Daily | Hot Docs 2014

Hot Docs 2014

This year’s poster

Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in North America, opens tonight in Toronto with Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (I posted a few notes and a good handful of links to reviews when I caught it at SXSW). Nearly 200 films will screen before this year’s edition wraps on May 4.

Both the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star have posted big batches of capsule reviews. You can view the G&M‘s by their ratings and, at the moment, two films have perfect scores. Here’s Robert Everett-Green on Lina Plioplyte’s Advanced Style: “Acting one’s age has never been an issue for the seven stylish women featured in this delightful film. All are favorite subjects of Ari Seth Cohen, the New York street-style photographer.” The other is Shirley Clarke‘s Portrait of Jason (1967; reviews). “Even his tears are mysterious, in this rich and baffling film.”

Also highly ranked is Khalo Matabane’s Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me. Olivia Ward in the Star: “We all know Madiba’s mythical status as father of post-apartheid Africa. But Khalo Matabane takes a sharp, reality-based view of what the revered leader did and didn’t do for a country where freedom is a virtual religion but inequality is still rampant and a generation faces the future with little hope. The bitterness of apartheid lingers, along with questions of whether truth can bring reconciliation without justice under rule of law. A respectful but incisive film that goes beyond moist-eyed nostalgia.”

“Over the last few years,” writes Tom Roston in the New York Times, “a spate of nonfiction filmmakers has been drawn to Ukraine to tell different stories, including [Jessica] Oreck’s visual essay on history, fear and storytelling, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga [reviews], and more straightforward vérité narratives, like Love Me, about mail-order brides; The Theory of Happiness, which investigates a utopian commune; and Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, which follows a feminist activist group. These documentaries, as well as Pipeline and Everyday Rebellion, which at least partly take place in Ukraine, are starting to enter the film festival circuit in a surge that indicates ‘documentary filmmakers are very intuitive,’ said Charlotte Cook, director of programming.”

At Filmmaker, Allan Tong recommends a round of titles, including Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger: “This powerful portrait of a mob boss is also an indictment of the American justice system that allowed James Bulger to terrorize South Boston for decades. Joe Berlinger (renowned for co-directing the Paradise Lost series) is perhaps the best documentarian working at portraying legal cases, and he delivers another brilliant film, exposing corruption in the FBI and the federal justice department.” Reviews from Sundance: Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), John DeFore (Hollywood Reporter), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B), Jason Gorber (Twitch), Steve Greene (Indiewire, A-), Nathan Rabin (Dissolve) and Drew Taylor (Playlist, A).

Update, 4/25: “Over the years, director Doug Block has proven himself to be an astute chronicler of the interpersonal, a filmmaker interested in the emotional impact of human relationships and the distinct difference between their public and private implications,” writes Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema. “112 Weddings revisits ten couples willing to recount the lasting implications of their matrimonial decisions caught on tape.” Block “questions the very notion of love itself, the reasons why people choose to swear allegiance to a single so-called soul mate, and whether the implicit hardships of marriage are worth the emotional and legal investment that coincide with love…. Simple in execution, but unmistakably rich in dialogue of the complexities of married life, Doug Block has lensed a wonderfully playful, startlingly tragic film that will surely move anyone who’s ever been in love and question anyone considering marriage themselves.”

At Indiewire, Paula Bernstein and Peter Knegt write up ten films they’re looking forward to catching.

Updates, 4/26: In The Darkside, Australian director Warwick Thornton “lovingly renders” about a dozen ghost stories “in the tradition of oral history,” writes Kurt Halfyard at Twitch. “Were it not for the recognizable faces of actors such as Bryan Brown or Jack Charles (the latter recently seen in the magnificent Aussie-Noir Mystery Road) one would think that these were indeed just folks captured telling their stories. Hiring actors, meticulously arranging their surroundings and achieving cinema-perfect lighting brings the stringing of stories to a different kind of headspace. Thorton is cinematographer here as well and is no slouch also DP-ing on glossy down under productions Samson and Delilah and The Sapphires.”

Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema: “After a sultry opening monologue from a mystery woman that resonates with a statement that ‘Everything has a price. Not always money’, Denis Côté’s latest erupts in an anxiety inducing symphony of rhythmic industrialization, the pounding and clanging increasing in both proximity and volume as the camera slowly dollies in on a montage of machinery in operation. It is this harsh repetitiveness of mechanization and it’s mixed relationship with the people that engage with it that Joy of Man’s Desiring manages to encapsulate, the human cost of mass consumer factory production.” I posted a few notes when I saw the film at the Berlinale.

Update, 4/29: “Nearly a decade after Julia Kwan’s debut, Eve and the Fire Horse, took home the Special Jury Prize from Sundance, the director has taken to the streets of her hometown’s own Chinatown in Vancouver.” Jordan M. Smith again, here on Everything Will Be: “Patrick McLaughlin’s stunningly composed cinematography complements the bittersweet, yet ultimately melancholic sentiment his director has evoked in their subjects.”

Updates, 4/30: Indiewire‘s Peter Knegt talks with Philip Cox and Hikaru Toda about Love Hotel, “certainly one of the most tantalizing” docs at the festival. “Detailing the experiences of the people that both frequent and work at the Angelo Love Hotel in Osaka, Japan, the film thoughtfully explores an imperative establishment that’s fighting to stay afloat against the Japanese ‘entertainment police.'”

Jordan M. Smith: “Following the success of Constance Marks’s Kevin Clash bio-doc Being Elmo, directors Chad Walker and Dave LaMattina have pieced together a heartfelt tribute to [a] monumental puppeteer with their sophomore documentary feature, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.”

Updates, 5/3: “The filmmakers behind Super Duper Alice Cooper dub their work the first ‘doc opera,’ and it comes pretty close to living up to that hype,” writes Jason Gorber, introducing an interview with the doc’s subject at Twitch.

At the Playlist, Christopher Schobert gives Kitty Green’s “bold, insightful documentary” Ukraine is Not a Brothel a B+.

Jordan M. Smith: “Fed Up aims to be the food industry equivalent to what An Inconvenient Truth was to the environmental movement. This is not a sugar covered wake-up call, but a cold shower of horrifying facts and sound advice, all masterfully interwoven with heart wrenching first person stories from kids suffering the consequences of a life sustaining industry with an insufferably apathetic, monstrously deep-seated corporate greed.”

Updates, 5/5: Audiences voted on their favorites and, at Indiewire, Paula Bernstein has the list of the top twenty.

Meantime, at the Film Experience, Amir reviews “three films about aging Belgian transsexuals [Before the Last Curtain Falls], Argentinian civilians on camera [Living Stars], and Turkish-American political pundits [Mad as Hell].”

Updates, 5/7: “‘There are more people here this year, but less money.'” That’s how one veteran Canadian documentarian summed up the market at Hot Docs,” writes Allan Tong in his report for Filmmaker. “At workshops and cocktail receptions, the chatter was as dark as the skies outside. Broadcasters here and abroad continue to slash their development and production budgets, and that’s forced doc directors to crowdfund on Indiegogo and Kickstarter to make up (part of) the shortfall, while others just leave the business.”

Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema on The Last Season: “Though the name Sara Dosa may be new to some, the fledgling director already has some striking credits to her name, having produced both Jacob Kornbluth’s disheartening Inequality for All and Petra Costa’s heartbreaking Elena. In her own sumptuous docu-debut, the heart-healing propensity of the wilderness is embraced by a pair of men whose disparate lives have been brought together in symbiosis by the solace of mushroom hunting in the thick overgrowth of Chemult, Oregon.”

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