Oscar Gold 2019 – Documentary Feature

This year the Academy has been all about pleasing the audience, for better or worse. On the plus side, more crowd favorites are up for major awards, including Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody, which makes the ceremony more accessible to the audience at large, even if it’s something of a stopgap measure to stave off the possibility of a “Popular Movie” category in the future. On the minus side, this will be the first Oscars ceremony in 30 years without a host, because God forbid someone who upsets someone else with their jokes gets to don a tuxedo and tell tame jokes to a Sunday night audience of their own friends and colleagues. By the way, the last time we didn’t have a host, we ended up with Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White, one of the most infamously bad moments in Academy history. Priorities people!

Despite all that, there is still one entity within the Academy that steadfastly refuses to go along with the crowd and nominate movies people like… or have even seen. That would be the Documentary Branch. For years they’ve gotten criticism from professionals and fans alike for their baffling refusal to nominate films that people actually enjoy for the top prize.

On the surface, I understand this based on the want/need to expose the voters and the moviegoing public to as many voices as possible. And given that documentaries by their very nature are meant to be academic, I get the desire to be a bit more elitist and even iconoclastic and show you’re smarter than the average schlub.

At the same time, because their primary mission is substance over style (for the most part), it’s a rare feat when a documentary truly resonates with a wide audience. There are only one or two each year that people actually pay to see in a theatre. So why not give them the recognition they’re due? Oh yeah, because then they’d win, and we can’t have that, can we? Entertaining and profound? I don’t think so. It’s pretentiousness or nothing, dammit! Never mind that nominating successful documentaries would actually encourage voters and viewers to see the competition. We’d rather no one watch and vote blindly than have an honest acknowledgement of actual achievement in film.

This is the third year in a row where I’ve attempted to clear the entire shortlist for Documentary Feature before the Oscar nominations came out. The first time I got through about half the field and still had some to watch during the Blitz. Last year I only missed one and it wasn’t nominated. This year, I finally accomplished the goal. And with the nominations that emerged, I almost feel like my time and money were wasted. The winner two years ago, O.J.: Made in America, was one of the few foregone conclusion winners, and it angered enough people that the rules for the category were changed so that it couldn’t happen again. Last year I saw 14 of the 15 films on the shortlist, and the only one that made my top five was the eventual winner, Icarus. This year, none of my top five made it.

It’s a shame, too, because the Academy itself made a concerted effort to get people to see the shortlisted films. The Oscars Spotlight: Documentaries program took all 15 prospective nominees and screened them in 13 markets across the country, including films that didn’t have U.S. distribution. Through the screenings, I got to meet and talk with several directors and producers of the films, and get a much deeper understanding of their craft, process, and goals with their projects. Sadly, none of those films made the final cut. It’s like the Academy as a whole finally decided to do something about people (particularly their own voters) not seeing the films, and then the nominating branch still decided, “Yeah, but we’re still going to nominate the ones nobody saw or cared about.” Of course, there is one exception to that line of thinking, but of all the “popular” documentaries last year, it was the least effective. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.

This year’s nominees for Documentary Feature are:

Free Solo – Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, and Shannon Dill
When I look over my rankings for the entire shortlist, I can basically break it down into subgroups. My top eight are the great movies, ones I’d have no issue with winning. They may not be my favorite, but they are certainly worthy of their praise. The next three are okay, but not anything super special. The next two are mediocre at best, and the last two are just downright bad. Free Solo was the last of the greats.

Not only is Alex Honnold’s quest to climb the El Capitan rockface without a harness compelling, it’s downright thrilling. I went in not knowing if he’d make it or not, and the film contained a commitment from the filmmakers to release it even if Honnold died in the attempt. Honnold is literally a man without fear (brain scans confirm), and the incredibly detailed (and dangerous) camera work used to document his climb were eye-popping and gorgeous. My only down marks are that a) Honnold is a bit of a dick, and b) his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, is depicted as a roadblock and a bad luck charm more than the emotional support she really is.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening – RaMell Ross, Joslyn Barnes, and Su Kim
RaMell Ross, a photographer and high school basketball coach, set out to document life in rural Hale County, Alabama, in the so-called “Black Belt,” shining a light on the life of rural black people in the Deep South to show the rest of the world how these small communities live. And to that limited extent, he succeeded. I just wish the whole movie had been about that rather than pretentious bullshit.

The film has no narrative. There are long, unbroken shots of basically nothing. There are title slates that ask faux-philosophical questions like, “How do we not frame something?” or “What is the orbit of our dreaming?” Fucking what? This is so pedantic it might as well be an artsy student film. As it is, he spends so little time with his subjects that we don’t care about their shattered dreams or tragedy in the slightest. NBA ambitions lost on a junior college bench-warming position? So what? Baby dead? Why did they name it something they couldn’t spell? By the time it’s over all I could do was think, “Well, I guess I’ve never seen brothers on horseback before, so that’s something.” Then a couple of weeks ago The Daily Show profiled a similar group based in Compton, just a half hour drive from my house, so I didn’t need to go to Alabama for jack shit.

Minding the Gap – Bing Liu and Diane Quon
Oddly enough, this basically IS a student film, as director Bing Liu has been documenting he and his skateboarding friends since they were adolescents, tracking the disparate paths of their lives as young adults. The difference between this and Hale County is that it’s actually really fucking good. There’s a fine line to walk when it comes to attachment to the subject matter. Hale County was so detached that we couldn’t care less about these people, mostly because RaMell Ross’ only connection to the two main characters was his time as their basketball coach. Bing Liu is the exact opposite. He is one of the main characters, and he gives equal time to himself and his two best friends, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan. Here it would have been impossible for Liu to detach himself from the proceedings, and it shows incredible maturity as a young filmmaker that he didn’t even try.

There’s an intimate honesty to everything in the film. Liu and his camera pull no punches as the story goes on, chronicling Johnson’s poor circumstances at home as he tries to break out of his family situation, as well as Mulligan living up to his name as he fucks up his life time and again, alienating his girlfriend, her family, and his own, all while barely being more than a deadbeat dad to his infant son. And then there’s Liu himself, confronting his mother over the abuse they all suffered at the hands of his stepfather. Because they all deal with real world issues and broken home lives, the opening scenes of them skating make the film less like an aspirational sports documentary and more therapeutic catharsis in the face of instantly relatable obstacles. My mother has a catch phrase she likes to pull out when we face adversity. She says, “Sometimes life gets in the way.” This film is a prime example of coping with that very concept.

Of Fathers and Sons – Talal Derki, Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, and Tobias N. Siebert
I think at this point this film’s nomination qualifies as a fetish. This is the third straight year where the Documentary Branch has nominated a film about the civil war in Syria. Two years ago the winning short was The White Helmets, about a volunteer group who go into the war zone and rescue people in destroyed buildings. Last year the feature Last Men in Aleppo was nominated, which served as sort of a feature length version of the short, with some hefty commentary about the Assad regime and the resulting humanitarian crisis. This year, not only was this film nominated, but a second film, On Her Shoulders – about a woman who escaped the genocide and now serves as a goodwill ambassador – made the shortlist.

This film is slightly different than its predecessors, in that it deals much more with ISIS than the political systems in place. Director Talal Derki is to be commended for risking his life to go undercover as a sympathizer to document an extremist family patriarch training his sons to join the caliphate, and it’s tragic to see the boys’ humanity disappear. But beyond that, it’s the same old same old, and I’m at the point where I’m wondering who in the Documentary Branch has such a hard on for this war that we have to keep watching stories about it. Despite what Trump and Pence say, ISIS is still very much active. They’ll remain until they’re completely destroyed. Assad will remain in charge of Syria until someone stops Vladimir Putin from propping up his puppet regime. Neither of those things will change in the foreseeable future, so why are we just pissing in the wind on this shit yet again?

RBG – Betsy West and Julie Cohen
This is the one semi-popular doc that made the cut, but I wasn’t really a fan. Though I do have one funny associated moment with the film. When I posted the original review, as I do with all my reviews, I tagged the Twitter account of the film when I tweeted out the link. I actually got a like from the account. And then it was taken away once they read the review. It’s the little things in life, you know?

Anyway, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my heroes, which is why I didn’t watch On the Basis of Sex. Literally every line in the trailer was an applause line. It was like everything Felicity Jones said was meant to be followed by a finger snap and the word, “bitch.” “What was your name again?” “Ruth. Bader. Ginsburg. Bitch!” “The word ‘woman’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution.” “Neither does the word, ‘freedom.’ Bitch!” Anyhoo, I didn’t watch the fictional movie because it was too polished and fake inspirational. I didn’t care for the RBG documentary because it was on the other extreme. While it was true to her life story, the filmmakers focused more on trying to make her appealing to the young people by highlighting the social media aspect of her recent fame. It’s like Justice Ginsburg’s decades of work didn’t matter unless there could be a hashtag about it, which betrays her greatness just as much as a sanitized biopic. Leave it to the Documentary Branch to include the one popular movie that completely missed the point in a vain attempt to seem hip.

* * * * *

My Rankings:
1) Minding the Gap
2) Free Solo
3) RBG
4) Of Fathers and Sons
5) Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Now, as promised, for a bit of a bonus, I’m going to rank the entire shortlist. You might have already surmised based on the mini reviews and the commentary since the nominations, but let’s make it official. Then you’ll know why this year’s list pisses me off so much.

The Documentary Feature Shortlist, Ranked:
1) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
2) Three Identical Strangers
3) Communion
4) Charm City
5) Crime + Punishment
6) Minding the Gap
7) The Silence of Others
8) Free Solo
9) The Distant Barking of Dogs
10) Shirkers
11) Dark Money
12) On Her Shoulders
13) RBG
14) Of Fathers and Sons
15) Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Yes, they nominated my bottom three. Oy.

Next up: We cleanse our palates with the first truly competitive field since the last time the Academy ignored a career-defining role by giving an Oscar to Sean Penn. It’s Best Actor!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film would get your vote? Which of the shortlisted documentaries should have been nominated? How messed up is our world when terrorism is more compelling than Mr. Rogers? Let me know!

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