2018 was an extraordinary year for documentaries, and that’s led to an especially terrific group of nominees in the Best Documentary category at the 2019 Oscars.
The candidates span a broad spectrum of ideas and techniques. There’s a movie about a mountain climber, and another about a group of young skaters in Rockford, Illinois. One film centers on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; one tries to redefine how we imagine the black American experience; one is an unnerving portrait of radicalism.
Each is richly worth your time.
So here’s a breakdown of the five Oscar nominees for the Best Documentary Feature and how you can watch each one, including options to stream them at home.
National Geographic Documentary Films is the distributor behind Free Solo, and that makes sense: It’s a film about free climber Alex Honnold, who’s planning to scale the 3,000-foot vertical rock face known as El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park ... without ropes.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin — who, because of Chin’s connection to the climbing community, are friends of Honnold’s — the film is certainly a nail-biter. But soaring footage of Honnold climbing is interspersed with a more intimate look at his life, his travels, and his relationship with his girlfriend. The juxtaposition of the two brings humanity to a story that otherwise could have been just a thrill ride.
The resulting film is both beautiful and harrowing. It’s also a thoughtful look at what drives people like Honnold to attempt feats like this, the high stakes they willingly take on, and the effect their decisions have on their lives and relationships. Viewers prone to vertigo should be ready to cover their eyes.
Where to watch it: Free Solo is currently playing in theaters. It’s also available to digitally purchase on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
As much a poem as a documentary, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the sort of film for which the word “lyrical” was invented. Ross, who started his career as a large-format photographer, carefully assembles snippets of footage he shot while living in Hale County, Alabama — of water droplets on a baby’s skin, of kids goofing off in a parking lot, of church congregants singing during mass, of old houses, of insects, and more. Together, they act as brushstrokes to create a portrait of a community, capturing a way of life in a place burdened by history.
Ross’s goal is to redefine the cinematic “vocabulary” that’s often used when black Americans are shown onscreen, so he purposely chose to shoot and edit the film in ways that suspend judgment and resist the narratives that we often bring to films as viewers. But that doesn’t mean that Hale County feels like a ponderous exercise in applied film theory — it’s a rich, moving glimpse into the lives of Hale County residents.
And in the few instances where Ross uses text onscreen, the sentences are as carefully and elegantly structured as the images, carrying narrative and emotional weight that’s deeply affecting. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a major work, and a thoroughly rewarding one.
Where to watch it: Hale County This Morning, This Evening is currently playing in select theaters. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, and to stream (through February 25) on PBS’s Independent Lens website.
Minding the Gap
One of the most extraordinary films of 2018 was Minding the Gap, which starts out as an engrossing documentary about a group of young people in Rockford, Illinois, who skateboard and grow up together. But as the film unfolds, it expands from being a skate movie into something much bigger.
One of the main subjects is Bing Liu, who is also the film’s director and often speaks from behind the camera. Liu has worked as a camera operator and cinematographer on a number of projects, including the docuseries America to Me, by Minding the Gap executive producer Steve James. But this is his first feature as director. Since the film’s triumphant Sundance premiere in January 2018, where it won a special jury award for breakthrough filmmaking, the movie has raked in festival prizes and critical accolades, and Liu has been hailed as one of the most promising young talents in the field.
Minding the Gap is particularly concerned with domestic violence — Rockford has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in Illinois and in the country at large — and the way generational patterns of abuse repeat themselves. It isn’t an easy movie to watch, but it’s an important dive into a reality that many young Americans face, with a resolutely subjective viewpoint that lends it credence and heft.
Where to watch it: Minding the Gap is streaming on Hulu.
Of Fathers and Sons
Syrian documentarian Talal Derki won accolades for his 2013 feature The Return to Homs, which followed two young Syrian men whose lives were upended when Homs was bombed by the Syrian army. For Of Fathers and Sons, Derki — who currently lives in exile in Berlin — returned to his homeland, where he gained the trust of a family of radical Islamists by telling them he was a war photographer who supported their beliefs. Then he spent two years living with them and filming the family’s daily life.
The result is a chilling portrait of how children become radicalized through their parents. Of Fathers and Sons focuses on a group of young boys who idolize their father, an Al-Nusra fighter named Abu Osama whose dream is to establish the caliphate. The boys fight and build bombs, learning at their father’s feet as they train to become warriors. It’s not easy to watch.
Derki appears in the film, sometimes looking into the camera to communicate with his cinematographer, Kahtan Hassoun. (None of the family’s women are ever shown onscreen, however.) There’s no editorializing; we’re left to sort out what it is that we’re watching, which is especially unnerving when the love between the boys and their father is mixed with hatred for their enemies. Of Fathers and Sons is an alternative to the shallow portraits of radical terrorists that Americans are used to, but even more, it’s a study of how radical ideologies get passed down from one generation to the next.
Where to watch it: Of Fathers and Sons is streaming on Kanopy. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court in 1993, has also of late become something of an icon, particularly to young, progressive women who see her as a hero. You can buy a bevy of shirts with RBG’s face on it, and there’s an entire category on Etsy just for “Notorious RBG mugs.” (Magnolia Pictures even sent out RBG action figures to promote the movie.)
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, RBG is a romping biographical documentary about Ginsburg, outlining her life starting in her youth and chronicling her long and fruitful marriage, her career, and her reputation as a dissenter with a bit of an attitude. Ginsburg herself appears in the film to talk about her life — and to do a mean plank at the gym. She shows herself to be a sharp assessor of her own career, even if she seems a little baffled by her iconographic status in pop culture. (In one delightful scene, she watches Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live impression of her for the first time and can’t stop laughing.)
RBG is more hagiographic in the end than probing; what it means that Ginsburg has become an action figurine to be sold by the dozens alongside an actual figure of admiration isn’t part of the story here. But RBG’s aim is to celebrate its subject more than to explain her, and it does that with cheerful, bold aplomb. Just like RBG.
Where to watch it: RBG is streaming on Hulu. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.