#HotDocs14: Best Bets for the Festival

Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA is the must-see of Hot Docs 2014
The 2014 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival starts this Thursday! The festival, Hot Docs for short, brings nearly a dozen days of documentary to Toronto. I love this festival! Hot Docs certainly has a different vibe than TIFF, since it’s less star-studded and therefore a much different atmosphere. Hot Docs has just as big an air of cinephilia as TIFF does, though, and it’s genuinely inspiring to see people lining up to see a documentary just as early as they’d line up to see the latest film starring Meryl Streep.

One of the better pleasures of Hot Docs is also the sense that the festival offers the only chance for many folks to see these films. Half the fun, I’ve found, is to simply pick a venue for a day and see whatever’s playing. I’ll pick one film I really want to see and just do, say, a “Lightbox day,” so I can just sample different films without much pre-screening knowledge. (And save on subway tokens!) It’s a strategy that allows for the sense of discovery one hopes to find at a festival, and it’s an approach I’d recommend to any students and seniors taking advantage of the free daytime screenings.

I’m a bit behind on Hot Docs coverage this year since I didn’t get a chance to attend many press screenings this time. I only caught one (Super Duper Alice Cooper) compared to a bunch last year. I’ve also scaled back on screeners this year since I found that I barely left my laptop last Hot Docs and was somewhat maxed out by the time the festival began. (I’m also a bit tired of watching films on my computer.) It’s a lot more fun to take in the Q&As and to stand in line and chat about movies with the masses, anyways, and the whole point of going to a festival is to be part of the film culture.

I have managed to see about ten films before the festival, though, and they’ve all been good. (I’ll be contributing some reviews to the blog at Point of View, so make sure to follow them! Other reviews will be posted here.) Full reviews are under embargo for the time being, so I’ve made the list of top picks for the festival using a mix of films I seen and recommend, and a handful of films that mark my most anticipated films of the festival.

Here, in alphabetical order, are your ten best bets for Hot Docs ’14:

(International Spectrum, USA)
Actress Brandy Burre isn’t a household name, but that doesn’t mean she lacks talent. The actress, best known for her role as Theresa D’Agostino on HBO’s The Wire, returns to acting after starting a family. This film premiered at the True/False Film Festival in Missouri to great acclaim for director Robert Greene’s portrait of the actress struggling to balance the roles of wife, mother, and artist. The question spills beyond Burre’s own ability to juggle, as the balance of artistic success and motherhood is also tackled in the Canadian documentary Come Worry with Us! about the eclectic band Silver Mount Zion and its touring with its first band baby. (Check back soon for a review of that one, too!) These portraits of the arts are just a few of the notable tales of film and feminism at the festival this year.

(Nightvision, UK/Canada)     
If you think going to see a documentary is so fetch, then Beyond Clueless is the film for you. This debut feature by UK wunderkind film critic Charlie Lyne examines the ageless genre of teen movies and asks whether these supposedly clueless films are actually as simple as they appear. Old favourites like The Craft, Clueless, and The Faculty take audiences back to the wild days of the 1990s when DVDs were a thing of the future and Northern Getaway defined style. (Facepalm.) Fairuza Balk narrates this blast from the past that celebrates our love for the most unsung product of 1990s cinema this side of Showgirls.

(Next, Australia)
Is television the new film? Some folks say that the idiot box is becoming more cinematic by the season, and one show that paved the way for intelligent small screen drama is Jane Campion’s excellent miniseries Top of the Lake. Hot Doc-ers looking to explore arts and entertainment should head to the Next programme (my favourite of the festival) and look deeper into the creative process of Lake in Clare Young’s From the Bottom of the Lake, which offers a behind-the-scenes portrait of the miniseries starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. Top of the Lake should be fresh in viewers’ minds—take the chance to watch the six-episode show if you haven’t seen it—so use this intimate look at the recent production as a litmus test for the (alleged) battle between television and film… in a movie theatre, no less!
Jane Campion giving Elisabeth Moss direction on the set of Top of the Lake
(Special Presentations, USA)
It should not be taken as a slight on Hot Docs if I say that the must-see film of the festival is from 1976. I’m simply becoming a sucker for retrospective screenings at film festivals. This year’s Hot Docs has full retro programs on the works of some hidden gems (see the Redux programme) and the career of Adam Curtis, but it’s the Special Presentation screening of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA that should be on every Hot Doc-ers schedule. Harlan County USA is arguably the best American documentary ever made, so the chance to see the film with an extended discussion with director Barbara Koppel (Shut Up and Sing) is a rare opportunity. The legacy of Harlan County USA, which won the 1976 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, is evident in virtually every political, activist, and feminist doc that’s come in the years since it was first released. Lisa Simpson even parodied one of its memorable protest ballads! Harlan County USA is still an incendiary political portrait, and Kopple’s story of the coal miners’ strike still feels relevant today. Start lining up today!

(Special Presentations, USA)
Big Bird is coming to town! Big Bird is coming to town! I am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story marks one of the more high profile world premieres in the Special Presentations portion of the festival. Big Bird tells audiences how to get to Sesame Street with this archival exploration about Caroll Spinney, the talent behind such iconic characters as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. It’s rare to see a film that reveals so much insight into such a universal cornerstone of childhood for audiences who grew up under Big Bird’s wing. Big Bird boasts a whopping five—yes, five—screenings during Hot Docs, so expect it to be one of the buzziest films of the festival. (Four of said five screenings are free for students and seniors, so chances are that anyone who wants to see the film will be able to get a ticket.)

(Canadian Spectrum, Canada)
The films of Denis Côté are an exciting peculiarity in the contemporary Canadian film scene. Last year’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a gripping odyssey of slow-burn cinema while his 2012 documentary Bestiaire is something to behold (or revile, depending on one’s taste). Côté’s latest doc, Joy of Man’s Desiring, falls in the vein of Bestiaire with its observational eye, but this offering bids a finer artistry and a heightened craftsmanship. It’s an exciting hybrid of a doc—part conventional observation and part meditative docudrama—that is sure to be one of the more notable Canadian productions of the festival. (Check back soon for a review!)

(Shorts, Canada)
The National Film Board of Canada has a whopping seven films at Hot Docs this year including the world premieres of the latest films from John Kastner (Out of Mind, Out of Sight) and Julie Kwan (Everything Will Be), but the must-see Canadian film of the festival so far is the NFB’s short Jutra. This flat-out brilliant tribute to one of the most influential filmmakers in Canadian cinema is a formally and thematically ambitious film. Director Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre, who was recently announced as heading to the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes with Jutra, is clearly one to watch. Jutra screens with the swell observational doc Guidelines. (Check back soon for reviews!)

(Next, Canada)
Here’s a one-of-a-kind event at Hot Docs for anyone looking to take the film experience beyond a screening. Mugshot, for screenings at the Isabel Bader, invites audiences to explore an on-site exhibit of vintage mugshots, presented in collaboration with the Stephen Bulger Gallery, before and after the screening. The film and the photography exhibit give Hot Doc-ers a glimpse into the snapshots that continue to fascinate popular culture with every drunken grin from the Justin Biebers of the world or with every hilarious mess of the Nick Noltes. It’s a rare chance to watch a movie and then put one’s knowledge into practice by diving into an archive of the film’s subject.

(Special Presentations, Italy/France)
Not only is Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA the first Italian film to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival since 1998’s The Way We Laughed, but it’s also the first documentary to win the prize in the history of the festival. That’s no small feat. Sacro GRA whisks audiences to Italy and gives a portrait of Rome as a city in the midst of radical change as it follows the lives of citizens working and living in a ring road around the busy city. (It seems like a fine companion piece to last summer’s The Venice Syndrome.) There’s a host of prizewinners from various international film festivals at Hot Docs this year, but Sacro GRA offers a fine starting point for anyone looking to show off a little trivia and make some friends in line. Bonus: After the film, you can debate whether it deserved to beat the likes of Philomena and Under the Skin!

(Special Presentations, Canada)
TIFF isn’t the only Toronto film festival to mix star wattage with major films, and Super Duper Alice Cooper should bring the house down when the devil himself comes to town for a screening of this electrifying film. Super Duper Alice Cooper is an all-encompassing “rock opera” that combines a wealth of archival excerpts, concert footage, and exclusive interviews for a rockin’ collage of Cooper’s rise to fame. Cooper himself will be on hand for the film, which will screen as a Hot Docs Live special presentation on April 28 and be simulcast in select Cineplex theatres across the country. This special event will feature an audience Q&A with Alice Cooper and directors Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen, and Sean Dunn, so check your local listings if you’re not in town for the festival! (And check back soon for a review!)

What are you excited to see at Hot Docs this year?

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information on this year’s festival. Hot Docs runs April 24 - May 4.