One of the most talked about categories on Academy Award nominations day was the Best Documentary Feature. The conversation was not so much about the films that made the cut, but rather the one that did not. Universally praised by critics and audiences alike, most assumed that Won’t You be my Neighbor? would not only be nominated but steamroll the competition. None of which will happen which, if I am to be honest, is probably a good thing.
As much as I enjoyed the look back at Mr. Rogers’ life, it was not my favourite documentary of the year. Furthermore, without that film in the mix, the Oscar race is far more intriguing as a case can be made for each of the five films nominated. To figure out who has the best chance at winning one needs to consider the pros and cons, from an Oscar perspective, of each film.
Offering a stunning and suspenseful look at a man consumed by his passion, Free Solo is a sight to behold. Following Alex Honnold, one of the best “free solo” climbers in the world, as he attempts to climb Yosemite’s 3,000 feet high El Capitan Wall, directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi create a film that is visually breathtaking and heart-pounding. It is one of the few films this year where the viewer knows the outcome but is still on the edge of their seat the entire time. If there is one drawback to Free Solo it is that Honnold is not a likeable character. His cold demeanor, he admits in the film to being socially awkward, might not sit well with Academy voters looking to connect with the climber on an emotional level.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
There is an ethereal and haunting beauty to RaMell Ross’ five-year portrait of rural life in Hale County, Alabama. Hale County This Morning, This Evening manages to make Alabama feel like a dreamlike landscape while simultaneously presenting the day-to-day of the predominantly black community in an honest light. One of the greatest aspects of Ross’ film is that it touches on Alabama’s issues with race, however, does not get consumed by it. Instead he takes a rare approach and presents black individuals as regular people, mundane moments and all. While voters familiar to the style of Fredrick Wiseman’s films will find much to admire, Ross’ stylistic moments might be too distracting for some. Furthermore, the film demands the viewer’s complete attention, as it subtly plays with time in a way that impatient voters might take issue with.
Minding the Gap
Bing Liu’s impressive debut is a searing exploration into the modern notion of masculinity. Compiling a decade’s worth of footage, Minding the Gap shows the turbulent transition from adolescence to manhood that Liu and his two friends endure. What starts off as a tale of friends who love skateboarding turns into a stirring look at the damaging effects of toxic masculinity on young men who lack positive role models to teach them how to be responsible men. Engaging and heartbreaking, Liu takes viewers on a thought-provoking emotional journey. While a riveting film, it will be interesting to see how voters who were offended by the recent Gillette ad centered around toxic masculinity process this film.
Of Fathers and Sons
Of Fathers and Sons finds Berlin-based Syrian director Talal Derki returning to his war-torn homeland, posing as a jihad-sympathizing war photographer, in order to observe how jihadist ideology is spread down through generations of men and boys. Focusing on one specific family, where the father is a bomb specialist for the Taliban, Derki paints a heartbreaking portrait of children whose playgrounds are destroyed tanks. Through daily propaganda and youth centric “military camps” the film shows how easily the cycle of hate and violence can be perpetuated. Although it is a powerful film that should be seen, Derki’s methods of infiltrating the family may raise ethical questions in some voters’ mind.
If there is one film that fills the crowd-pleasing spot in this category it is RBG. Documenting the extraordinary life and career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s film is immensely entertaining and informative. They present Ginsburg as a woman who defied expectations at every stage of her life and became an inspiration for generations of women in the process. Whether it was the way she challenged the legal system to eradicate the practice of gender discrimination in the workforce or how she became a pop culture icon, the film captures each aspect of her life with an energy that is infectious. Although a treat to watch, the partisan divide that has swept through America, fueled further by the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, might play a factor in how voters receive the film.
Who Will Win?
While all these films are worthy of the statue, I think it is a race between Free Solo, Minding the Gap and RBG. While RBG and Free Solo are the most accessible films of the bunch from a feel-good standpoint, Minding the Gap is my pick when filling out your Oscar pool ballot.
This piece was original published on The LAMB as part of the The LAMB Devour the Oscars 2019 series.