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2019 Oscars: Best Documentary Feature Predictions

This year's documentary race is dominated by biodocs like "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," on Fred Rogers, and "RBG," about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Updated 9/23/18.

free solo alex honnold review

“Free Solo”

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.

RBG

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.”

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Two other well-reviewed Sundance biodocs could emerge from HBO Documentary Films: Susan Lacy biography “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and Marina Zenovich’s “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.” Potential HBO standouts amid the flood of biopics are moving family movie “The Sentence”; “The Oslo Diaries,” which detail the secret 1992 Middle East peace talks; and artworld expose “The Price of Everything,” from Nathaniel Kahn.

And transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed’s “Dark Money” (PBS), a hard look at growing corporate influence in government, could pop as a political film in the harrowing landscape of this year’s mid-term elections.

David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran appear in <i>Three Identical Stangers</i> by Tim Wardle, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

David Kellman, Eddy Galland, and Bobby Shafran in “Three Identical Strangers”

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.

This fall Kino Lorber is releasing World Doc Grand Jury Prize-winner “Of Fathers and Sons,” from Talal Derki, who returned to his native Syria for two years, embedded with a jihadist family as he claimed to be a journalist sympathizer.

"Shirkers"

“Shirkers”

Sundance

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. Netflix launched at Toronto Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones’ biodoc “Quincy,” a musical portrait of Jones’ father, which is now streaming along with “The Bleeding Edge,” Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s feminist-slanted investigation into the medical-parts industry. Morgan Neville had expected to debut his Orson Welles documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” at Cannes, but Netflix unveiled it at the fall festivals instead, where Welles’ finally completed “The Other Side of the Wind” gobbled up attention.

Debuting at Tribeca to raves was Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s crowdpleaser “McQueen” (July 20, Bleecker Street), a well-appointed rags-to-riches saga about troubled fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston

Roadside Attractions

Another biodoc hit big at Cannes: Kevin Macdonald’s revelatory “Whitney” (July 6, Roadside Attractions) which followed the “Amy” release playbook. Also breaking at Cannes was three-time documentary nominee Wim Wenders’ “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” (May 18, Focus Features), which may be too hagiographic to please critics, audiences, or Oscar voters.

biggest little farm

“The Biggest Little Farm”

TIFF

Building word of mouth at fall festivals are vertiginous “Free Solo” (September 28, NatGeo) a follow-up to “Meru” from the filmmaking team of Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, which is getting more promotion than similar “Dawn Wall” (The Orchard), and John Chester’s environmental makeover, “The Biggest Little Farm,” which was picked up by Neon in a Toronto bidding war. Sony Pictures Classics acquired TIFF documentary “Maiden,” the rousing tale of an all-women sailing crew proving their mettle on the high seas.

No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it. Lists are in alphabetical order.

Frontrunners:

“Crime + Punishment”
“Free Solo”
“RBG”
“Three Identical Strangers”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Contenders:

“Dark Money”
“Hal”
“Love Gilda”
“Maiden”
“McQueen”
“Minding the Gap”
“Monrovia, Indiana”
“Of Fathers and Sons”
“The Price of Everything”
“Science Fair”
“Shirkers”

Long Shots:

“American Chaos”
“Angels Are Made of Light”
“The Bleeding Edge”
“Generation Wealth”
“The Great Buster”
“Dawn Wall”
“Hale County: This Morning, This Evening”
“Inventing Tomorrow”
“The Oslo Diaries”
“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word”
“Quincy”
“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”
“Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda”
“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”
“The Sentence”
“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”
“Studio 54”
“Whitney”

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