Documentary Trending

Henry Stockwell ‘19

Film Critic

In anticipation of the Oscars coming up later this month, Davidsonian contributor Henry Stockwell will be writing about some of his favorite films of 2018 over the course of the next few weeks.

In the absence of Game of Thrones, and with no other television series assuming the Breaking Bad mantle of total pop culture dominance, 2018 was an opportunity for movies to reestablish their position as top dog in America’s entertainment industry. On the whole, filmmakers delivered on the opportunity. But in a year that gave us massive financial hits in the form of Marvel’s best film (the commercial and critical juggernaut that is Black Panther), the most expensive meme ever made (A Star Is Born), the most important rustic-white-people-sweater collection of all time (A Quiet Place), and the worst movie to be nominated for Best Picture in any Davidson student’s lifetime (Quite Problematic Queen Porn—er, Bohemian Rhapsody), the trend in popular filmmaking about which I’m most excited is our collective re-embracing of the commercially viable documentary.

Director Bing Liu’s debut effort, Minding the Gap, was both my favorite film of 2018 and my biggest please-don’t-snub-this movie heading into Oscar nominations. I saw Minding the Gap for the first time at the Full Frame festival in Durham last spring—if you were there, and you weren’t crying, and you didn’t join the five minute-long standing ovation that happened after the last frame, I openly hate you and privately suspect you’re a piece of advanced artificial intelligence that’s been programmed only 90 percent correctly. 

(Describing the experience of being at a film festival screening where the movie kills is basically impossible to do without rampant use of clichés. I’m not sorry about it.) 

Minding is ostensibly a skateboarding movie. Really, skateboarding is the vehicle through which Liu tells the stories of three young men from his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, each of whom are the products of households plagued by domestic violence. Liu’s movie is an editing tour de force. Like a good skater on fresh, sloped blacktop, Minding drives downhill with steadily increasing pace, weaving together narratives of staggering emotional weight in a way best described as organic. A true vérité filmmaker, Liu avoids condemning his subjects, even when they do or say horrible things. Instead, we’re in the hands of an artist whose technical achievement creates a sense of profound and sincere commitment to the lives of the people he’s depicting. Minding the Gap pushes the limits of the extent to which crafting a quality film can be considered an act of moral goodness. Get yourself a Hulu free trial and watch this thing.

Joining Minding in the Best Documentary category is Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo. Following up his excellent 2015 feature, Meru, Chin and Vasarhelyi’s new film delivers some of the most breathtaking footage of last year. Free Solo tracks climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, the most intimidating sheer rock face in the climbing world (and your Mac desktop background), without a rope. The shots featuring ropeless Honnold alone on El Cap are enough to make this more than worth the watch—but Chin and Vasarhelyi are filmmakers, not cinematographers, and they make audiences reckon with the ramifications of the camera’s role in Honnold’s quest. Free Solo is currently running on a second IMAX release, and I’d highly, highly recommend driving to the AMC at Northlake mall to see it in its largest possible format.

If you like Minding the Gap, try Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994, iTunes or Prime Video). If you’re digging on Free Solo, you’re going to want to hunker down and binge on: Meru (Jimmy Chin, 2015, Netflix and iTunes), The Dawn Wall (Josh Lowell, 2018, iTunes and Prime Video), Momentum Generation (Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, 2018, HBO), and Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005, iTunes, Prime Video, and Hulu).

Henry Stockwell ‘19 is an English major from Virginia Beach, VA. He can be reached for comment at hestockwell@davidson.edu.