Hot Docs 2014

10 films getting the biggest advance-buzz at Hot Docs

The 2014 Hot Docs Festival line-up was just unveiled last week, and Toronto documentary enthusiasts have doubtless been poring over the packed catalogue and building their schedules ever since. There are 139 feature-length documentaries to choose from this year, so it's about that time to start thinking seriously about some of titles you want to see before they start selling out.

The effort to build your Hot Docs schedule will probably feel Sisyphean at times; you finally found 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, so this list is here to help ensure that doesn't happen for you this year. Without further ado, here is our list of the 10 titles with the biggest buzz going into this year's festival.

Louis Ortiz is a full-time impersonator of the most famous and contentious American citizen since 2008: President Barack Obama. This film offers a portrait of this man, who until being pointed toward this physical similarity by a friend was an unemployed, single father.

This American doc took the Sundance film festival by storm last January - taking home the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary section - and then played to similarly triumphant praise in Missouri's True/False festival a month later. In the spirit of films like 45365 and Only the Young, Rich Hill follows three young residents of Rich Hill, Missouri, population 1,393 as they dream of the modest lives they could live.

This unassuming documentary by Gianfranco Rosi (El Sicario, Room 164), which details some of the quotidian existences to be found along the major motorway circling the entirety of Rome, shocked the film world last September when it took home the Golden Lion - the top prize of the Venice Film Festival, where it competed against films like Under the Skin, The Wind Rises, and Tom at the Farm. The number of individuals who saw that coming: approximately nil.

Winner of the Cinematography Prize in the U.S. Documentary section at Sundace, E-Team (short for 'The Emergencies Team') is like the ultimate human rights activist documentary. The film follows four members of the eponymous do-gooders as they answer to the call of duty, and gains insight into these individuals' motivations and personalities in their downtime.

This one appears to be filling the Fuck for Forest slot at this year's festival, offering a look at political activism at its most NSFW. The doc has already done well in its festival play, winning the Lina Mangiacapre Award at Venice last year, and has continued (a)rousing festival-goers this year at venues such as True/False and South-by-Southwest.

The Opening Night Film is always going to be a popular ticket, no matter what the film is. It's always a bonus, though, when the selection is as enticing and incendiary-looking as this one. Destined to become one of his generation's most important activists, Aaron Swartz fought to stop government sanctioned acts criminalizing online piracy as well other conservative measures clearly designed by antiquated, 20th-century thinking. Upon facing charges that would lead to 35 years in prison, Swartz was found dead, at the age of 26, of an apparent suicide. This film tells his story.

For all of the documentaries getting pumped out every year raising awareness to this, that, and the other humanitarian issues, eccentric personalities, and too-crazy-to-be-true bizarro real incidents, there's a tiny percentage of the medium dedicated to the ethereal and majestic beauty of nature and and cultural mythology. Having received a seismic response at the True/False documentary festival in February, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga would appear to be the cream of this intimate sub-genre's crop this year.

Another extremely popular title from this year's True/False festival, Actress rides the rigid and wholly arbitrary divide between fiction and documentary. Telling the story of The Wire actress Brandy Burre, who gave up acting when she became pregnant, the film stages and recreates certain aspects of Burre's life, past and present, to create an amazing portrait of the social and familial demands facing women at work.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary section at Sundance, Return to Homs follows two friends - one a goalkeeper for the Syrian national soccer team, the other a pacifist and media activist - for over a two-year period. Described as an exhilarating glimpse at the Syrian Uprising, this first-hand account will serve as one of the vital documents of one of the 21st century's great revolutions.

Hailed as the documentary equivalent to The Grapes of Wrath, The Overnighters follows the migration of workers into North Dakota by the oil rush, and the harsh wake-up call awaiting them there. There's a twist in there that'll have everyone talking. I won't spoil it here, of course, but you should be sure to see it for yourself.

Lead still from Bronx Obama

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