Sundance has long delivered a few Oscar documentary contenders each year, most recently, “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Strong Island” and eventual winner “Icarus.” This year, the festival introduced a plethora of leading hopefuls, led by Morgan Neville’s heart-tugging portrait of the late PBS children’s host Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (Metascore: 83), which Focus Features scooped up last summer.
The Sundance audience was in tears, slayed by a portrait of a beloved cultural figure who tried to do good. Oscar-winner Neville (“Twenty Feet From Stardom”) intended this movie about a well-meaning conservative Republican Presbyterian minister to reach a wider swath than the usual liberal arthouse moviegoer. It did, scoring more than $22 million domestic, the top-grossing biodoc of all time. This zeitgeist-hitter and box office hit will be hard to beat as it collects multiple nominations and awards group wins.
Other popular breakouts were Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” (Neon, June 29), a well-reviewed truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story about triplets separated at birth and Ruth Bader Ginsberg doc “RBG” (CNN/Magnolia). The Supreme Court justice turns out to be another hero for our times, as the film has passed $14 million at the box office, outgrossing every Magnolia release to date, including documentary Oscar-nominee “I Am Not Your Negro.” All three box office hits landed PGA nominations.
And transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed’s “Dark Money” (POV/PBS), a hard look at growing corporate influence in government, popped out of the Sundance pack as a political film in the harrowing landscape of the 2018 mid-term elections, earning nominations from the Critics Choice Documentary Awards and the IDA.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Hulu picked up special jury prize-winner Stephen Maing’s hard-hitting NYPD expose “Crime + Punishment,” produced by Laura Poitras, as well as breakthrough filmmaker prize-winner Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” which follows three young skateboarders in the Rust Belt. Both scored in the fall awards derby.
Sundance World Doc Grand Jury Prize-winner “Of Fathers and Sons” (Kino Lorber) was directed by Talal Derki, who returned to his native Syria for two years, embedded with a jihadist family as he claimed to be a journalist sympathizer, which landed IDA, Cinema Eye Honors and Indie Spirit nominations.
Netflix acquired L.A. filmmaker Sandi Tan’s investigation into her stolen 1992 Singapore indie film, “Shirkers,” which won Best Director at the Sundance World Documentary Competition, a spot on the DOC NYC shortlist, nominations from Cinema Eye Honors, Independent Spirit and Gotham Awards, and won Best Documentary from the LAFCA.
Exploding out of the fall festivals and building outstanding box office numbers is vertiginous “Free Solo” (September 28, NatGeo) a follow-up to “Meru” from the filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, which launched with the documentary People’s Choice Award at Toronto, and landed nominations from the IDA, PGA, DGA, BAFTA, Editors Guild, Cinema Eye Honors, and won four Critics Choice Documentary awards.
The Academy documentary branch whittled down 166 submitted features to a shortlist of 15, announced on December 1, which included under-the-radar titles “Charm City” (PBS) and three foreign entries, Anna Zamecka’s festival hit “Communion,” Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “The Distant Barking of Dogs” and Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s “The Silence of Others.”
No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it. Lists are in alphabetical order.
“Minding the Gap”
“Of Fathers and Sons”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“Crime + Punishment”
“Hale County: This Morning, This Evening”
“On Her Shoulders”
“Three Identical Strangers”
“The Distant Barking of Dogs”
“The Silence of Others”