“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” not showing up in the Best Documentary Feature lineup was one of the biggest shockers on Oscar nominations morning. The Mister Rogers doc grossed an astonishing $22.8 million at the box office, dominated in critics wins, and was fresh off a victory at the Producers Guild of America Awards. It had long been assumed that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” would be an easy prediction to call on Oscar night, considering the entire voting academy picks the winners and is receptive to high-profile docs about showbiz lately (“Amy,” “20 Feet from Stardom”). So now that “Neighbor” is out of the running, what film could win?
The nominees for Best Documentary Feature are: “Free Solo,” “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” “Minding the Gap,” “Of Fathers and Sons,” and “RBG.” “Free Solo,” about daring rock climber Alex Honnold, and “RBG,” chronicling the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, were solid box office hits much like “Neighbor.” Both “Free Solo” and “RBG” have had strong showings at critics and industry awards like PGA, ACE Eddie, and BAFTA, with “RBG” notably winning at the National Board of Review, and there is a strong case to be made for either film taking the Documentary Feature Oscar. “Free Solo’s” strength lies in its death-defying cinematography and gripping storytelling, and voters may be engrossed by the willpower of Honnold and the film’s risky camerawork. “RBG” thoroughly captures the power of Ginsburg’s inspirational life story, and with the Supreme Court Justice becoming such an icon in recent years and her being in the news recently for health scares, there could be an emotional factor that helps it succeed over the others.
Oscar experts at Gold Derby are relatively split between “RBG” and “Free Solo” in these first few weeks after the nominations announcement. Ten of the 16 experts who have logged winner predictions so far have “RBG” out in front, while four are backing “Free Solo” and two pick “Minding the Gap.” The small-scale film “Minding the Gap,” directed by and about Bing Liu and his fellow skateboarding friends grappling with volatile family issues, has been performing extremely well with critics groups this award season, and it’s no accident. The doc is emotionally resonant, cleverly crafted, and one of the top 5 best-reviewed films of 2018, according to Metacritic. Most experts have “Minding the Gap” at second or third, so if there is a film that can upset the major contenders, it’s this one.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” should not be counted out either. The film won the top doc prize at the Gotham Awards and Cinema Eye Honors over films like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Minding the Gap.” It’s clear that the film, about a pair of young African American men living in the Black Belt of rural Alabama, really speaks to those who have seen it. The other film in the race is “Of Fathers and Sons,” which follows the lives of a radical Islamist family in Syria, focusing particularly on its two boys. The doc has not won anything major, but like “Hale County,” it deals in weighty societal themes. Either film could surprise if voters are affected by these powerful snapshots of the world we live in.
Whether you were left emotionally wrecked by “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” or it did not affect you, most will agree that its absence in the Documentary Feature race has suddenly turned this into an exciting one to predict. Oscar prognosticators may now be predicting “RBG” as the victor, but there is a realistic possibility of any of the five films prevailing on Oscar night.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own 2019 Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on February 24.