2019 Oscars Look: Best Documentary Feature

Welcome to our annual Oscar Look series, formally known as “Oscar Circuit” – our deep dive look into each and every category that will be presented at the upcoming Academy Awards.  Each writer of will tackle a different category, offering up their own perspectives on those specific races.  If you miss a piece, click on the tag titled Oscar Look 2018. You can also see the official Oscar Predictions for that particular race by clicking on the link here or at the bottom of each article.  Make sure to include your own predicted winners in the comment section too!

And the Nominees are:

  • “Free Solo” – Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, and Shannon Dill
  • “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” – RaMell Ross, Joslyn Barnes, and Su Kim
  • “Minding the Gap” – Bing Liu and Diane Quon
  • “Of Fathers and Sons” – Talal Derki, Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, and Tobias N. Siebert
  • “RBG” – Betsy West and Julie Cohen

While most of the presumed winners for the 24 Academy Awards categories seem to be sewn up, you can always count on one category to bring some mystery to the Oscar race. As one of the most independently-minded voting groups of the Academy, the documentary branch once again offered up an unexpected slate of nominees for Best Documentary Feature. Ignoring the overwhelming buzz for such high-profile contenders as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers,” these voters have nevertheless offered up a fascinatingly varied and impressive quintet of films. Here’s a closer look at this year’s nominees for Best Documentary Feature.

“Free Solo” 

Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
US Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films

If there’s any nominee that could convert new fans of documentary filmmaking, it would be “Free Solo” directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Featuring death-defying stunts worthy of Tom Cruise in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, this nerve-wracking film captivated audiences to the tune of $15 million at the domestic box office. Capturing Alex Honnold’s attempt to scale the 900-metre El Capitan rock face without ropes or other safety equipment, it was easily one of the most ambitious films of 2018. As we gain insight into his mind and watch him attempt a feat never accomplished before, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Honnold and the film’s eye-popping cinematography. These gripping cinematic qualities should certainly attract many voters, making it one of the strongest contenders in the field. However, one wonders whether “Free Solo” will feel “important” enough when compared to its more socially relevant competitors.

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”

Director: RaMell Ross
US Distributor: The Cinema Guild

As one of two remarkable debuts in the category, one of the most welcome surprises among the Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature is undoubtedly RaMell Ross‘ “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” Documenting black lives in the American South with rare empathy, Ross puts his cinematographer’s background to good use with stunningly composed shots that reel in the viewer. Though its running time clocks in at a modest 75 minutes, this is a profound cinematic portrait of an underrepresented American community. In hindsight, its artistic merits were bound to be appreciated by the discerning documentary branch. However, its observational “vérité” approach may be a tougher sell with the wider Academy.

“Minding the Gap”

Director: Bing Liu
US Distributor: Hulu

While expensive campaigns can get you far in the Oscar race, sometimes it pays off just to be good. Such is the case with Bing Liu’sMinding the Gap.” Ever since its first screenings at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, this “little movie that could” has gradually become a word-of-mouth success thanks to a favorable distribution platform and endless accolades from critics and awards bodies. The film sees 24-year-old Bing Liu chronicling the lives of his group of skateboarder friends over more than a decade in their small town, as they deal with the various struggles of coming of age. Crafted with seemingly effortless skill, “Minding the Gap” will mount a serious challenge to win it all.

“Of Fathers and Sons”

Director: Talal Derki
US Distributor: Kino Lorber

Journalism and documentary filmmaking have often gone hand in hand, as evidenced by Talal Derki’s eye-opening Oscar nominee “Of Fathers and Sons.” In the film, Derki journeys to his homeland in Syria – now a radical Islamist stronghold – where he poses as a war photographer to document the daily experiences of living in an Islamic caliphate. As he ingratiates himself with the community, in their homes, and on the battlefield, he is afforded access that reveals how jihadist ideology is passed down through the generations. Academy members will surely admire the bravery and rigorous investigative journalism displayed by Derki. But others may find this understated film to be too much of a tough sit to gain their vote.


Directors: Betsy West and Julie Cohen
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

If you’re angling to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, it helps to have an icon of liberal values as your subject. Indeed, an awards publicist could hardly ask for a better Oscar contender than “RBG,” a biographical account of the life and work of esteemed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Charting her rise from her early attempts to infiltrate the “boys club” of Harvard Law School to her present celebrity status as the “Notorious RBG,” the film is a straightforward but engaging profile of an extraordinary public servant. There are vocal detractors who would chalk up the film’s success to a case of honoring the subject rather than the filmmaking. Still, it’s particularly telling that it landed the nod ahead of the similarly traditional but more respected “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” “RBG” may ultimately be the one to beat.


COULD WIN: “Minding the Gap”

SHOULD WIN: “Free Solo”


Which film do you think will win Best Documentary Feature? Share your predictions in the comments below.


What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.


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