Where are the breakout documentaries of 2023?

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The Best Documentary categories of major awards ceremonies are usually sure bets for some of the most interesting films of the year. But in 2023, it’s hard to find what stands out from the pack.

The pandemic era, for whatever reason, seems to have been a pretty good one for documentaries.

Alongside the occasional mainstream success of series like Tiger King (remember that?), in the vacuum left by the lack of scripted content, it felt like studios and streamers were forced to fill their content voids with *shudder* good feature-length stuff. From the chilling Boys’ State on Apple TV+ to 13th and American Factory on Netflix, well-resourced, expertly produced documentaries weren’t even restricted by the number a streamer could realistically submit for Oscar consideration.

The 2022 awards season, in that relatively healthy nonfiction environment, was a triumph. Documentary categories at major awards ceremonies are at their best when the hard-hitting portrait of a Russian opposition leader Navalny can exist alongside the archival love story of a pair of volcanologists in Fire Of Love. In many ways, the 2022 Oscars category, which featured those two docs alongside All That Breathes (the tale of two brothers in a New Delhi bird clinic), All The Beauty And The Bloodshed (a biopic of Big Pharma activist Nan Goldin), and A House Made Of Splinters (life in an Eastern Ukrainian orphanage), typified the fantastic spectrum of documentary filmmaking like little else.

National Geographic’s Fire Of Love was one of the best documentaries of 2022

So for the past few years, it’s been common by the time December rolls around for a few choice docs to have drifted, if not into the mainstream, then at least into the field of awareness of the average cinephile. Last year, Fire Of Love and All The Beauty And The Bloodshed took those slots – the year before, Summer Of Soul and Flee did the same. But the offerings coming out of documentary-loving circles in 2023 seem to have far less consensus behind them.

Take some of the early awards nominations coming out of the US. Between the Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards (both of which are usually reasonable early indicators for a film’s Oscar and BAFTA chances), the only documentary to feature in both is Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters – which uses actors to interrogate a woman’s grief over the loss of two of her children.

Of the rest, few have managed to make a cultural splash the way something like My Octopus Teacher did in 2021. Whether that’s a lack of marketing force behind the documentary sector or something more organic – when asked what good documentaries are coming out of 2023, the documentary-heads I know have all responded with an expression suggesting they’ve just discovered they have athlete’s foot.

That’s not to say there aren’t good films out there – Hello, Bookstore, the feel-good tale of a Massachusetts book seller, is one of the most heartwarming stories you’ll hear this year. The Deepest Breath, Netflix’s look into the world free diving, is one of the most stressful. And Red Herring, the autobiographical tale of a young filmmaker coming to terms with a life-threatening illness, was a clear standout of the Raindance Film Festival in London.

One reason, perhaps, is a change in direction from streamers. After 16 years in the role, Lisa Nishimura left her position as Head of Documentaries at Netflix in March 2023 – following a decade in which Netflix has distributed at least one Best Documentary Oscar nominee every year since 2013.

After her departure, the nonfiction output of the world’s largest streaming service seems to have undertaken a pretty drastic shift. Undoubtedly the biggest docs Netflix has put out in the last 9 months have been either miniseries, celebrity biographies, or both. Robbie Williams, Sly, Arnold and Beckham are hardly going to earn anyone involved a Pulitzer – all except Arnold gave their subjects some form of producing credit.  

sly documentary 2023
Sylvester Stallone was given an executive producer credit on his Netflix documentary, Sly (Credit: Netflix)

Not that the other media giants are doing much better. Just this year, Disney Plus released its second season of Welcome To Wrexham and Stan Lee. Prime Video has opted for a feature-length documentary on the famously erudite Wayne Rooney. Even one of the best of these celebrity bios, Still: A Michael J Fox Movie, competes for space on Apple TV+ alongside The Super Models – a documentary on the lives of Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista.

It’s easy to see why. Compared to something like Apolonia, Apolonia, the 13-year study of a French figurative painter, a sit-down interview with the subject of a thousand gossip mags is much easier both to make and to market. With a built-in audience of everyone who’s ever bought a copy of Hello! Magazine, the economic incentives to find and fund new stories or pieces of investigative journalism just can’t stand up.

So while streamers and studios flirt more with celebrities than the cerebral, it’s been left to independent and international filmmakers to fill in the gaps. But while the Gotham and ISA nominees for best documentary are no-doubt exceptional pieces of work (I’ll hold my hands up and say I haven’t seen any of them in full) at first glance the categories do seem to be lacking some of the scale and spectacle that a doc sometimes needs to break out of very niche circles

For scripted features, it’s well-documented that sometimes, you just have to spend the money to get the film you want. For documentaries in the age of streaming, 2023 might be proof that the same is true for them.

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