7 Impressive Documentaries That Were Nominated for Oscars

Every so often, a groundbreaking documentary appears and shakes everything up—even as much to deserve Academy Awards.

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“For truth is always strange; stranger than fiction.”

Lord Byron

Lord Byron’s grand old quote is still referenced today, years after it featured in his poem from 1819, and there’s no better example than all the modern documentaries that capture footage of the most incredible truths you’d never believe otherwise.

When a documentary is well-made, its truth grips you and plants you in your chair and doesn’t let you leave until the final frame plays out. When a documentary is revolutionary, it makes you start viewing the world in a new way that you’ve never considered before.

The Academy Awards ceremony honors the best films of the year, and those honors also extend to documentaries with the Best Documentary Feature category.

Here are some of the best documentaries ever made, which were all nominated for Oscars—and a few even won.

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7. Amy

This story of the late Amy Winehouse will change your perception of her. Her media image and scandalous front pages didn’t reflect the person behind the hair and makeup.

What becomes tragically clear when watching the documentary is that Amy Winehouse was fundamentally let down by the people that should have looked after her.

This is what makes this Oscar-winning documentary so good. The audience can see behind the curtain of Amy’s life with such rich detail that we can see Amy for who she was: a cheeky, happy, funny girl from Camden who was born with an extraordinary gift.

6. Citizenfour

Edward Snowden’s impact on the modern world is almost incalculable at this point. His disclosures on what the US government was doing by invading and storing the personal information of millions of people? Well, it led to widespread distrust and changes.

What Citizenfour does is show the audience what Snowden had to go through to get that information out.

The journey he undertook to Hong Kong to hand over all relevant information to journalist— and the effect his actions had on his own life—is fascinating to watch in this Oscar-winning documentary. 

5. Free Solo

It’s hard to imagine that a documentary about a man climbing a huge rock face could ever be gripping, but Free Solo is an incredible story of human endurance and achievement. 

The danger that Alex Honnold faces as he climbs El Capitan without any safety ropes, becoming the first person in history to do so? Nail-biting. Plus, we learn his life story and obsession for climbing.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and few films have ever been as tense as this one about a man who faces death should he take one single misstep.

4. Icarus

Initially, Icarus was meant to be a documentary about how blood doping affects the human body (in light of Lance Armstrong admitting that he cheated throughout his career).

Icarus ended up being an incredible peek into the Russian doping program that led to so many athletes winning Olympic medals. Named after the Greek myth, Bryan Fogel’s documentary is a shocking story that proves not everything you see in sports is genuine.

Fogel’s friendship with Grigory Rodchenkov—one of the men who orchestrated the doping of Russian athletes—is quietly touching yet incredibly sad as Rodchenkov loses everything due to the scandal.

Icarus won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony.

3. My Octopus Teacher

Documentaries made about obscure subjects can struggle to be wholly relatable—but My Octopus Teacher is a grand exception. You’ll come to understand the short life of an octopus living in a South African reef, and you’ll develop a visceral emotional connection with it.

The Oscar-winning documentary follows Craig Foster, who spends a year connecting with a small female octopus that lives in the reef near his home. Over that year, the octopus brings him into her world and shows him all kinds of things from her perspective.

The documentary highlights the delicate relationship between them, and the emotional pull of having to say goodbye. It all makes for one of the most surprisingly emotional documentaries ever made.

2. Searching for Sugar Man

The incredible tale of Sixto Rodriguez is one that warms the heart and leaves you stunned in disbelief that such a story could be true.

During the 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez was a recording artist who released two albums that were neither successful. However, unbeknownst to him, the albums sold vast copies in South Africa, and his work became as well-known as The Beatles.

The Oscar-winning documentary follows two South African fans who try to find out who Rodriguez was and why he disappeared, only for them to learn that he’s alive—and working as a laborer in Detroit.

1. Super Size Me

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If you love fast food and haven’t seen Super Size Me, you might want to check it out—because it’ll make you reconsider how much fast food you eat and what kinds of fast food you’ll want to eat.

Morgan Spurlock’s famous documentary follows his journey as he eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month. It’s eye-opening, extraordinary, and borderline nauseating to see a healthy man become depressed and on the verge of inflicting lasting damage to himself.

Spurlock’s film was inspired by a court case against McDonald’s where two people blamed McDonald’s for their weight gain. In his findings, Spurlock determined that the food is indeed damaging to a person—both physically and psychologically.

The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature and has had a lasting impact on society. It also changed how many documentaries were made, with other documentarians following his example in showing how terrible something is by trying it first-hand.

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