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Doc Corner: Final Oscar Predictions – A Big Year For Box Office Hits?

Editor's Note: We're turning over the final nomination predictions in Documentary to our resident doc expert. Take it away, Glenn -- Nathaniel R

By Glenn Dunks

It’s always somewhat impossible to gauge just what direction the documentary branch will go in. In the past, they have often been criticized for ignoring big non-fiction hits while the next year they're equally criticized for just nominating the documentaries that people have heard of and ignoring the smaller titles that haven’t the benefit of famous subjects or popular themes (WWII, for instance).

2019 was an unusually spectacular year at the box office for documentaries with four titles all reaching seven figures at the cash registers of cinemas in the US. It has been great to see documentaries enter the zeitgeist in such a way. Unfortunately that has meant that most awards organizations have defaulted to a standard list of those top four box office champs: Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Free Solo, RBG and Three Identical Strangers. Maybe with Netflix’s Shirkers or Hulu’s Minding the Gap thrown in for good measure. Will Oscar follow suit?

This year’s 300lb gorilla so to speak is indeed Won’t You Be My Neighbor, reaching $22.6mil in receipts, more than several contenders for much more highly-discussed narrative categories. Director Morgan Neville has already won one Oscar for mining pop cultural nostalgia from the ‘60s and ‘70s in 20 Feet from Stardom and he is poised to do it again with this Mr Rogers doc. I don’t see the film missing out like last year’s surprise omission, Jane, I just wish I could be more peeved about the decidedly average film romping its way to frontrunner status. Critics groups lined up to honour it as the Best Documentary of the year, which suggests to me that they’re simply not watching enough documentaries. But then what else is new, really?

Beyond Neighbor, I think Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chan’s Free Solo is a solid bet for a nomination for the scope of its achievement and sheer heart-racing intensity. It gets a little trickier with Three Identical Strangers, which has some vocal detractors, and RBG, which I think is the shakiest of these four big grossers due to its mediocrity as a work of filmmaking. If any of the four miss out I suspect it will be that one, but people love Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, like Mr Rogers, love what she represents in our current age. I am begrudgingly going to predict it.

It just seems like one of those years.

Which leaves one spot open. And here is where it gets really interesting. The only other film to make the Oscar shortlist from among the 30 highest-grossing docs of the year is Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money and I would love to see it nominated first because it’s very good and would mean we'd have consecutive years in which a transgender filmmaker was nominated in this category (Yance Ford was a nominee last year for Strong Island).

However, the film’s wider impression felt mild despite its topicality. The documentary branch have been far more open to streaming platforms than any other branch, but Shirkers would be an atypical nominee because – as I routinely say in this column throughout the year – they rarely go for movies about movies. Minding the Gap has been universally praised, but that too isn’t a standard nominee as movies about the experiences of youth appear to come off as less important to AMPAS.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

The rest of the shortlist was made up predominantly of foreign language titles of which EFA winner Communion and Of Fathers and Sons feel the most likely to cause enough fire in voters to get nominated.

Instead for the my fifth prediction I am going out on what is perhaps a minor limb and tipping my hat towards RaMell Ross’ Hale County This Morning, This Evening. The DGA’s Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary category is never a great indicator – in fact, they’ve never fully lined up with Oscar. But they can, however, be a good sign of support especially for something this arty. I suspect if more critics had seen it then it would be on more lists over the likes of RBG.

Of course, they could go completely off script and nominate a few movies that “nobody has heard of”. Like I said at the start, you can never where they’re going to go.

More Doc Corner episodes.
Documentary Oscar Chart
Best Picture final predictions
Best Director final predictions


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Reader Comments (6)

We failed McQueen. We should have kept it in the conversation.

January 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Minding the Gap is probably the best of the bunch and I hope it can somehow sneak in.

January 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

As much as I enjoyed RBG, Won't You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers, I wouldn't be upset if they are snubbed in favor of Minding the Gap. The three are effective stories but they are also shallow. RBG and Won't You Be My Neighbor? don't really rise above being a by-the-book bios of heroic figures, and Three Identical Strangers plays like a really good Dateline NBC story. I'm more in favor of Three Identical Strangers getting the snub. Free Solo, which I loved, I could see being snubbed as well for not being and "important" subject. The documentary nominees tend towards serious topics and free climbing El Capitan may be too frivolous for voters.

January 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I'm sorry, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is a masterfully constructed, insightful, emotionally walloping portrait of a remarkably complex and unique American popular figure and deserves every ounce of praise it's received.

January 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Won’t You Be My Neighbor is great in a lot of ways, but I could have done without the animated tiger interludes underlining what Fred Rogers was going through at particular times. Even though a talking head had usually just told us. Those segments felt didactic and a little amateurish.

January 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCarnivorousCouch

Minding the Gap, althot I'll b over the the moon if Shirkers sneaks in.

January 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

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