As awards season comes to a close, and the problematic glitz and glamour treatment of this very disaster finally ends, there are a few topics that I felt were under-talked about, regarding some specific films. Now, I’m not much of a stickler when it comes to award shows. However, the one category that really got me this year was the documentary feature selection. While nowhere near as embarrassing as the Best Picture selection, the Best Documentary Feature nominees lack a certain Je Ne C’est Quoi from previous years. Excluding the significant flaw and snub of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, 4 out of the 5 of the Oscar-Nominated features in this category lack either one of two things that could make or break a documentary. Those two essential things being presentation and execution.
RBG is a fun little flick that chronologies the influence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in modern society. The film is largely uplifting and inspiring entertainment, but fails in having a unique voice from the titular hero herself, by depending on third-party sources as means for material. The film’s structure is also nothing new, with an incredibly dull palette and cookie cutter editing that just makes for a lazily put together film at the end of the day. For the first time, I personally would rather see the biopic based on RBG, On The Basis of Sex again, rather than this, due to the film’s consistent focus and moral value.
Looking through a more objective lens, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening is the most ambitious of the features. However, just having ambition doesn’t necessarily makes for some quality cinema. Nailing it’s presentation, with Terrence Malick-like atmosphere, but failing altogether in terms of perspective, by inserting too many subjects and themes in a tight 70 minute run time, Hale County is a disjointed clutter of a film, that’s aims too high for its own good.
Free Solo, photo by Jimmy Chin, courtesy of National Geographic
On the other side of this epidemic, we have Free Solo, a by the numbers presented feature with an intriguing perspective. Just like most National Geographic-sponsored documentaries, Free Solo is cut and pieced together like an episode of Planet Earth, showing immense landscapes and in-depth interviews, by unfortunately cutting said footage into small segments of mushed together digestible sequences. It also doesn’t help that Alex Honnold is a complete A-hole, and the film itself feels like it’s endorsing and praising his actions, rather than taking all of his words and actions with a grain of salt.
Of Fathers and Sons is likely the least appreciated out of the bunch, but is for a matter of fact, the most disturbed Oscar nominee in a long time. While it’s material is deeply enthralling, cataloguing the day in the life of various children, being brainwashed into becoming young Islamist radicals, the film simply runs too long and feels stretched out to a point where moments that are supposed to be shocking, wear out, due to the audience becoming desensitized to the senseless violence. It’s got a strong subject, but lacks in both presentation and perspective.
The only aforementioned nominee out of this selected batch that is worthy of its praise is Minding The Gap. Bing Liu’s intimate portrait of America and domestic abuse in a damning portrait of the inherent flaws and aspirations, many of we live through each and every day. While it’s opening 30 minutes does lose track of its key focus, dragging the film with a bit too much context, Minding the Gap is easily one of 2018’s best documentaries, and it is my pick out of the select few nominees, for Best Documentary Feature at the 91st Academy Awards this year.
Three Identical Strangers, courtesy of Neon
If I were to replace the four out of the five documentaries with superior flicks, they would easily be Shirkers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Three Identical Strangers, and Fahrenheit 11/9. All of these films manage to shed light on various topics, while simultaneously providing something new and interesting for the viewer to chew on. Shirkers is a ghost story. Three Identical Strangers is a thrilling mystery. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a poetic drama. Fahrenheit 11/9 is a battle cry for help. In service of more articulate voices and newer subjects, let’s reflect on this year’s films, and see what the industry can further improve on, when it comes to innovating the filmmaking medium, itself. This year may have been a mess, but there’s always time to contemplate and fix things up before it’s too late.
Buy/Stream the documentary contenders