The doc world is kinda freaking out. No one saw that coming.
There were a bunch of dramas swirling around the Academy Awards this year (the “popular film” fiasco, trying to cut songs and categories and of course, the host debacle), and the documentary branch wasn’t exempt. It was a record-breaking year at the box office for documentaries, but shockingly, the doc that made the most money was not nominated for an Oscar.
Four movies raked in more than $10 million a piece at the domestic box office (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” "Three Identical Strangers," “RBG” and “Free Solo”), but “Neighbor,” the biggest winner (at almost $23 million) and hands-on favorite for Oscar wasn’t even nominated.
In a time when empathy and compassion seem in short supply, this lovely film caused rivers of tears at every screening, even amongst people who didn’t grow up with the man in the cardigan sweater. It’s particularly shocking considering the Weinstein-level Oscar campaign mounted by the film’s distributor, Focus Features.
Many people attribute the snub to the weighted voting system for choosing the nominees; since “Neighbor” seemed like such a shoo-in, voters may have ranked other favorites to help them make it into the final five. There may be other reasons; the significant influx of younger people and people of color into the documentary branch may have skewed the voting as well.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” took home the Spirit Award for Best Documentary on Saturday, which is some solace.
A nominally sports-themed doc was nominated for the first time in seven years. And won!
There are members of the documentary branch who have unfairly poo-pooed “Free Solo” as a “sports doc,” which, if you’re wondering, is not a compliment. The implication is that it’s somehow too entertaining and not complex or thought-provoking. It is wildly entertaining, and also really emotionally and intellectually involving. The filmmakers not only caught Alex Honnold’s death-defying climb, they got into his brain and heart.
Even though there are a ton of sports-related docs, only three have ever taken home the Oscar: "Undefeated" (2011), “When We Were Kings” (1996) and “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” (1975). Well, it looks like the entire Academy (which selects the winner from the five films nominated by the doc branch) didn’t agree with the poo-pooers!
A lot of people thought that “RBG” would win.
Zeitgeist is the one thing that Oscar campaigners can’t control, and it can play a significant role in deciding which doc gets nominated and ultimately takes home the award. And “RBG” had it in spades. Not only is notorious RBG a revered figure amongst Hollywood elites, her battles with broken ribs and cancer kept her in the headlines and reminded us of the fragile membrane between what is and what might be, Supreme Court-wise.
The Best Documentary Short was produced by a bunch of high school kids.
Yes, they were LA high schoolers who probably have Hollywood parents, but still. The teenagers behind a campaign to help women in the developing world get access to sanitary pads decided they would make a movie about it. And they did. And it was really good. And it won an Oscar.
And also, they didn’t include themselves in the movie, keeping the focus on the issue.
Finally, there is grumbling in documentary world that it’s time docs get their due.
Perhaps emboldened by the great showing at the box office and general love for the non-fiction storytelling, the doc world is finally making noises that they’re not satisfied with one category at the Oscars (not to mention the Spirits and almost all the big non-doc-specific festivals). If sound can get two categories, can’t documentary at least get an editor award?