for doc eligibility to thin the numbers of submissions. And while the stiffening rules have have irked independent filmmakers who can't afford increasingly strenuous theatrical runs -- reports claim that there are still too many films for the 240 voting members of the Academy to watch.

Here is a breakdown of the films that did make the Documentary Shortlist for the 2016 Academy Awards. Not only is this an indicator of what it will take you to get you to the Oscars, it's also a great list of extremely varied and exceptionally made films to watch!


Director: Asif Kapadia
Production Company: On the Corner Films, Universal Music
Festival Premiere: Cannes 2015
Release Date: July 3, 2015
Gross: $8,397,920 as of November 27, 2015
Synopsis: The story of Amy Winehouse in her own words, featuring unseen archival footage and unheard tracks.

Best of Enemies

Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Production Company: Tremolo Productions and Media Ranch
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: July 31 2015
Gross: $891,997 as of November 6, 2015
Synopsis: A documentary on the series of televised debates in 1968 between the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr.

Check out the No Film School panel of editors at Sundance, featuring Best of Enemies editor Eileen Meyer here.

Cartel Land

Director: Matthew Heineman
Production Company: Our Time Projects, The Documentary Group
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: July 17 2015
Gross: $704,352 as of November 13 2015
Synopsis: A physician in Michoacán, Mexico leads a citizen uprising against the drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Across the U.S. border, a veteran heads a paramilitary group working to prevent Mexico's drug wars from entering U.S. territory.

Check out the No Film School interview at Sundance with Cartel Land director here.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Director: Alex Gibney
Production Company: Jigsaw Productions, HBO Documentary Films, Sky Atlantic
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: March 13, 2015
Gross: Unknown
Synopsis: An in-depth look at the inner-workings of the Church of Scientology.

He Named Me Malala

Director: Davis Guggenheim
Production Company: Parkes-MacDonald and Little Room
Festival Premiere: Telluride, TIFF 2015
Release Date: October 2, 2015
Gross: $2,603,380 as of November 20 2015
Synopsis: A look at the events leading up to the Taliban's attack on Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, for speaking out on girls' education followed by the aftermath, including her speech to the United Nations.

Heart of a Dog

Director: Laurie Anderson
Production Company: Canal Street Communications
Festival Premiere: Telluride 2015
Release Date: October 23, 2015
Gross: $187,133 as of November 27 2015
Synopsis: An impressionistic and musical meditation on a pets death with prelude and soundtrack by the artist Laurie Anderson, who enjoyed a very deep relationship with her dog.

The Hunting Ground

Director: Kirby Dick
Production Company: Chain Camera Pictures
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: February 27, 2015
Gross: $405,917 as of August 21 2015
Synopsis: An exposé of rape crimes on U.S. college campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and the devastating toll they take on students and their families.

Listen to Me Marlon

Director: Stevan Riley
Production Company: Passion Pictures
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: July 31, 2015
Gross: $423,176 as of October 2, 2015)
Synopsis: A documentary that utilizes hundreds of hours of audio that Marlon Brando recorded over the course of his life to tell the screen legend's story.

The Look of Silence

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Production Company: Final Cut for Real
Festival Premiere: Venice, TIFF 2014
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Gross: $109,089 as of November 6, 2015
Synopsis: A family that survives the genocide in Indonesia confronts the men who killed one of their brothers.

Check out our No Film School interview at SXSW with The Look of Silence director here.


Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Production Company: Little Monster Films
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Gross: $2,332,127 as of November 2015
Synopsis: Three elite climbers struggle to find their way through obsession and loss as they attempt to climb Mount Meru, one of the most coveted prizes in the high stakes game of Himalayan big wall climbing.

Check out the No Film School interview at Sundance with Meru directors here.

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

Director: Marc Silver
Production Company: The Filmmaker Fund, Motto Pictures, Lakehouse Films, Actual Films, JustFilms, MacArthur Foundation and Bertha BRITDOC
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Gross: $21,108
Synopsis: 3 ½ minutes and ten bullets. One unarmed boy is dead. 3 ½ Minutes dissects the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, the aftermath of this systemic tragedy and contradictions within the American criminal justice system.

We Come as Friends

Video is no longer available: youtu.be/E0MgQLk2OCQ
Director: Hubert Sauper
Production Company: Adelante Films
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2014
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Gross according to Box Office Mojo: $50,921 as of Nov 12, 2015
Synopsis: As war-ravaged South Sudan claims independence from North Sudan and its brutal President, Omar al-Bashir, a tiny, homemade prop plane wings in from France. It is piloted by eagle-eyed documentarian Hubert Sauper, who is mining for stories in a land trapped in the past but careening toward an apocalyptic future.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Video is no longer available: youtu.be/moOQXZxriKY
Director: Liz Garbus
Production Company: RadicalMedia and Moxie Firecracker
Festival Premiere: Sundance 2015
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Gross according to Indiewire: Estimated to be quite high, but the numbers were not released by Netflix.
Synopsis: A documentary about the life and legend Nina Simone, an American singer, pianist, and civil rights activist labeled the "High Priestess of Soul."

Where to Invade Next

Director: Michael Moore
Production Company: Dog Eat Dog Productions
Festival Premiere: TIFF 2015
Release Date: December 23, 2015
Gross according to IMDB: $0; release hasn’t happened yet.
Synopsis: To learn what the USA can gain from other nations, Michael Moore playfully "invades" them to see what they have to offer.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky
Production Company: Pray for Ukraine Productions
Festival Premiere: Venice Film Festival, Telluride 2015
Release Date: October 9, 2015
Gross according to IMDB: Numbers not released.
Synopsis: A documentary on the unrest in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014, as student demonstrations supporting European integration grew into a violent revolution calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.

Have you seen any of these films? What are you Oscar predictions for the final five?     

Your Comment


The amazing thing about Cartel Land is that it was filmed almost entirely by Matthew Heineman by himself and with <$10k in equipment (he said he used a C300, mic, and 2 lenses).

Certainly shows the power of storytelling, the value of getting access, and to me is documentary in its finest form.

Congrats to all that are on the shortlist here!

December 4, 2015 at 10:12AM


And his courage. I don't have the courage to do what he did. Its amazing how he was able to shoot such a beautiful film considering he was essentially in a war zone.

December 4, 2015 at 10:47AM, Edited December 4, 10:52AM

Videographer / Documentary Filmmaker

I can't believe "Finding finding Vivian Maier" is not on this list. I really can't believe it.

December 4, 2015 at 10:53AM, Edited December 4, 10:53AM

Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor

The Look of Silence is one of the best films I've ever seen in my life. If I was in charge there would be no contest :)

December 6, 2015 at 4:44PM, Edited December 6, 4:44PM

Micah Van Hove