Sundance has long delivered a few Oscar documentary contenders each year, most recently, last year’s “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Strong Island” and eventual winner “Icarus.” This year, the festival introduced a plethora of leading hopefuls, led by popular Ruth Bader Ginsburg 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, out-grossing every Magnolia release to date (including documentary Oscar-nominee “I Am Not Your Negro”) and landed a PGA nomination. The PGA winner was Morgan Neville’s Sundance breakout “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (Focus Features), which proves yet again that in the race for an Oscar nomination, winning a previous Academy Award (“Twenty Feet from Stardom”) is often a disqualifier.
Hulu picked up Sundance breakthrough filmmaker prize-winner Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” which follows three young skateboarders in the Rust Belt, and scored well in the fall awards derby. This year’s surprise nominee was photographer RaMell Ross’ languorous poetic portrait of a time and place, “Hale County: This Morning, This Evening” (Cinema Guild).
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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.
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 contenders, in order of their likelihood of winning:
“Minding the Gap”
“Of Fathers and Sons”
“Hale County: This Morning, This Evening”