A dissident Chinese artist. An American city on the brink. An American crime fighting idea under scrutiny. A hospital waiting room. Melting glaciers. A man who isn’t who he claims to be. Rape in the military. A dissident Iranian artist. All these and more are the subjects of the fifteen movies selected by the Academy for the shortlist for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Come January 25th, five of these films will be nominated for the golden statuette.

First off, take a look at the shortlist:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry


Chasing Ice (My review)

Detropia (My review)


5 Broken Cameras

The Gatekeepers

The House I Live In (My review)

How to Survive a Plague (My review)

The Imposter (My Review)

The Invisible War (My Review)

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Searching for Sugar Man (My Review)

This Is Not a Film (My Review)

The Waiting Room (My Review)

What immediately strikes me about these selections is that they’re good. And by that I mean that they are a much higher caliber of film than what the Academy usually picks out for recognition. Sometimes the politicking done by the studios within the Academy results in work of actual merit getting rewarded. I’ve seen most of these movies and can attest to their quality, and I’ve mostly heard good things about the ones I haven’t seen. Just as a comparison, last year’s shortlist ignored virtually all of the year’s most acclaimed and deserving docs. The eventual winner, Undefeated, bafflingly remains off of DVD, and the critical conversation around it remains next to nil.

There are a few surprising snubs. The biggest is probably The Queen of Versailles, which seemed all but guaranteed a nomination. It dealt with timely themes connected to the economic collapse and did reasonably good business. Other notable docs left off the list include Jiro Dreams of Sushi and West of Memphis, both of which generated a lot of buzz which has now apparently come to nothing. There are a few movies that I’d rather see on the shortlist than what’s currently there, but they’re mostly smaller films that never had a prayer.

So which of these films are most likely to be among the final five? I’m hesitant to guess, because the Oscars have a way of completely defying any expectations that I have (mostly be going for the worst possible choices), but I’ll take a stab at it. I’d say that Searching for Sugar Man, Detropia, The Imposter, The House I live In, Bully, This is Not a Film, and Ai Weiwei have the best chances. This is based mostly off the fact that many of the filmmakers behind these docs have been nominated before and on the fact that the Academy adores movies that fete artists. Don’t make any bets based off of my advice, though.

A lot of people don’t really pay docs any mind. Certainly, come Oscar night, very few viewers will have any dogs in the race over nonfiction film. But documentaries bring us the best of the stories that really matter in the world. They can illuminate important social issues, or… wait, now I’m sounding like an Oscar presenter. Anyway, expect more shortlists like this to appear, and with greater frequency, as the January date for the nomination announcements loom. We’ll see what ends up on the ballot.