2019 Oscars: Best Documentary Feature Predictions

This year’s documentary race is dominated by biodocs like “Won’t You be My Neighbor?,” on Fred Rogers, and “RBG,” about Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Sundance has long delivered a few Oscar documentary contenders each year, most recently with “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Icarus” and Strong Island.”  This year, the festival introduced a plethora of leading hopefuls, led by Morgan Neville’s heart-tugging portrait of the late PBS children’s host Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (Metascore: 83), which Focus Features scooped up last summer; it goes into release June 8. The Sundance audience was in tears, slayed by a portrait of a beloved cultural figure who tried to do good. At Sundance, Oscar-winner Neville (“Twenty Feet From Stardom”) told me that he hopes this movie about a well-meaning conservative Republican Presbyterian minister will reach a wider swath than the usual liberal moviegoer. Count on it. This zeitgeist-hitter will be hard to beat.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use OnlyMandatory Credit: Photo by SNAP/REX/Shutterstock (390848be)FILM STILLS OF 'DEAD POET'S SOCIETY' WITH 1989, BEHIND THE SCENES, DIRECTOR DIRECTS, SET (MOVIE), PETER WEIR, ROBIN WILLIAMS IN 1989VARIOUS

Peter Weir directs Robin Williams in 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society”


Two other well-reviewed Sundance biodocs could emerge from the HBO broadcast realm: Susan Lacy biography “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and Marina Zenovich’s “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.” Potential HBO standouts amid the flood of biopics are moving family movie “The Sentence; “The Oslo Diaries,” which detail the secret 1992 Middle East peace talks; and artworld expose “The Price of Everything” from Nathaniel Kahn.

David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran appear in <i>Three Identical Stangers</i> by Tim Wardle, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

David Kellman, Eddy Galland, and Bobby Shafran in “Three Identical Strangers”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Other popular breakouts were Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” (Neon, June 29), a well-reviewed truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story about triplets separated at birth; Matt Tyrnauer’s rollicking “Studio 54” (A&E), and Ruth Bader Ginsberg doc “RBG” (CNN/Magnolia). The Supreme Court justice turns out to be a hero for our times, as the film just passed $8 million at the box office, outgrossing every Magnolia release to date, including documentary Oscar-nominee “I Am Not Your Negro.”

"Generation Wealth" Director Lauren Greenfield

“Generation Wealth” director Lauren Greenfield

Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

Amazon Studios is releasing “Generation Wealth” (July 20), photographer-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s follow-up to “Queen of Versailles,” a new take on the Millennial me-generation.

Hulu picked up special jury prize-winner Stephen Maing’s hard-hitting NYPD expose “Crime + Punishment,” produced by Laura Poitras, as well as breakthrough filmmaker prize-winner Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” which follows three young men in the Rust Belt.

This fall Kino Lorber will release World Doc Grand Jury Prize-winner “Of Fathers and Sons,” from Talal Derki, who returned to his native Syria for two years, embedded with a jihadist family as he claimed to be a journalist sympathizer.

And PBS’s “Dark Money,” from transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed, could pop as a political film in the landscape of this election year.




Netflix acquired L.A. filmmaker Sandi Tan’s investigation into her stolen 1992 Singapore indie film, “Shirkers,” which won Best Director at the Sundance World Documentary Competition. Netflix will also push Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones’ upcoming biodoc “Quincy,” a musical portrait of Jones’ father, as well as “The Bleeding Edge,” Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s feminist-slanted investigation into the medical-parts industry. Morgan Neville had expected to debut his Orson Welles documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” at Cannes, but Netflix will unveil it at the fall festivals instead.

Debuting at Tribeca to raves was Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s “McQueen” (July 20, Bleecker Street), the rags-to-riches saga of fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston

Roadside Attractions

Another biodoc hit big at Cannes: Kevin Macdonald’s revelatory “Whitney” (July 6, Roadside Attractions) which is following the “Amy” playbook. Also breaking at Cannes was three-time documentary nominee Wim Wenders’ “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” (May 18, Focus Features), which may be too hagiographic to please critics, audiences, or Oscar voters.

Buster Keaton

Still to come is vertiginous “Free Solo,” a follow-up to “Meru” from the filmmaking team of Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; James D. Stern’s “American Chaos” (September 14, Sony Pictures Classics), and “The Great Buster” (Cohen Media), about silent comedian Buster Keaton.

No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.


“Three Identical Strangers”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”


“The Bleeding Edge”
“Of Fathers and Sons”
“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word”
“Studio 54”
“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”

Long Shots:

“American Chaos”
“Crime + Punishment”
“Dark Money”
“Free Solo”
“Generation Wealth”
“The Great Buster”
“Minding the Gap”
“The Oslo Diaries”
“The Price of Everything”
“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”
“The Sentence”