The Oscar Envelope, Please | Best Documentary Feature 2019

Thanks to my stalwart reviewers for turning these around so quickly; you all deserve statuettes. The Oscar broadcast is on Sunday, February 24. How did we do?

We believed the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature would go to the Fred Rogers film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (airing recently on PBS and among our Top 20 Videos of 2018). Then we found ourselves pursuing the four nominees (RBG is also a top 2018 video) we never received. Sorry, Fred. Thanks to my stalwart reviewers for turning these around so quickly; you all deserve statuettes. The Oscar broadcast is on Sunday, February 24. How did we do?



redstarFree Solo. color. 100 min. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, National Geographic, Mar. 5, 2019. DVD UPC 024543470229. $19.98. Rated: PG-13. SPORTS

Famous “free soloist”—alone with no ropes or other safety gear—rock climber Alex Honnold dreams of being the first to scale Yosemite National Park’s 3,200-foot El Capitan. Shooting the potentially fatal quest, director Vasarhelyi (Meru) and mountaineer and codirector/cinematographer Chin document the painstaking preparation and nail-biting execution without becoming dangerous distractions. Epic yet intimate, the exhilarating camera work tracks the vertiginous climb while, more important, providing a revealing portrait of its driven subject, including the role of Honnold’s supportive yet concerned girlfriend on this dicey mission. VERDICT An inspiring story of determination that makes a seemingly crazy obsession relatable even to disinterested viewers who are afraid of heights. [See Trailers, LJ 2/19.]—Jeff T. Dick, Davenport, IA

Hale County This Morning, This Evening. 76 min. RaMell Ross, dist. by Cinema Guild, 2018. DVD ISBN 9780781516020. $99.95; acad. libs. $395. Public performance; closed-captioned. SOC SCI

Capturing the everyday life of poor, rural Southern African Americans is far from commonplace, but filmmaker Ross has sought to do just that in this Oscar-nominated documentary. Through the use of images, segment-heading graphics, and observations from the film’s subjects, with no voice-over narration, Ross attempts to let the material speak for itself. Unfortunately, the themes the director claims he was trying to depict don’t come through as clearly and pointedly as he contends. The approach is so “slice of life” that it’s difficult to grasp that for which he was truly aiming. Overlong, unedited sequences of incidental events, beautiful but basically pointless nature shots, the excessive use of time-lapse photography, and a dearth of meaningful insights from the individuals shown combine for a production that will have audiences wanting more as well as wondering what this film is supposed to be about. VERDICT A painfully slow, unfocused production that will leave viewers waiting for the ending.—Brent Marchant, Chicago


redstarMinding the Gap. 100 min. Bing Liu, dist. by Kartemquin, Summer 2019. DVD/Blu-ray; public performance available Apr. 1 (preorders open now). SOC SCI

Currently streaming on, Minding the Gap is the extraordinary documentary that has won countless awards at film festivals worldwide. The film follows 29-year-old Liu and two of his closest friends, Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson, as they grew up in Rockford, IL, covering their teenage years into adulthood through footage Liu took of the trio. The three boys became close friends when their individual home lives broke down and they bonded over their love of skateboarding. As they improved at their shared activity, they examined their own lives and problems. The interviews with family members of each man show the bitter pain they suffered. Mulligan now has a child of his own but battles with demons. Johnson struggles with racism and the loss of his father at a young age. Liu confronts his mother about  beatings he received from his stepfather. The conclusion is powerful and unforgettable. VERDICT This incredible film is highly recommended for all audiences.—Jason L. Steagall, formerly with Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI

Of Fathers and Sons. 102+ min. In Arabic w/optional English subtitles. Talal Derki, dist. by Kino Lorber, Mar. 5, 2019. DVD UPC 738329236717. $29.95; Blu-ray Apr. 16, 2019. UPC 738329237431. $29.95. INT AFFAIRS/POLITICS

Following his Sundance Festival award-winning film, Return to Homs, filmmaker Derki, posing as a war photographer sympathetic to the Salafi jihad, convinced a family in the Idlib Province, Northern Syria, to allow him to film their daily routines. The father, Abu Osama, serves in the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-controlled insurgent group dedicated to establishing the Islamic Caliphate in Syria. Abu clears minefields and makes bombs. He fully expects his sons to fight for al-Nusra when they are ready. His eldest sons, Osama (13) and Ayman (12), constantly play at war. When Abu loses his leg to a mine, the family is devastated, but their resolve is unshaken. The jihadists, inspired by Mohammad’s edicts, are prepared for a long, difficult war with nonbelievers. Osama, Ayman, fellow teens, and preteens train with al-Nusra and are subject to live-fire exercises and outfitted in camo fatigues and black balaclavas. This chilling footage, obtained at the highest risk, shows the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of soldiers for the holy war. VERDICT This is a must-see for those interested in the ongoing skirmishes with al-Qaida and the Taliban in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran. There is much to fear even if ISIS is defeated. The fate of captured Syrian soldiers is left to viewers’ imagination.—Cliff Glaviano, formerly with Bowling Green State Univ. Libs., OH

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