For years, the Oscars have favored documentaries that center on urgent social issues — and there’s no shortage of films that fit that bill. This year, the Academy landed on five nominees about very different subjects, all of which feel relevant in 2018: the racial dimension of economic downturns (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail), the vitality of small communities in oft-forgotten places (Faces Places), Russian state-sponsored doping of Olympic athletes (Icarus), the Syrian Civil War (Last Men in Aleppo), and the outsized role race plays in American criminal justice (Strong Island).
While none of this year’s nominees except Strong Island push the nonfiction form forward, they’re all focused on stories of individuals with huge social implications. Here’s a field guide to the year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries and information about how you can watch them.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
During the 2008 financial crisis, the term “too big to fail” was thrown around a lot, about banks that were believed to need bailing out lest the economy come crashing down with them. But not every bank fell under that rubric, and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail tells the story of the only bank that was indicted during the crisis: a small, family-run bank based in New York City’s Chinatown.
Documentarian Steve James (whose Hoop Dreams was nominated for an Oscar in 1995) tells the story of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank largely through interviews with the Sung family, who ran the bank. The family was thrown into a years-long court battle after they alerted the authorities to irregularities on their books — a move that shockingly led to their own indictment as part of a “criminal conspiracy fueled with greed.” Abacus is fairly conventionally made, but it plays like a legal thriller, with the story unspooling in a fashion that will leave you fascinated and horrified.
Where to watch it: The movie is streaming for free on PBS Frontline’s website. It’s also available to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon, and iTunes.
The unusual documentary Faces Places (in French, Visages Villages) turns on the friendship between the accomplished French street artist JR and the legendary Belgian film director Agnès Varda, whose work was central to the development of the French New Wave movement. The pair (whose difference in age is 55 years) met after years of admiring each other’s work and decided to create a documentary portrait of France — by making a number of actual portraits.
Faces Places chronicles a leg of the “Inside Outside Project,” a roving art initiative in which JR makes enormous portraits of people he meets and pastes them onto buildings and walls. In the film, Varda joins him, and as they talk to people around the country, they grow in their understanding of themselves and each other.
Where to watch it: Faces Places is currently playing in theaters.
Bryan Fogel started out intending to make a film about doping in professional sports — he planned to embark on a doping regimen and observe its effects on his own performance on the Tour de France route — but in the process he connected with the Russian scientist Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. What started out as a first-person documentary rapidly became a sprawling investigation into the complicated and covert matter of Russian state-sponsored doping of its Olympic athletes, a practice that has implications at the highest level of the Russian government.
Icarus premiered at Sundance, where Netflix bought the movie, and it’s borne fruit. Fogel spoke with members of Congress following the film’s release and helped Rodchenkov escape to the United States, where he has been in witness protection — the need for which became especially apparent after two of Rodchenkov’s close colleagues died unexpectedly (and at least one under suspicious circumstances) following the film’s release.
The film was likely a driver behind the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia from the Winter Olympic Games; athletes from the country can only compete after being approved by an IOC panel, and must wear a special uniform and compete as “OAR” (Olympic athlete from Russia). So the film’s nomination for an Oscar isn’t surprising — and whether or not it wins, it’s made an impact.
Where to watch it: Icarus is streaming on Netflix.
Last Men in Aleppo
Three documentaries about Syria and its civil war premiered at Sundance in 2016, but Last Men in Aleppo rose above the pack. Like the short documentary The White Helmets, which won an Oscar last year, Last Men in Aleppo focuses on a volunteer band of Syrian men, often called “White Helmets,” who rescue civilians from the rubble of war-torn Aleppo.
But Last Men in Aleppo isn’t a retread of the territory The White Helmets covered. Following men who work as White Helmets, the movie was shot in close proximity to the danger and the rubble, with filmmakers capturing almost unbelievable images of destruction and disaster at great personal danger. The resulting film is a portrait of a city destroyed and a force of men trying, as best they can, to dig their neighbors out.
It is a gut-wrenching cinematic experience, one that presses on all the senses without exploiting them, and as a human-inflected portrait of decency in the midst of cruelty and chaos, it’s essential viewing.
Where to watch it: Last Men in Aleppo is streaming on Netflix and available to digitally rent on iTunes.
More memoir than “documentary,” Netflix’s Strong Island is a searing personal account of filmmaker Yance Ford’s grief, frustration, and struggle in the wake of his brother’s murder. The film, which premiered to strong reviews at Sundance, is both emotional and pointed. Ford — the first transgender director with an Oscar-nominated film — attempts, on camera, to determine what really happened and assess what it means for himself, his family, and his country when justice is so frequently crossed with prejudice.
As such, Strong Island is deeply emotional, circling around and back around to the moments that defined the Fords’ personal tragedy to discover their meaning while linking them to the broader injustices that black men and women have experienced in America. But it’s Ford’s particular voice and vision driving the story, and so Strong Island is remarkable not just as a story of a family but of a particular filmmaker. It’s heart-wrenching, and it’s vital.
Where to watch it: Strong Island is streaming on Netflix.