While several of these choices appear to be strong contenders for a nomination, others seem unlikely. I have only seen a few of these selections, but based on the Academy's recent history of nominees, I would like to take a quick look at the chances of each of Variety's selections to receive a Best Documentary Feature nomination.
Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt was the first film listed, and it is not hard to see why. The film is directed by Robert Kenner, who received his first career nomination a few years ago for Food, Inc. after a long career of filming television documentaries. The film is inspired by the book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and focuses on professional deniers: those whose job it is to deny the effects of climate change in order to slow attempts to address it. Environmentally focused documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove have taken home Academy Awards in recent years, and Inside Job, which focuses on corruption of policy by interest groups, also won the Oscar. Merchants of Doubt isn't a shoo-in, but it has all of the ingredients of a Best Documentary Feature favorite.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic
It's unlikely that Academy voters (median age: 62) hold the the Nas album Illmatic with the same reverence as do hip hop fans, but we should be careful before we write off the chances of the Academy recognizing hip hop. The Academy awarded Oscars to Eminem and Three 6 Mafia and also nominated M.I.A. (Pharrell also received an Oscar nomination, but it was for the decidedly un-hip hop "Happy"). Most significantly for Nas: Time Is Illmatic's chances, Tupac: Resurrection was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, paving the way for a hip hop documentary to receive a nomination. However, Tupac was much more well known than Nas, and his untimely death more dramatic than the story of the creation of an album. Still, with music-centered documentaries like Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom recently gaining favor with the Academy, this doc has a chance.
The Salt of the Earth
Director Wim Wenders is a favorite of the documentarians branch, having been nominated twice before in this category (for Buena Vista Social Club and Pina). The Salt of the Earth is a profile of photographer Sebastiao Salgado, co-directed with Salgado's son Juan Ribierto Salgado. This doesn't seem like the type of subject matter that makes the Academy jump up and down, but Wenders's track record means that he should be taken seriously in prognosticating this category.
When I first saw Life Itself in August, I declared it a shoo-in for a nomination, and my opinion hasn't changed at all. Roger Ebert, the film's subject, was a beloved figure in the film industry, beloved even by those whose films he criticized. The film is a lovely retrospective of Ebert's life and career, but the scenes of he and his wife Chaz living through his illnesses are touching and beautifully rendered. This film should be catnip to Academy voters, but is also entirely deserving of a nomination.
Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier has done well at some of the more progressive film festivals, but a documentary about a street photographer is unlikely to receive a nomination. The film's chances are further hurt by the presence of The Salt of the Earth; the Academy is unlikely to nominate two films that profile photographers, and if they are to choose one they will almost certainly go with Wim Wenders.
Dancing in Jaffa
Along with Life Itself, this is one of the two films I am most confident in predicting a nomination. The Academy famously loves to award trophies to films about Middle East relations, and this is the rare feel-good documentary on the subject, telling the story of Jaffa schoolchildren - both Israeli and Palestinian - finding commonality and fraternity in dance lessons. It's hard to imagine this one getting left out.
Plot for Peace
This is a tough one to call. Plot for Peace looks at Jean-Yves Ollivie, a South African diplomat who brokered many significant peace deals. Any film about South Africa in the 1980's should get the Academy's attention, though Ollivie is a little known figure in the United States and thus this film could be forgotten. After years of mostly irrelevancy at the Oscars, South Africa was nominated at the 77th Academy Awards for Zulu and won the Oscar the following year for the wonderful Tsotsi and garnered all kinds of attention for District 9. This South African-produced film would also follow in the footsteps of Searching for Sugar Man, which, although not a South African film per se, prominently featured Cape Town. This film has an uphill climb, but festival audiences have loved it. If enough nominators see Plot for Peace, it could grab a nomination.
With Food, Inc. receiving a nomination a few years ago, Fed Up has to be taken seriously as a contender. The film looks at the obesity crisis and the processed food industry, and if you believe the stereotype of Hollywood as a land of kale-chomping vegans, Fed Up would seem a natural fit. Yet with constant news stories about the obesity crisis, it would take a unique viewpoint or an exceptionally well made film to get the attention of the Academy. I haven't seen the film and thus can't say if Fed Up achieves this, but it would take a great film on this subject for a real possibility of a nomination.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Elaine Stritch is a beloved figure in the entertainment community, and this film is said to be a great telling of her life. Still, the story just doesn't have enough emotional weight, outrage, or uplift to be much of a contender.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Tales of the Grim Sleeper has HBO Documentary Films behind it, and thus has a great chance of receiving a nomination. It's a dark story that touches on many subjects that Academy voters love, and from everything I have heard it is a terrific film. Definitely one to watch.
Code Black was distributed by The Long Shot Factory, and while the film isn't necessarily a long shot, it's also not a favorite. The film looks at the happenings of an emergency room, using the action to indict the American health care system. While Academy voters have supported films of this subject, health care is not at the top of their minds the way it was before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. There is still just as much to be outraged about in American health care, but unless this film is truly great (I have not seen it), this doesn't seem to be an Academy-favored subject.
Keep On Keepin' On
I am a huge jazz fan and occasional jazz writer, so a nomination for a documentary about the great Clark Terry working with prodigy Justin Kauflin would please me greatly. Keep On Keepin' On has been picking up hardware on the awards circuit, but it isn't likely to get an Oscar nomination, especially with arts-centered films like Life Itself in the mix. Still, this is the documentary I most want to see.
A film about saving the mountain gorillas of Congo produced by Leonardo DiCaprio? This film has everything going for it: an environmental theme and major star power. This film is amongst the strongest contenders for a nomination, especially if DiCaprio and Netflix put their weights behind it.
When the Academy rewards sports-themed films, they look for feel good stories. Happy Valley documents the recent Penn State scandal, exactly the opposite of what the Academy likes. It's hard to imagine a depressing documentary about college sports in rural Pennsylvania getting much love from Oscar voters.
Kids for Cash
Unlike Happy Valley, this Pennsylvania-set film is more in the wheelhouse of the Academy: an outrageous story of corruption and injustice perpetrated on children. Kids for Cash is neither a lock nor a long shot, but it is easy to see the film outraging Academy voters enough to pick up a nom.
The Great Invisible
The Great Invisible picked up the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest, instantly making the film an Oscar contender. It's a meticulously produced expose of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, looking at both the damage perpetrated on the environment and Gulf Coast residents who rely on the Gulf waters for their livelihoods. I'd be surprised if The Great Invisible isn't nominated.
Ever heard of the cult Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky? Neither have all but the most avant-garde Academy members. This film details the filmmaker's aborted attempt to adapt Dune for the screen. If the much more accessible Lost in La Mancha couldn't get nominated, it's unlikely Jodorowsky's Dune can.
As mentioned earlier, the average age for Academy voters as of 2012 was 62, and films about the aging tend to get noticed by the Academy. Alive Inside was given the Audience Award at Sundance, and an inspiring look at the benefits of music therapy for senior citizens. If the category is dominated by emotionally draining, hard-hitting films, look for Alive Inside to eke out a nomination.