Now that the 2019 Oscar nominations are out, everyone is talking about Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, but some of the most interesting, and often overlooked nominations, fall into the Best Documentary category, including the inspirational Free Solo.
Before we get to Free Solo, here are the year’s other nominations:
• Hale County This Morning, This Evening: An up-close look at the lives, troubles, and dreams of the people in a community of the historic South, directed by RaMell Ross.
• Minding the Gap: The Hulu documentary by Bing Liu that follows a group of young people who work to escape their harsh childhoods while they grow up and bond through the art and sport of skateboarding.
• Of Fathers and Sons: Sundance Award-winning director Talal Derki’s unfettered examination of the lives of the children, growing up in a radical Islamic family.
• RBG: The documentary biopic of 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
All of these films are more than worthy of honors, but one of this year’s nominations stands out as a sheer cinematic feat: Free Solo. This National Geographic film by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin offers a suspenseful and compelling story, incredible scenery, and some of the most ambitious and dangerous camera work achievements.
The film follows free soloist climber Alex Honnold in his preparations to be the first to solo climb the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in the summer of 2017, without the safety of a rope.
While all the other films are well-deserving of Oscar nods, Free Solo is the most uplifting (literally in some senses) of the bunch. It celebrates the beauty of nature, the human need to conquer it, how far a person will push themselves to achieve a physical, mental and emotional goal, and the reality of how much others around them are affected by those whose goals drive them to obsession.
All of this year's nominees invite the viewer to visit the lives of others, as well as learn about and understand them more, but Free Solo really makes you feel like you are on Honnold's journey. This is something that is inspirational at times, and horrifying at others. It not only reminds in very blunt ways of our mortality, but also of the wonderful gift of life we have been given and to not waste it by letting our ambitions slip by.
Most of all, however, it is a true achievement in cinematography, as co-director Chin, also a professional climber, and 18-year member of The North Face Athlete Team, demonstrates his own athleticism mixed with artistic know-how. The small camera crew who helped capture Honnold's climb (carrying around 50 pounds of equipment with thousands of feet of rope) are worthy of a special award just for what they endured. I hate to drop in this overused word, but the result is simply stunning. Those who were fortunate enough to see this one in IMAX got the best sense of this.
"If you're free soloing," Chin said in a recent interview he and Vasarhelyi granted Vanity Fair, "it's about perfect execution or certain death."
To get a look at the white-knuckle intensity of this film check out this 360° Video following Honnold climbing El Capitan:
In addition to this year's five nominees, it is worth noting there are two fantastic documentary films visibly not present in this list: Peter Jackson’s look at WWI, They Shall Not Grow Old, and the Fred Rogers biography Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Jackson’s film, and one of my three Favorite film or television documentaries from 2018, wasn’t eligible for an Oscar, because it missed the designated filming deadline, but the beautifully made and heartwarming look at Mr. Rogers was one of the biggest, most disappointing Oscar snubs of the year (shame on you, Academy).
As the nominations stand, however, if you have to see just one documentary film the list, go Free Solo…and hold on tight.
The 91st Academy Awards are set for Feb. 24.
Header Image © National Geographic Documentary Films.