As Real as it Gets: The 2018 Academy Award Nominees for Best Documentary Feature

War. Racial injustice. Doping in sports. The 2008 financial crisis. A journey of friendship and art. 

The five films representing the Best Documentary field for this year’s Academy Awards could not possibly be more diverse, or more deserving. Each storyteller excels at giving the audience a glimpse of the lives impacted by their film’s subject matters. The films combined paint an interesting picture of today’s modern society and the news that impacts its inhabitants. 

Strong Island

Strong Island, Yance Ford’s retelling of the murder of his older brother, is so stunningly good, it’s hard to believe it’s his first film. Focusing on the injustice and racial implications in the lack of prosecution of the man who shot and killed William Ford Jr., Ford has created a riveting film that takes the viewer to another level of emotion and rage. His use of family photos and home movie footage, interspersed with conversations between he and his mother, sister and the people who knew his brother best, bring to heart the awful impact William’s loss had on his family and specifically, Yance himself. It also showcases Ford’s style, which is powerful and captivating, and serves his story remarkably. The vulnerability and truth displayed in this film, the level with which Ford gives every bit of his emotions to the viewer is more than brave, it’s brilliant.  

(Strong Island is now streaming on Netflix.)


Plenty of snark was levied at the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" at this year's Winter Olympics, but the story behind why those athletes couldn't salute their own country's flag on the podium is an incredible one.  Bryan Fogel's Icarus starts with an intriguing premise, as Fuller attempts to recreate Lance Armstrong's illegal "training regimen".  But then he meets Russian trainer Grigory Rodchenkov, and soon falls down a deep, dark rabbit hole of political intrigue and corruption, revealing shocking truth after shocking truth.   The remarkable and compelling Icarus unfolds with more twists and turns than a big budget Hollywood heist movie, and it just may change the way the world watches sports—and competes in them—forever.  

(Icarus is now streaming on Netflix.)

Faces Places

Simply stated, Faces Places is the feel-good film of the year. Following the surprising relationship between photographers Agnès Varda and JR, and their amazing, unique adventure together, it is truly impossible to leave this film without a smile on your face. Rarely does a film manage to showcase such joy without any hint of cloying sweetness, but Faces Places is nothing but pure love.  Setting aside the truly beautiful, amazing feats of art accomplished throughout the film by the May-December duo, the bond of friendship between them, and the impact they have on the people they encounter on their journey, is a work of art all its own.  

(Faces Places is now playing in select theaters and will be released on Blu-Ray March 6.)

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

While the 2015 film The Big Short told the story of the big banks during the 2008 mortgage crisis, there were so many smaller stories the world has never heard.  One such story was of the indiscretions of several employees of Abacus Savings & Loan, a small, immigrant family-owned bank that served the Chinese community in New York City.  Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, tells the story of the Sung family's struggle against the US government to keep not only their family business alive, but one that is so important to their community.  It is a story of the highs and pitfalls of success and hardships, telling a fascinating story of second- and third-generation Chinese immigrants that is uniquely and unequivocally American.  

(Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is now streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Last Men in Aleppo

Like last year's Academy Award-winning documentary short The White Helmets, Last Men in Aleppo tells the harrowing story of the White Helmets, a ragtag group of brave volunteers who drive into the freshly bombed sectors of the Syrian city of Aleppo looking for survivors.  Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad uses no narration and very little music, focusing on the men themselves both rising to the dangerous occasion and at their most vulnerable, in the rare quiet times, showing their palpable fear for their lives and the safety of their families.  Last Men in Aleppo pulls no punches showing the brutality of the Syrian bombings, making the film to be at times a very difficult watch.  But as heartbreaking and sickening as the situation is, the viewer can't look away.  For all of its grimness, Last Men in Aleppo is an inspiring story of ordinary men doing extraordinary things in a place that couldn't possibly need such bravery more.  These are stories that can't be told enough times and should absolutely be listened to.   

(Last Men in Aleppo is now streaming on Netflix.)

Mike's Pick:
The field of documentaries at this year's Oscars is incredibly strong, and each film proves in very different ways that they belong.  The weighty Last Men in Aleppo would seem like the safe pick, particularly considering the Academy's long history of honoring similar films.  But it's difficult to root against the mischievous, joyful Faces Places.  The levity of the film as compared to the other, much heavier and more Important-seeming nominees should likely send legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda (or at least, a cardboard cutout of her carried on stage by co-director JR), home with a well-earned statue.

Josie's Pick:
I do not covet the Academy’s job of deciding which of these films rises above the rest, because they are all brilliant and important in their own ways. With that said, Yance Ford’s unabashed emotion and the way he gave himself completely to tell his story has haunted me. While I wouldn’t be surprised, or disappointed, to see Agnès and JR cross the stage on Sunday night, I believe Ford should be rewarded for such an exceptional first foray into documentary filmmaking. 

-Mike and Josie Stec