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Oscars 2019: ‘Free Solo’ wins amid a big year for popular documentaries

Oscars 2019: ‘Free Solo’ wins amid a big year for popular documentaries
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin accept the award for best documentary feature for "Free Solo" at the Oscars on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello / Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

It was only fitting that perhaps the most dramatic documentary category competition in years should give the Oscar to a movie filled with human emotions, death-defying stakes and nail-biting tension, as the Academy Award for documentary feature went to “Free Solo.”

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, a husband-and-wife filmmaking team, “Free Solo” follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempted to become the first person to scale Yosemite’s 3,000-foot rock wall of El Capitan without ropes. Along with his physical training, the film traces his deepening personal relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. Alongside its vertiginous climbing footage, the film becomes a powerful exploration of personal focus and ambition while making space for emotional, intimate connections.

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In accepting the award, Vasarhelyi and Chin took the stage along with producers Evan Hayes and Shannon Dill as well as McCandless and Honnold.

Evan Hayes, from left, Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin and Shannon Dill, from the cast and crew of "Free Solo," arrive at the Oscars on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
Evan Hayes, from left, Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin and Shannon Dill, from the cast and crew of "Free Solo," arrive at the Oscars on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Richard Shotwell / Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

A visibly moved Vasarhelyi said, “Thank you National Geographic for believing in us and for hiring women and people of color; we only help make the films better.”

Vasarhelyi and Chin are the first married couple of Asian descent ever nominated for Oscars together.

Vasarhelyi also thanked McCandless: “You climbed your own mountain that day. So thank you, Sanni. This film would be so boring without you.”

As music began to rise to play them off, Vasarhelyi continued with, “Thank you, Alex Honnold, for giving us courage and teaching us how to believe in the impossible and inspiring us. This film is for everyone who believes in the impossible.”

From Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing to a 'Wayne's World' reunion, these are the highlights from the 2019 Academy Awards.

2018 turned out to be a remarkable year for documentaries at the box office. “Free Solo,” which is still in release following a late September opening, has made more than $16 million at the box office. The film considered its closest competitor for the Oscar, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG,” has earned more than $14 million.

Two popular documentaries many were surprised to see not among this year’s Oscar nominees were also successful at the box office. Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” made more than $22 million, and Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” has earned more than $12 million.

Of the year’s five Oscar nominated documentaries, “Free Solo” was the only one that did not premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, instead first playing at the Telluride Film Festival.

All five nominated films represented an inclusive range of stories, both behind the camera and on-screen.

“RBG” is a portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, looking at her legal career before making it to the Supreme Court, its toll on her family and personal life and how she transformed into the meme-able folk hero often referred to as “Notorious RBG.”

The film came out ahead of the feature film “On the Basis of Sex,” which starred Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and focused on a specific period in her life and relationship with her husband, Martin Ginsburg, played by Armie Hammer.

The other three nominees in the category had a relatively lower profile at the box office, although Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” a personal exploration of skateboarding and masculinity in a small town in Illinois, garnered numerous critics prizes. The film won the grand jury prize for U.S. documentary at Sundance 2018.

“Of Fathers and Sons” found Syrian-born filmmaker Talal Derki embedding himself with a radical Islamist family in Syria for an intimate portrait on the ways in which family and ideology become intertwined.

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The film won the world cinema documentary prize when it premiered at Sundance in 2018. Derki was initially denied a visa to travel to the U.S. and missed some awards-season events, but he was eventually approved to travel and attend the Academy Awards ceremony.

Directed by RaMell Ross, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is a poetic, poignant look at race in a small Alabama county of just under 15,000 residents.

In his review for The Times, critic Kenneth Turan wrote that Ross’ film had “a gift for making enrapturing imagery out of what sound like ordinary, everyday events. … Because these ordinary moments come from the everyday lives of African Americans in the deep South state of Alabama — a reality movies rarely explore — the film’s accomplishments are even more noteworthy.”

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