Academy Awards Project: Best Documentary Feature
Documentaries, for me, are hit or miss. They can either be the most formulaic kind of film out there, or they can be the most untouchable. It depends on the filmmaker, whether they wish to adhere to specific guidelines or not. Documentaries don’t always have to have an explicit point when being made; an idea can be crafted together once all of the footage has been accumulated. There’s also the kind of documentary that literally does nothing more than record a certain event or achievement. In this year’s list of nominees, you will find a huge array of documentaries, which is almost refreshing. You can see how they are all so drastically different. Here are the nominees for Best Documentary Feature, ranked from worst to best.
Biggest Snub: Won’t You Be My Neighbour?
We’ve finally reached it: the most questionable, titanic-sized snub of the year. How on God’s green Earth did this film not get nominated? There are other baffling omissions, including the serendipitous Three Identical Strangers, but Won’t You Be My Neighbour? not being nominated here is borderline unforgivable. This touching documentary never lallygags. It cuts right to each and every important moment of Fred Rogers’ career, and that was such a breath of fresh air to witness. There’s also how sentimental every single turn is; I can never look at Daniel Tiger without getting shivers down my spine ever again (seeing how he is a projection of Rogers’ own insecurities). This was a documentary that was easily one of the finest of the year, and its absence is confusing, infuriating, and disappointing.
I want to love this film, but I just don’t. I think it’s good, and that’s about it. If you don’t know the importance of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, then RBG will be a great cliff notes version of how influential she is to the rights of women in the United States (there’s also On The Basis of Sex, but I’d argue this doc is more informative). One piece of kudos that RBG has going for it is its use of actual legal documents to lead in to each and every case. However, the format here is so by-the-numbers and typical in documentary fashion, that the great subject matter here is resorted to a cinematic daisy chain, rather than a dive into this profound career. For a film about such a game changing woman, RBG is super safe and formulaic.
4. Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Probably the most surprising nominee in this category, Hale County is essentially plotless. You are doing nothing more than looking at unhinged footage of the citizens of an Alabama county. This includes athletes on a basketball team, the raising of children, actual childbirth (and the death of an infant), and many more life cycles. Most of the footage is breathtaking to look at, but it is offered at a supremely slow pace. This film goes back to the Russian roots of documentary story telling: the simple assemblage of images to share an idea, more than to tell a linear narrative. It might be low on this list, but Hale County is still worth a shot for something different.
3. Of Fathers and Sons
This was quite the challenge. A filmmaker (Talal Derki) visits a Syrian village pretending to be a pro-jihadist documentarian. He is allowed to follow a pro-terrorist family for a lengthy period of time (even in the face of devastation, he’s allowed to keep filming). Seeing the disgusting ideology that is being implemented into the minds of these children is almost unbearable. It’s ludicrous to see the brainwashed adults (primarily the father figures doing the teaching) here, especially patriarchal figure Abu Osama, who endures a life-altering injury and yet continues to feed off of his hate. Of Fathers and Sons is an important look at parental influence, but it’s also a raised concern for the state of Syria (as concluded by Derki himself).
2. Free Solo
There is one mission: witness Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan and be the very first climber to do so. Free soloing is the act of mountain climbing without the use of any safety equipment (just your hands and feet). There is much build up to the climb: concerned loved ones, practicing the route with gear, injuries, backing out on a mission to try again later, and more. Once we get there, the trip itself is breathtaking yet terrifying. Thanks to National Geographic’s photographical expertise, the actual climb is emphasized by stunning scenic shots, just to remind you how freakishly high up Honnold is (once again, with nothing to save him if he falls). You can easily see why Free Solo has gained such momentum in the last few months.
1. Minding the Gap
If it were up to me, Minding the Gap would take this award in microseconds. Unfortunately, I am not the Academy. That’s too bad, because Minding the Gap has to be one of the great documentaries of the new millennium. Remember skateboarding culture? Tony Hawk video games? Element being a fashion staple? The actual videotaping of tricks at the skate park? Well, that last part made Bing Liu want to keep filming his two best friends even outside of their favourite hobby. With many years of accumulated footage, you see the personal diaries of three buddies that experience difficulties at home. You also see the different outcomes for all three boys (now men), and how it affects their current daily lives. The linkage to skateboarding becomes essential: you fall off your board and get hurt, but you try again. You can see the similarities between this sport and every day life, as if both can be pugnacious (how much are we willing to endure?). Beautifully shot. Blisteringly told. Shocking revelations. Life goes on, much like a skateboarder. Minding the Gap is a revelatory experience, and it is absolutely without question the best documentary feature of the year.
Our Predicted Winner: Currently, Free Solo has the momentum, but don’t be surprised if RBG steps back into first place to win (I’ll still go with Free Solo).
Our Academy Awards Project is an ongoing series that will continue until all the categories have been ranked and reviewed. Tune in Monday to Saturday for a new category each day.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.