The Motion Picture Academy did away with creating an Oscar category for ‘popular movie’ that would have allowed voters to select a Best Picture and a best box office hit. But in the documentary category there’s no need to choose between popular success and artistic merit: Some of this year’s top contenders offer both.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville’s film about cardigan-clad children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers, has zoomed past the $22 million mark in ticket sales, making it far and away the most successful documentary of recent years. And it’s a frontrunner for the Oscar, having already earned nominations for the IDA Awards and the Gotham Independent Film Awards—and a Critics’ Choice Documentary Award win—not to mention making DOC NYC’s exclusive shortlist.
“It feels great,” says Neville of the critical and financial success. “Nobody believed that a Mister Rogers film would do what this film did, myself included. It so exceeded everybody’s expectations.”
The same might be said of two other critical and commercial hits: RBG, the documentary by Julie Cohen and Betsy West that celebrates Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle’s film about the strange case of triplets separated as infants. RBG has made $14 million and Strangers is nipping at its heels, collecting $12.3 million so far. In documentary terms, those are blockbuster totals.
But there’s a hitch for RBG and Strangers—they haven’t swept the early nominations, unlike Neville’s film. Both competed for best documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, but they missed out on nominations for the IDA Awards.
Still, the IDA’s executive director, Simon Kilmurry, believes the troika of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG and Three Identical Strangers will make the Academy’s shortlist of 15 feature documentaries, to be announced in December. And he points to another hit documentary as a strong awards contender—Free Solo, the story of climber Alex Honnold’s quest to ascend Yosemite’s El Capitan rock wall without a rope. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin directed the movie, which has soloed atop the doc box office charts for weeks.
“It’s hard to prognosticate, but those films I would imagine will end up on the Academy shortlist,” Kilmurry observes. “It’s harder to predict this year than perhaps any year that I recall.”
Prognostication has been hampered by a lack of thematic coherence to this year’s contenders. The previous two years, by contrast, were highlighted by multiple films about race, perhaps not surprising in an era noted for being post-Obama if decidedly not post-racial. That stretch yielded Oscar nominations for Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and an Oscar victory for Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, followed the next year by an Oscar nomination for Strong Island, director Yance Ford’s examination of his brother’s racially-charged killing.
The mantle of addressing race in America has been picked up this year by RaMell Ross, whose film Hale County This Morning, This Evening provides a lyrical view of black lives in the South, defying stereotypical depictions ingrained in the American psyche. It was produced by Joslyn Barnes, producer of Strong Island.
And while race may not prove the dominant theme in this year’s doc awards season, at least two other prominent vérité-style films speak to that subject matter: Crime + Punishment, directed by Stephen Maing and Charm City, from director Marilyn Ness.
Maing’s documentary assails arrest quotas in the New York Police Department, an alleged policy that has made people of color the disproportionate target of officers under pressure to rack up ‘collars.’
“From the beginning I saw how this job was,” one officer declares in the film. “It’s not about helping people. It’s about numbers.”
Charm City has won accolades for its ground-level view of economically-depressed areas of Baltimore, where a handful of local heroes are trying to create a better future for a city ripped by a sky-high murder rate. The documentary has been likened to HBO’s The Wire, the acclaimed series that painted a grim picture of Baltimore.
“The Wire was saying the system will crush you and people matter less,” Ness says. “We felt like we were maybe The Wire 2.0 where we said the system is crushing, but the individual actions of people matter more.”
The Netflix slate must be factored into any awards forecast, both for the quality of films and the streamer’s willingness to lavish money on campaigns. Netflix claimed two of the five Oscar nomination slots last season, between Strong Island and eventual Academy Award-winner Icarus. This time around at least three of its films are gaining traction, including Quincy, the documentary about legendary music producer and composer Quincy Jones, co-directed by his daughter, actress Rashida Jones, and Alan Hicks. At a recent screening hosted by the IDA, Jones told the audience her father did not interfere in the editorial process.
“He said, ‘Just do your thing and we’ll see it when you guys are done,’ which is so great,” she recalled. “I think that’s the only way to get this kind of film, is to not have the subject hovering over you all the time, especially when it’s your dad.”
Netflix fields another strong contender in Shirkers, a film from Singaporean native Sandi Tan which scored a directing award at Sundance. It’s the unsettling story of Tan and two friends who shot an ambitious feature film as teenagers, only to see her mentor abscond with the footage.
“We had this horrible thing that happened to us, and yet you survive it,” Tan shares. “There’s a way of retrieving yourself from even the darkest places. That’s the message I wanted to give everybody.”
This year Netflix is not the only streaming platform with a competitive slate. Hulu is behind Crime + Punishment and another major awards contender, Minding the Gap, directed by young filmmaker Bing Liu. It’s been shortlisted by DOC NYC and picked up nominations for the IDA Awards, Gotham Awards, and the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. The Rockford, Illinois native has also been selected to receive the IDA’s prestigious Emerging Filmmaker Award, recognizing the craft of his coming-of-age documentary that reveals the emotional and physical abuse he and two friends endured growing up.
“This might be his first film, but he’s very mature in his approach and how he goes about his business,” the IDA’s Kilmurry says of Liu. “Bing’s a delightful person. It’s really nice to see someone who’s just so nice do really well.”
Liu, Tan and Hale County’s Ross are among the new voices in documentary who are threatening to crowd out some of the medium’s star filmmakers, like Michael Moore. His latest, Fahrenheit 11/9, has made over $6 million at the box office to date, with a full-throated attack on President Trump. “The threat [from Trump] is real. It gets worse every day,” Moore says. “He has no respect for the rule of law. He hates democracy.”
Fahrenheit may be on the bubble for awards recognition precisely because it took direct aim at the impact of President Trump’s election. Documentaries that land a glancing blow on Trump, like RBG, or offer a critique by implication, as in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, are so far resonating more powerfully with moviegoers and critics.
Similarly, the politically-themed Dark Money does not take on Trump per se, but has impressed many with its deep dive into the role of untraceable cash in American elections. Kimberly Reed’s film has scored nominations from the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards and the IDA Awards.
“It’s thrilling,” Reed says. “The biggest thing for me is that these nominations can bring attention to the film and I think our film covers a really crucial issue that is coming to a head during these midterm elections.”
In each of the last two years, Oscar voters have made room in their nominations for one international-focused documentary. If there’s a slot this year it could go to Of Fathers and Sons, a film that saw director Talal Derki risk his life to document a radical Islamist family in Syria. It won the top prize for international documentary at Sundance.
Among other contenders with international scope, The Silence of Others, from directors Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo and executive producer Pedro Almodóvar, tells the story of a long search for justice by victims who suffered under Spain’s military dictator, General Francisco Franco. And On Her Shoulders has won praise for its sensitive portrayal of the way Nadia Murad became a powerful advocate for her people, Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who were targeted for genocide by ISIS.
Murad has been named co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, elevating the profile of the documentary.
“She was nominated while we were in the edit of the film,” director Alexandria Bombach recalls. “It’s obviously very incredible and I’m very proud of her.”
But documentaries with a domestic focus will undoubtedly gain the most laurels this awards season. One of them, Monrovia, Indiana, comes straight out of the heartland, revealing day-to-day life in a pocket of red state America. Frederick Wiseman, the 88 year-old honorary Oscar winner, directed the film—the 43rd feature documentary of his career. It’s on the bubble for awards consideration, in part because Wiseman makes no effort to campaign on behalf of his films.
He says, with frankness, “I was very pleased to get the honorary Academy Award but I do not spend time politicking to get awards.”
The same cannot be said of every documentary filmmaker. In this election season—the one for awards, not political office—the ballots have yet to be counted.