The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presides over the annual Academy Awards and released its nominations for the 2019 Oscars this week, rarely nominates and awards the “right” movies, for many reasons. This is because the membership is mostly old and white with a correspondingly conservative taste; the nominations favor the productions who actively campaign for them, usually with the big money backing of studios, producers, and publicists; the innate populism of the charade, which airs on network television and defers a little to “crowd-pleasing” films, opposed to those preferred by your insufferable (but not incorrect!) cinephile friend; there’s just five nominations per category (aside from Best Picture), against hundreds of movies released a year; the wondrous mutability of taste, which informs how some viewers can decide a movie is about the vivifying effect of feeling loved for inherent traits deemed unworthy by others, and others can say “hey, that’s the one in which the lady fucks a fish.”
Many reasonable adults understand all of this, or at least some of this. Many reasonable film critics and journalists do, too. And yet, every year, there is a collective expression of anger when once again the Oscars screw it up, as though screwing it up is not the ceremony’s birthright. This year’s disbelief primarily centers on the nominations for Green Book (accidentally racist), Vice (accidental war-criminal apologia) and Bohemian Rhapsody (just terrible, and also directed by alleged pedophile Bryan Singer), but there are many omissions deemed “snubs” in literally dozens of articles. Since the issues are the same every year, one might deduce that it serves nobody to get frustrated in the same way, every year. And yet.
Why do people get so mad about what gets nominated for an Oscar? I genuinely don’t know. Taking awards seriously only reinforces a hierarchical approach to art that serves snobs and people with no confidence. Plus there’s the fact that almost all the nominees are some combination of rich, hot, and famous, and deserve no extra validation beyond what society gives them every day. There are always a few exceptions among the nominated — Yalitza Aparicio, Richard E. Grant, and Yorgos Lanthimos are legitimate outsiders, to name a few — but if you have a vested interest in the sanctioned celebration of Bradley Cooper or Disney, maybe get a better personality.
A more productive, and seemingly obvious, way to consider the Oscars is to focus on what they get right instead of what they get wrong. And so I submit an appreciation of something the Oscars got unquestionably right: the nomination of Minding the Gap in the Best Documentary category.
Minding the Gap has received a good amount of praise by now, but: It follows the lives of three childhood friends from Rockford, Illinois, as they progress from teen skaters to slightly wayward adults. It’s directed by Bing Liu, a Chicago-based filmmaker who is, crucially, one of the film’s subjects, which allows him closer physical and emotional proximity to the other principal characters, Zack Mulligan and Keire Johnson. Because they’re not particularly notable besides existing, and thus not overacting while hewing to a corny narrative, large parts of the film capture the loose, unguarded quality of a circle of friends sitting around and shooting the shit, without worrying if anyone is about to judge them for it.
But what begins as a charming coming-of-age movie about skateboarders slowly comes to grapple with more consequential issues related to domestic abuse and generational violence. Keire comes to grips with the physical discipline he suffered at the hands of his deceased father, the absence of whom he begins to feel more acutely; Bing reconciles with the domestic violence inflicted on his family by his stepfather, conducting an emotional interview with his mother about why she stayed with him for so long. And in the film’s most harrowing sequences, we watch Zack — by all appearances, a happy-go-lucky life-of-the-party type — become an abuser himself, as his relationship with girlfriend Nina (the mother of his son) grows increasingly tumultuous.
Summarized on paper, “life grows confusing for childhood friends” isn’t a particularly compelling narrative (Richard Linklater be damned). But because of the way Minding the Gap is filmed — over several years with sustained intimacy to its subjects (opposed to the tension, unspoken and literal, that undergirds other documentaries) — the film resists simplistic conclusions. Unlike many fictional coming-of-age stories, the subjects of Minding the Gap visibly work out their feelings, giving the film an authentic texture. The film avoids lazy judgments or one-sided narratives — Zack’s abusive behavior is directly confronted, and Nina is given equal space and time to talk about her side of their relationship — and communicates a profound emotional empathy for all its characters. Fittingly, it was made with the mentorship of Steve James, who directed the seminal documentary Hoop Dreams, which took the same approach to the lives of two Chicago high school basketball players in the early ‘90s. I think it’ll be a similar touchstone, inasmuch as documentaries have any foothold in culture. (It’s not a big one, but it’s not nothing.)
So, you could root for Minding the Gap to win because it’s a very good movie, because the overarching themes are relevant to a society trying to reconsider the role of traditional masculinity, because the film was made independently and backed by non-profits, because Liu is a good millennial who could use the shine from a big win. There are some other good movies in the field, and here I must admit my bias as another 30-year-old Asian-American Midwesterner who loves the Mountain Goats (a band used to score a pivotal scene in the movie, no spoilers). But there’s nothing queasy about cheering on these creators, who are just regular people, nor is there a shadowy corporation lurking in the wings waiting to assume credit. That’s good enough for me, and a more righteous cause than cheering on Bradley Cooper. The Oscars don’t matter, yes, but this would matter a little.