Hot Docs Wrap-up: Oscar Talk and 'Best of the Fest'

Muscle Shoals wins the Hot Docs Audience Award
Another festival is over. How quickly time flies when you’re having fun. I had another great Hot Docs experience this year. I saw a total of 48 films and just over a dozen shorts at the festival this year (including press screenings and screeners) and almost all of them were good. (I would have seen fifty, but I had some job interviews during the festival.) This year’s Hot Docs coverage also included my first time writing for a print outlet, as I profiled the best Canadian shorts of the festival for Point of View magazine. Free copies of POV were available at the box office and the industry lounge, so hopefully you were able to grab a copy. (In case you didn’t, I wrote about Just as I Remember, Softening, Mary and Myself, Packing up the Wagon: The Last Days of the Wagon Wheel Lunch, and Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam.) Finally, 2013 was a more sociable Hot Docs than previous years, as I had the opportunity to meet some Twitter friends in person. I hope we’re able to chat about movies in festivals to come!

Oscar Talk

Blood Brother
Perhaps the best reason to clap for Hot Docs is the overall strength of this year’s programming. The offering of films was strong overall and featured a diverse selection of subjects, styles, and stories. I think the quality of the programming is reflected in the final standings for the Audience Award, which saw Muscle Shoals take the top prize, followed by Blood Brother and A Whole Lott More. (See the final top ten here.) I think Muscle Shoals is absolutely a worthy choice to take the top prize. It was one of the first films I saw during press screenings and it consistently proved a tough act to follow for every rockumentary I saw during the festival. If there are any two films that readers/doc fans should keep an eye on during this year’s Oscar race, they’re Muscle Shoals and Blood Brother. Both films have Oscar-friendly topics (musical legacy and a selfless hero, respectively), and they’re both accessible, solidly produced films. I might tip Blood Brother as the most Oscar-likely, since it has the more immediate emotional gratification, but I wouldn’t underestimate Muscle Shoals, either, since it’s a better film than this year’s Oscar winner Searching for Sugar Man and music buffs (especially older ones) are bound to respond to it. Case in point: before the screening of Finding the Funk, I eavesdropped on two nearby Hot Doc-ers discussing the film by Greg “Freddy” Camalier and one of them ended the conversation by saying, “Even if you have to kill someone for a ticket, see Muscle Shoals!”

It’s worth keeping Muscle Shoals and Blood Brother in mind for upcoming predictions. If you’ll recall, last year’s audience award winner Chasing Ice went on to make the Academy shortlist of fifteen finalists and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song. Two of the documentary feature nominees, The Invisible War and 5 Broken Cameras, also played at the festival last year and over half of the fifteen shortlisted films screened at Hot Docs. There’s a strong chance at a few of the nominees are among the Hot Docs class of 2013.

I’ll admit that there wasn’t a case like last year where I exited the screening of The Invisible War and immediately thought I’d seen the Oscar winner. My ambiguous feel for the Oscars this year could partly be attributed to the fact that none of the screenings I attended ended with a standing ovation; alternatively, I could be reluctant to call anything Oscar worthy, since last year’s festival buzz didn’t entirely translate to Oscars. You might recall that Marley failed to make the shortlist but Ethel did. The Academy gets the dunce cap for that choice.
Valentine Road
Hot Docs 2013, however, arguably saw a handful of films that enjoyed Marley-like buzz and are worth remembering. In addition to Muscle Shoals and Blood Brother, Valentine Road enjoyed heavy praise and plenty of buzz with the O-word. I missed Valentine Road, so I can’t comment on the film itself. One of my favourite films of the festival (if not the year so far) is The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, which saw great buzz, yet failed to make the top twenty for the audience award. I was surprised by this, since Doris seemed to go over well with the audience at the screening I attended. Doris Payne struck me as the best American doc to have its world premiere at Hot Docs. If Doris Payne doesn't win anything, however, Oscar watchers should at least keep an eye on Halle Berry when she takes on the role of Doris Payne in Who is Doris Payne? Doris is one of the most interesting characters you'll see in a film!
Two other films I would add to the Oscar watchlist are Let the Fire Burn and The Crash Reel. Let the Fire Burn is a compelling archival film, which had many Hot Docs patrons gabbing about its sensational exposé. The research and presentation of a clear argument in Let the Fire Burn is commendable, but I think that its success is eclipsed by the stronger and more aesthetically ambitious Hot Docs film Our Nixon. Our Nixon might have had a harder time connecting with Toronto audiences than Fire did, possibly due to subject matter or due to the active viewing it demands, but I think it’s the better of the two films. I don’t think Let the Fire Burn holds up to post-viewing scrutiny, though, as the selectivity over what was omitted from the film is problematic, but it’s a film to which one has an extremely intense reaction during the screening, and gut-level feeling often trumps afterthought when it comes to the Oscars. The Crash Reel, on the other hand, is a terrifically composed film that goes beyond the images of the archive. Director Lucy Walker, a two-time nominee for The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom and Waste Land, could find herself back at the Oscars if viewers recognize how intuitively she looked at her subject and saw a larger story that extended to an interrogation of extreme sports as a whole. Ditto Blackfish, which takes a seemingly isolated tragedy and zooms out to find a larger, more unsettling story. These films are all marks of a strong festival regardless of where they travel on the awards circuit.

The Best of the Fest

Interestingly enough, the only quip I have with the programming at Hot Docs this year is for the selection of The Manor as the opening night film. I found it to be an odd choice when I caught the press screening prior to the festival, since there isn’t anything particularly special about the film. Admittedly, there is the novelty of seeing a local story opening the festival, but I think if one compares The Manor to, say, TIFF’s selection of Looper as the opener for last year, one sees that a strong film can get a festival off to a great start. The Manor made it seem like we were championing local content for its own sake. The Manor certainly got people talking, though, and it was often the film people wanted to discuss. However, the conversation wasn’t always for the better, as most people I spoke with shared my opinion that The Manor is good for a first feature, but not on the level for an international film festival’s opening choice. One fellow moviegoer even went so far to state that she wouldn’t have even picked the film to open a student showcase at Ryerson.
Let’s focus on the good, though, since the strength of the best films outweighed the lesser fish. (Even the duds usually offered something of value.) No film quite surpassed either of my favourites from Hot Docs 2012, We Are Wisconsin and The Imposter, but there are several films I recommended consistently throughout the festival and would be glad to champion in the months to come. I think my favourite film of the festival was one of the first docs I saw, Alan Zweig’s 15Reason to Live. I like 15 Reasons to Live the best because it had a marvelous ability to examine aspects of our everyday life that we can cherish to make our lives and the lives of others more rewarding and fulfilling. I often decry feel-good films, but 15 Reasons to Live is a great, life-affirming documentary. Rivalling 15 Reasons are two wildly dissimilar docs that also had me raving to friends and family to make room in their schedules. The Ghosts in Our Machine and The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne  have two of the most fascinating subjects of the year, and the treatment given to them by their respective filmmakers is equally smart and captivating.
The Ghosts in Our Machine

My picks for the best of the fest, in alphabetical order, are:

Oddly enough, the one film that was on my mind most often during Hot Docs was a film that didn’t even play at the festival. Every time I considered a five-star rating or pondered whether a film had the goods to win the title of “Best Documentary”, my mind always wandered to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. It was hard to give a film five stars after doing so for Stories since nothing matched Polley’s perceptive fusion of form and content. It’s hard to place a film on the same level as one that redefined how one looks at the art form. Where else better than Hot Docs to test your appreciation for documentary film?

Hot Docs 2013 was therefore a successful festival overall. Hats off to all the programmers, theatre staff, festival workers, and volunteers for making another great celebration for documentary film!

What are your favourites from Hot Docs this year?