Hot Docs is about to get underway, screening tickets will be going fast, so it’s time to share our picks for the best docs we’ve seen so far!
Every Hot Docs regular knows that new must-see films emerge practically every day of the festival, though — spend a bit of time chatting with your fellow linemates or audience members, and you’ll invariably get fresh and enthusiastic recommendations on the regular. So, while these are my faves of the big pile of docs I’ve managed to screen in advance, I’m certain there will be more must-sees to come, and I’ll therefore be posting another “must-see” list around the mid-festival mark. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you’re looking for docs that deliver, I’d start with these six.
Dio: Dreamers Never Die (7/8)
If you had told me a biography of iconic heavy-metal singer Ronnie James Dio would make me cry, I wouldn’t have believed you. And I would have been wrong. As unexpectedly moving as it is wildly informative — I had no idea Dio is the person who invented the ubiquitous “devil horns” hand gesture as a successor to Ozzy Osbourne’s infamous “peace” signal! — this comprehensive look at the titular rocker’s life and career has everything you want in a biographical doc: tons of archival footage, photos, recordings and interviews; insights from other legends of the genre (from Sebastian Back and Lita Ford to Rob Halford, Tony Iommi and even actor Jack Black); glimpses into the lower-key offstage experiences of an onstage dynamo; and plenty of heart. Directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton trace the one-time pharmacy student’s rise to fame, from his days as a teen-idol crooner in the 1960s to fronting Black Sabbath in the ‘80s and eventually forming his own legendary band. The result is an intimate portrait of a thoughtful, super-smart showman, whose powerful voice and hugely elaborate stage shows were just the tip of the talent iceberg.
Girl Gang (7/8)
At one point in director Susanne Regina Meures’ quietly powerful examination of internet fame and the unrelenting pursuit of validation, Andy and Sani, the parents and managers of teenaged TikTok influencer Leonie, bristle at criticism over how they’re perceived. I had to wonder what their reaction was to this film, which doesn’t exactly paint them (or their daughter) in a super-flattering light. Shot over four years, the doc trains its lens on Leonie, a young German online superstar with legions of devoted followers and countless brand-endorsement deals… but few friends IRL and seemingly no interests outside of her smartphone. Constantly scrambling to create content and juggle myriad requests, Leonie seems deeply unhappy, and Meures juxtaposes the reality of Leonie’s lucrative but demanding life with the struggles of Melanie, one of Leonie’s fervent teen followers. Bookended with fairy-tale narration and featuring a perfectly eerie choral-music score, the doc provides an intimate and unflinching look at the perils and pitfalls of the influencer business, especially for young women, where the line between what you post and who you are can become disappointingly, and sometimes alarmingly, blurry.
The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks (7/8)
Back in the early 1990s, I went to a KitH taping at their Mutual St. studios. Sat in the bleachers. Somewhere, I still have the little white KitH button that audience members received. As a Torontonian and longtime fan, the Kids — Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson — will always hold a special place in my heart, so it’s not a big surprise that I loved this encyclopedic retrospective from director Reg Harkema. Featuring behind-the-scenes home videos, archival interviews, and clips of some of the series’ most beloved sketches and characters, the film explores the hows and whys of the troupe’s journey from the Rivoli stage to cable-TV cult status and their upcoming 2022 reboot. All five Kids reunite to reflect on their time together, both the great stuff (staying authentic!) and the not-so-great stuff (the fifth-season tension and rift with Foley, which eventually led to their professional breakup). Funny, nostalgic, poignant and oh-so-satisfying, Comedy Punks is required viewing for anyone who’s ever crushed a head, known a Dave, or sought the opinion of 30 Helens.
An homage to relics of a bygone era, director Stacey Tenenbaum’s meditative, gorgeously shot film explores how people around the world are finding new and inventive ways to repurpose, upcycle and/preserve old machinery, equipment and scrap metal. With composer Ramachandra Borcar’s melancholy, mournful score setting the perfect tone, Tenenbaum introduces audiences to an array of fascinating characters — from a South Dakota sculptor to a UK phone-booth restorer — doing their part to preserve pieces of history. A celebration of the past as much as it is a commentary on the disposable economy of the present, Scrap is an effective and engaging eco-doc that successfully embraces the “show don’t tell” approach to its message. And, I gotta say, never have rust and decay looked more beautiful.
The Smell of Money (7/8)
Hey! How’d you like to have a big multinational food company spray aerosolized raw sewage onto your home, into your windows, and all over you and everything you own every single day for years on end? That’s the simultaneously shocking and (sadly) not-surprising practice at the core of director Shawn Bannon’s searing indictment of Smithfield Foods. The film tracks a number of North Carolinians as they repeatedly seek justice from Smithfield in the courtroom, protection from intimidation, and reform across the Big Pork industry while enduring decades of health problems, contamination and, of course, the unrelenting, revolting stench. It’s a Sisyphean task – despite numerous news articles and reports (including a 2003 60 Minutes exposé) revealing the human and environmental impact, and the ongoing efforts of environmental groups (including the Waterkeeper Alliance and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network) sounding the alarm, victims like fearless-firecracker Elsie Herring continue to suffer. Bold, informative and infuriating, the doc not only exposes Smithfield’s damaging operations model, but the more widespread problem of “environmental racism,” where the health and well-being of low-income communities take a backseat to profits, convenience and the corporate bottom-line.
Who We Will Have Been (7/8)
Not every great film at Hot Docs has to feature a Big Star or tackle a Big Issue. Sometimes, a little film, presumably made for little to no money, can have a powerful impact. For me, that was the case with this deeply personal doc about love, loss and managing grief. While both Erec Brehmer and Angelina Zeidler are credited as co-directors, the documentary chronicles what happens when one suddenly loses the other — namely, how Erec reassembles the shattered pieces of his life after “Angi” is killed in a car accident at 29. Using photos, videos, notes and phone messages from the couple’s time together, Brehmer recounts the entirety of their relationship, from their very first meeting via Tinder to the very last photo taken of them together, just hours before the fateful crash. As important, Brehmer also documents the physical and psychological challenges of his recovery from the accident. The process unfolds as something of a dissection of their time together, filled with as many warm recollections as nagging questions, and results in a first-person record of mourning and moving on that’s emotional, insightful and, ultimately, hopeful.