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LI's biggest movie story of 2018: A great year for local documentaries

Ruiwen Fu, who now goes by Doris Fu,

Ruiwen Fu, who now goes by Doris Fu, right, from Jericho High School, in "Science Fair." Credit: National Geographic Documentary

Was it something in the water? Or did the stars just happen to align?

Whatever the explanation, 2018 was a phenomenal year for documentaries featuring, or made by, Long Islanders.

Six documentaries with Long Island connections were released this year. “Three Identical Strangers,” the story of Long Island-born triplets whose lives turned out to be part of a secret experiment, recently made the shortlist of 15 films eligible to become one of the five final Academy Award nominees for best documentary feature. That and other Long Island docs premiered at Sundance and became hot titles; nearly all six enjoyed some form of theatrical release; and one, “Roll With Me,” the story of a West Hempstead man who pushed his wheelchair across the United States, found a home on the streaming giant Netflix.

One of the year’s first success stories was “The Last Race,” the debut film from Bellmore native Michael Dweck. An impressionistic portrait of Long Island’s last bastion of stock-car racing,  Riverhead Raceway, Dweck’s film uses car-mounted cameras, multiple microphones and a haunting symphonic score to create more of a mood than a narrative. It earned strong reviews out of Sundance, got picked up by Magnolia Pictures and played promotional screenings at 90 theaters around the country before its official theatrical release on Nov. 16.

Another Sundance discovery was “Science Fair,” co-directed by Island Park native Darren Foster. Built around the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair, the film follows high-school entrants from around the world, including Jericho High School, where Dr. Serena McCalla has a record of leading students to victory. Though it didn’t make the cut for the Oscars, “Science Fair” is one of the year’s best reviewed movies, with a 98 percent rating at RottenTomatoes.

Other Long Island docs opened as limited theatrical releases and then found their way to video-on-demand. One such title is “Killer Bees,” a film about the Bridgehampton High School basketball team directed by Benjamin and Orson Cummings (who both attended the school) and produced by Shaquille O’Neal. Kevin Kerslake’s “Bad Reputation,” about Long Beach-based rocker Joan Jett, and Lisa France’s “Roll With Me,” about cross-country wheelchair rider Gabriel Cordell, also migrated to such VOD platforms as Netflix, iTunes or cable.

Whether “Three Identical Strangers” can make it to Oscar night remains to be seen. Morgan Neville’s film about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” and the rock-climbing documentary “Free Solo” seem to be the leading contenders at the moment. The final five documentary nominees will be announced by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Jan. 22. Whatever the outcome, Long Island made an uncommonly strong showing this year — and there’s no telling what next year might bring.

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