2020 Is The Year To Finally Nominate A Documentary For Best Picture

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)

When I looked at my top 10 list this year, something jumped out at me: half the movies I picked were documentaries. That may be in part a reality of supply in 2020 as many high-profile narrative films opted to delay ... and delay ... and delay their releases. Documentaries, which have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade thanks to newfound demand on streaming platforms, were more than willing to help make up what was lost in both quantity and quality.

In 2020, documentaries continued blurring the lines between fact and fiction (Dick Johnson Is Dead and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets) to provocative effect. They provided a valuable first draft of history at a time when governmental foes are weaponizing the power of the state to create an alternate reality (Totally Under Control, Collective, 76 Days). In a complementary fashion, documentarians trained their lens on the very building blocks of democracy at the basest unit of governance (City Hall, Mayor, Boys State) and renewed our focus on the foundational elements of self-government. Documentarians also cast their eye backwards to help illuminate parts of our history we couldn't – or perhaps wouldn't – see (MLK/FBI, On the Record, Crip Camp). But most of all, they were a laboratory for playing with the very language and grammar of cinema itself, expanding the way we see and experience forces, institutions and items that are otherwise commonplace in our lives (Time, Gunda).

No non-fiction film has ever earned that most elusive, illustrious validator: an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. In 2020, we should break that streak once and for all.

This is not just a recognition of the important role that documentary played in this challenging year, though it's undeniable that Netflix's Tiger King was the first piece of art that created community in the age of coronavirus. This may well be the apotheosis of the streaming-inspired boom for documentaries. Especially if the pandemic ushers in a lingering recession, the sources of funding that have created this market could begin to dry up and further consolidate around franchises and other tentpole attractions. There may never be a time this good for nonfiction cinema again, between a public clamoring for mooring in the truth and funders ranging from journalistic giants to streaming behemoths and even philanthropically minded billionaires. We need to appreciate and award this moment as it's unfolding, not lament a lost Eden if the climate for production changes.

Further, let's not lie to ourselves – 2020 is not a movie year anyone will look back on remembering the movies meant for the big screen in all their glory. I hope one day that myself and others will be able to see, say, Nomadland projected in a dark room ... but that's unlikely to occur on a wide scale until after this year's awards season. According to a 2019 NRG study, documentaries are both the type of film moviegoers least prefer to see in theaters and most prefer to stream at home. This year's crop acknowledging the year's best movies should recognize a filmmaking style that has thrived thanks to the streaming services that provided our lifeline to moviegoing culture in 2020. None of this is to say that documentaries have no future in a theatrical market, but it would be a tip of the hat to how they've prospered and thrived in a digital-forward environment. 

This will be an undeniable challenge: even the two most powerful critics groups, NYFCC and LAFCA, have never chosen a documentary as their best film of the year. As a format, they are entirely ineligible at two of the biggest precursor events of the awards season: the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Worse yet, unlike Roma and Parasite when it came to making history for foreign language films in the Best Picture race, there is no consensus pick to unite behind. This is, ironically, the best argument for why there should be a documentary represented in the lineup. There are too many good documentaries doing such varied work and appealing to such a wide spectrum of tastes. Having one guaranteed winner from five nominees in the Best Documentary category should be the floor for the format, not the ceiling.

I am tired of hearing resigned fatalism that it cannot happen — or, worse, hearing nothing at all. Instead, those of us who care about some of the most innovative cinema must continue to press and ask why it has not happened. Especially as non-IP based cinema becomes more dependent on the promise of awards to receive financing, this conversation has less to do with the gold statuettes and more to do with the prosperity of the medium. Only by keeping our voices raised to amplify the best in documentary cinema can we create a world where it can happen.