Hot Docs 2014: Top 10 of the Festival
First things first: Let’s congratulate the award winners at Hot Docs this year. The winner of Best Canadian Documentary went to Out of Mind, Out of Sight, a look at criminals with mental illness as they try to rehabilitate themselves in an asylum. Best International Documentary went to Waiting for August, a look at a Romanian teenager raising 6 siblings while her mother goes to work in a different city. The Audience Award has gone to The Backward Class. You can see all of the award winners here.
After seeing over 25 documentaries at the festival, I’m both exhausted and disappointed that I couldn’t see more. The most surprising part of the festival was how, for its size, there weren’t a lot of duds. As someone who approaches documentaries with hesitation, largely because of how the format can lead to uninspired filmmaking, I was surprised at how many documentaries found terrific subjects and innovative ways to tell their story. Below are my 10 personal favorites of the festival, along with a bonus pick. Information on distribution/availability is below as well, in case you’d like to find out if/when you can watch these great documentaries.
By far my personal favorite of the new documentaries playing, The Overnighters is a roller coaster ride of a film. What starts out as a simple tale of a pastor trying to help out people in need spins out of control into something far more complex and devastating.
Availability: The film will be out in theaters this fall, presumably to give it an Oscar push. Be on the lookout for our interview with director Jesse Moss this fall.
Watchers of the Sky
Using the life of the man responsible for creating the word “genocide,” Watchers of the Sky is a moving look at people tirelessly fighting for justice, even though it’s unlikely they’ll succeed in their lifetime. Hopeful without being mawkish, wide-ranging without feeling spread thin, Watchers of the Sky is one of the year’s best documentaries.
Availability: In theaters this fall.
The Creator of the Jungle
The story of a true genius and artist, a man who simply wants to play with his toys and be left alone. In this case the man’s toys are an entire forest, and the results are jaw-dropping. A true definition of a festival gem, The Creator of the Jungle is well worth your time if you can see it.
Availability: Currently without distribution. Hopefully a distributor will snatch it up in due time, but if not be on the lookout for it on the festival circuit.
A mother and daughter’s attempt to break a cycle of abuse is simultaneously gut-wrenching and infuriating to watch. It’s the kind of story people need to see, no matter how hard it is to watch.
Availability: No North American distribution, but it will air on German TV next year.
A sort of more artistic take on Frederick Wiseman’s High School, Guidelines is a fascinating snapshot of a high school over one year. Through its striking cinematography, the film shows teenagers trying to find themselves between the freedom of youth outside of class and the strict rules imposed by their superiors in school.
Availability: There might be distribution in Canada through the National Film Board, but US distribution seems unlikely.
Robert Greene’s profile of his neighbor trying to get back into acting expands into something far more fascinating and complicated. Greene’s experimental approach, along with the haunting beauty of his film’s star, makes for a fascinating look into the artifice inherent in documentary filmmaking and our own lives.
Availability: Hopefully a release this year, but details are still unknown. Keep your eyes peeled for our interview with director Robert Greene and star Brandy Burre closer to the film’s release.
Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Documentary pro Joe Berlinger continues to prove why he’s one of the best in his field. Taking one of the most notorious criminals in US history, Berlinger makes a truly compelling argument against the status quo when it comes to Bulger’s sordid past. Fans of true crime stories shouldn’t miss this.
Availability: Expect a theatrical release this summer, and be sure to visit us closer to its release for our interview with director Joe Berlinger.
The Case Against 8
A look at the long, intense battle to declare California’s Proposition 8 as unconstitutional, The Case Against 8 is surprisingly involving despite its well-known outcome. Through its detailed look at the process of building an argument against Prop 8, The Case Against 8 shows how its central issue is more about human rights than politics.
Availability: A limited theatrical release in June, before airing on HBO in the US at the end of the month.
Joy of Man’s Desiring
I’ll admit, the film has slowly gone up in my estimation since seeing it. It’s a mostly wordless, but never boring look at human labour and the way people try to find happiness with dull, repetitive work.
Availability: Unknown at this time. Considering its brief length and 40+ minutes of nothing but operating machinery, don’t expect this to get a big release.
A well-done advocacy doc using two women, one an advocate for protecting abuse victims and the other a survivor of abuse, to highlight the complexities of trying to escape an abusive relationship. Anyone thinking a victim of domestic abuse can just walk away should watch this.
Availability: HBO has it, so expect a release sometime in the near future (fall/winter seems likely). Thankfully since HBO has this it should mean it’ll get plenty of exposure to the public.
Portrait of Jason
I included it as a bonus pick because it’s an older title, but it was overall the best documentary I saw at the festival. Both a fascinating look at one man’s life and a self-aware critique of documentary filmmaking, Portrait of Jason is challenging but essential viewing.
Availability: Milestone Films says they will be releasing the new, restored version of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray this year.