Hot Docs 2013

10 films getting the biggest advance-buzz at Hot Docs

The 2013 Hot Docs Festival kicks off this week, so it's about that time for Toronto doc-lovers to whittle down those must-see lists and settle on some priorities. With a slate of docs capturing everything from heroic human rights activists to searing family portraits to James Franco's latest stunt, this year's festival is heavy on emotions and peculiarities.

This year, there are a whopping 205 movies to choose from (up from 189 last year), so building a schedule can feel downright Sisyphean - finally find a way to fit in film x, only to create conflicts with films y and z. Part of the anxiety in festival planning is the sense that you're forgetting to see something major, a film that everyone is going to be talking about...except you. This first preview post will help you to identify those buzz titles, films you should think long and hard about before passing on them.


When it comes to hot-button topics in American politics, there may not be a more passionate ongoing debate than that over abortion rights. Having made a splash in Sundance, After Tiller tracks the aftermath of the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a controversial physician lambasted for practicing third-trimester abortions. Post-Tiller, four doctors continue the practice despite the shadow of his murder and constant death threats looming over their careers, driven by their compassion for the desperate women who seek them out. This may be the most provocative film in the festival this year, and is destined to spark passionate debates after its screenings.


Winner of both the US Documentary Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year, there's probably no safer bet for Hot Docs patrons. In the spirit of Lucy Walker's Hot Docs hit Waste Land, this is a film that documents good people doing good things for an underprivileged community in another continent. Here, first-time filmmaker Steve Hoover tracks his friend Rocky's first trip to India and the developing journey of self-discovery while he visited a care centre for women and children living with HIV and AIDS. Heart strings will be tugged on.


A new Alan Zweig film is like Toronto's doc community's version of a new Woody Allen film, only they come less frequently and tend to be even more self-loathing - except for this one. Continuing in the selfless tradition he explored in his last Hot Docs success, A Hard Name, Zweig turns his camera from his own problems onto the inspiring, life-affirming experiences of other. Motivated by a list he came across of the supposed fifteen best reasons to live one's life to the fullest, this film finds a subject to correspond to each point on the list. Again, heart strings, etc.


James Franco and gay porn, together at last. Kind of. For this film, which is more "based on an idea by" than "a film by/starring" Franco, filmmaker Travis Mathews sets out to recreate the 40 censored minutes of gay cruising that were excised from William Friedkin's 1980 flick, Cruising (how the film still managed to make any sense after this I have yet to discover).

What we get in this film, running just over an hour, is actually less 40 solid minutes of good old-fashioned guy-on-guy action, and more a look at sheltered actor Val Lauren (playing the Al Pacino role) having a panic attack while trying to get over the fact that homosexual sex is a thing that exists, with Franco holding his hand guiding him along his journey to enlightenment. But, hey, James Franco and some moments of unsimulated gay sex are in fact present in this film (albeit separately), so it's still about what you'd expect (and for many, a reason to purchase a ticket).


This was initially just going to be a solid, hardly buzzed, recommendation, what with Les Blank's films being some of the most enthralling and sui generis documentaries that exist. But now, sadly, this set of three retrospective programs has gained more attention for a most unfortunate reason. Blank's death at the age of 77 earlier this month couldn't have come at a worse time, in the midst of this well-deserved celebration of his life's work. But then, there will likely be much more attention paid to these selections now - each containing three of his short and medium length films - so at least he'll get closer to the exposure he deserved.


Well, for one, it's the Opening Night film, which no matter what it is will always be much-talked about and difficult to get a ticket to. Yet nothing much else about this doc, at the moment, would seem to indicate buzz-worthiness. Give it a week. We'll have another Hot Docs preview post in a few days on our favourite films in the festival that we've had a chance to take a peek at, which will expound on this, but The Manor is going to be one of the best word-of-mouth successes of the festival this year, without question. It's set in and around Guelph, the title refers to a strip club, and there are some very unlikeable and pathologically unkempt individuals on display. More later on why this all adds up to one of the most emotional films of the year.


I mean, it's a documentary about The National, one of the greatest rock bands in the world, with inside looks at their most recent tour. There's bound to be a ton of live performance footage in here, so along with their reputation as one of the best live gigs, this is sure to be a treat, and should even go far in converting those who are for whatever reason oblivious to their greatness. The band has a new album coming out in less than a month, so their fan base is currently binging on all things The National in preparation for what will almost surely be another acclaimed album.


"As Richard Nixon prepares to take the oath of office, three of his closest associates fire up their cameras," and this is the footage. I probably don't need to say much more than that, really. One of the most fascinating and complex public figures of the twentieth century, Nixon as organized by Penny Lane is a rare, insider look at his life that has been wowing festival audiences with its revelations and intimate insights all year. Now is finally Toronto's turn to see what she's uncovered.


One of the most incendiary human rights struggles of the past year gets the retrospective summary treatment. Whether or not you've been tracking the case closely - in which three members of the Russian performance art punk band were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison after their guerrilla concert in the altar of St. Christ Church in Moscow - this film offers an inside, more human look at the experience that the girls have gone through. Not to mention, any question about how fucked up Russia's justice system is will be laid to rest after you see the scenes of the trial that lead to the sentencing; it borders on horror.


Maybe I live in a bubble where a new, three-hour film by the Ross brothers is an automatic buzz title, but I'm just going to roll with that perhaps delusional interpretation of the world and proclaim this film the most anticipated doc of this year's festival. The Ross' previous two features, 45365 and Tchoupitoulas, were both among the best films of Hot Docs in their respective years, and I therefore have no reason to assume that this epic new, Huck Finn-looking thing (edited into a feature from a popular web series) isn't going to be one of this year's best as well. There's only one screening, so cast aside your plans for the evening of May 1 accordingly.

Lead still from The Manor.

Latest Videos

Latest Videos

Join the conversation Load comments

Latest in Film

New animated Netflix series is packed with scenes of Toronto

That time when Mr. Bean came to the Eaton Centre in Toronto

Someone documented many of the movie scenes you had no idea were shot in Toronto

Canadians can no longer share their Disney+ passwords

Even TV shoots are struggling with Toronto's never-ending construction

Entertainment Tonight Canada announces its end due to challenging ad environment

The best movies at TIFF 2023

TIFF announces awards and People's Choice winner for 2023