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The Best Documentaries from Sundance & the Oscars Nominations

Awards season is upon us and with it brings new documentaries to add to your watch list. If you’re a filmmaker, you should keep up with the…
The Best Documentaries from Sundance & the Oscars Nominations
Photo Credit: Jemal Countess, Sundance Institute

Awards season is upon us and with it brings new documentaries to add to your watch list. If you’re a filmmaker, you should keep up with the best new work in your genre; festival awards or nominations are a great place to start. Here are the docs that won awards at Sundance Film Festival or scored The Academy Awards nominations this year:

Sundance Film Festival Awards

Kailash: U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary

Director: Derek Doneen
Director Of Photography: Lars Skree

The feature documentary follows Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi and his dedicated team as they carry out daring raids to rescue and rehabilitate children forced into slave labor.

Of Fathers and Sons: World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary

Director: Talal Derki
Director Of Photography: Kahtan Hasson

This is Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki’s second grand prize win at Sundance; his first was for The Return to Homs in 2014. For his latest film, Derki posed as a pro-jihadist photojournalist making a documentary on al-Nusra general Abu Osama, a radical Islamist leader.

Three Identical Strangers: U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling

Director: Tim Wardle
Director of Photography: Tim Cragg

Three Identical Strangers follows the story of triplets separated at birth and reunited at 19- years-old. Sundance describes the film as a “gripping, juicy conspiracy thriller that becomes so much more complex.”

MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.: World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award

Director: Stephen Loveridge

Compiled from over 700 personal tapes shot by Maya and her friends, the film explores her journey from immigrant teenager in London to international pop star M.I.A.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening: U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision

Filmmaker: RaMell Ross

Set in Hale County, Alabama, the documentary gives viewers an emotive impression of the Historic South. Shot in moments and fragments of scenes that forgo traditional narrative structure, the film shows the beauty of life and the consequences of race.

Genesis 2.0: World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography

Director: Christian Frei
Directors of Photography: Maxim Arbugaev, Peter Indergandand

One story line in the Swiss film follows hunters on the New Siberian Islands as they search for the tusks of woolly mammoths, while the other story line explores genetic science and how technology could resurrect the distinct animal.

Minding the Gap: U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking

Filmmaker: Bing Liu

Set in America’s post-industrial rust belt, Bing Liu’s film abandons conventional filmmaking techniques as it tells the story of his childhood and the friends he skateboarded with while growing up.

Shirkers: Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary

Filmmaker: Sandi Tan

When she was a teenager in Singapore, Sandi Tan made a film with an older American high school teacher, who stole the film canisters and vanished. Two decades later, Tan got the footage back and created her documentary, which explores her journey as a creative and unravels the mystery of her mentor.

On Her Shoulders: Directing Award for U.S. Documentary

Filmmaker: Alexandria Bombach

The documentary’s protagonist is 23-year-old Nadia Murad, a former Yazidi sex slave who witnessed her family’s brutal killings. It follows Nadia’s journey as she recounts her trauma again and again in order to speak out on behalf of the Yazidi community facing mass extermination by ISIS militants.

This Is Home: Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary

Director: Alexandra Shiva
Director Of Photography: Laela Kilbourn

This is Home is about four Syrian refugee families sent to resettle in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2016. The documentary is an empathetic look at displaced communities in need of help, and the difficulties they face in navigating cultural divisions.

The Sentence: Audience Award for U.S. Documentary

Filmmaker: Rudy Valdez

Rudy Valdez’s film follows the aftermath of his sister’s incarceration for conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend. To cope with the tragedy, Valdez films the husband and three daughters she had to leave behind, capturing both their big moments and everyday lives for her.

The Academy Awards Documentary Nominations

Nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject:


Director: Laura Checkoway

The documentary follows the lives of America’s oldest interracial newlyweds, and the family feud that threatens to tear them apart.

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405

Filmmaker: Frank Stiefel

The Oscar-nominated film is about Mindy Alper, a 56-year-old artist in Los Angeles, whose sculptures and drawings reveal a lifetime of extreme depression and anxiety. The film examines her work, interviews, and reenactments to show how Mindy has emerged from a life of darkness and isolation to one that includes love, trust, and laughter.


Director: Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Director of Photography: Kerrin Sheldon

Set in Huntington, West Virginia, the documentary highlights three women working to change the town’s narrative as the epicenter of America’s modern opioid epidemic. These women show a different side to the fight against drug abuse — one of hope and compassion — as they work to help their community.

Knife Skills

Filmmaker: Thomas Lennon

The short documentary is about the launch of a French restaurant in Cleveland, staffed by men and women recently released from prison.

Traffic Stop

Director: Kate Davis
Director of Photography: Tom Bergmann

The film tells the story of Breaion King, an African-American schoolteacher who was stopped for a minor traffic violation that escalated into a violent, traumatic arrest in 2015.

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Director: Steve James
Cinematographer: Tom Bergmann

The feature documentary follows the Chinese immigrant Sung family over the course of a five-year legal battle as they’re forced to defend themselves and their bank’s legacy in the New York Chinatown community. Accused of mortgage fraud, their bank, Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, is the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis.

Faces Places

Filmmakers: Agnès Varda, JR

For this documentary/road movie, French New Wave director, Varda, and photographer, JR, teamed up to travel around villages in France, learn locals’ stories, and produce portraits of them. Along the way, they documented their heart-warming encounters and the growth of their unlikely friendship.


Director: Bryan Fogel
Cinematographers: Timothy Rode, Jake Swantko

In this Netflix original doc, avid cyclist and filmmaker Bryan Fogel investigates and chronicles the effects of performance-enhancing drugs by using them on his own body. During the experiment, he befriends Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov as they become key to exposing one of the biggest doping scandals in international sports history.

Last Men in Aleppo

Director: Feras Fayyad

The film follows volunteers from The White Helmets as they rescue and provide emergency aid to the citizens of Aleppo. The film is an unflinching portrait of life in a war-torn city, where The White Helmets struggle to help survivors of Syria’s civil war.

Strong Island

Director: Yance Ford
Director of Photography: Alan Jacobsen

Strong Island chronicles Yance Ford’s family history from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City. Through it, the film takes an emotional look at his family’s grief and loss after the murder of their son and brother, William Ford.

Which of these films are you most excited to watch? Tell us in the comments below!

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By D. Simone Kovacs, Storyhunter Editor