Despite still being in the thick of the Tribeca Film Festival, it’s time to look northward to Hot Docs, the biggest documentary film festival in North America, which takes place in Toronto, and begins Thursday, April 25. I mean, this festival is big: they’ve got 160 directors coming and 205 films being shown.

They also have an industry conference with a bunch of panels, including one that I’ll be on about documentary criticism. Documentary Channel’s Christopher Campbell, filmmaker Robert Greene, and DOC NYC’s Basil Tsiokos and I will be breaking down whether docs should be reviewed on a curve because they mean well, and whether or not there’s a responsibility to shape “doc literacy.” I’m hoping that there will be blood. I’m not sure who’s, but there’s plenty to sink our teeth into here.

So if you are going to be attending, please come to that, on Tuesday, April 30th, at 1:30.

But more so, what should you see?

Luckily, the Hot Docs organizers divide the films into programs which provide us with direction: there’s Special Presentations, World Showcase, Rule Breakers and Innovators, among others. Better still, there is the assist provided by the Hot Docs website, which has a “browse by subject” menu, showing it knows doc audiences do just that, so that you can find what interests you, whether it’s poverty, performance, love & relationships, death & mortality, and so on.

Here’s what I can tell you to see, and why, in two minutes or less: Unclaimed, about what appears to be a once-missing POW will blow your mind — it’s even better than Imposter because it’s actually about something; artist profile, Cutie and the Boxer, is this year’s must-see festival darling; F— For Forest will make your jaw drop over pornographers who want to save the rain forest through fornication; Kill Team and Blackfish will enrage you, over the war in Afghanistan and the treatment of orcas, respectively; I Am Breathing will bring tears and respect for a man dying with dignity; Big Men is as much a well-crafted political exposé of oil interests in Africa as it is a meditation on (in)humanity; Anyone interested in how the 24-7 news cycle coverage we saw in Boston got started, should check out Let The Fire Burn, about the 1980s fiasco between Philadelphia police and radical members of Move; The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is beautifully and disturbingly raw and revealing in its simple questioning of the citizens of the country of Georgia; Maidentrip is a boat ride around the world and a bildungsroman of a young girl, which gives you two good reasons to see it; and I’ve written that These Birds Walk, about an orphanage in Pakistan, recalls Truffaut’s 400 Blows, and I meant it — the cinema vérité of the film is deep poetry in its depiction of street urchins.

If I saw all these films at one festival, I think it would blow my mind. But here they are, all at Hot Docs. I envy the people who’ll be discovering these docs for the first time in the next two weeks, but I’m not complaining; I’ve got it pretty good as I enter the unknown. Here’s what I’m putting at the top of my list of must-see films.

The Great North Korean Picture Show: I put this first because it’s first on my list. North Korea is such a confounding, depressing place, and this film approaches the subject through access, somehow, to the state’s film school. I have been interested in how the country’s leaders are obsessed with movies, so I’m curious how this will play out.

12 O’Clock Boys: It’s about tough Baltimore youth in an urban dirt bike gang. I asked someone who’s seen the film what it was like, expecting it to be bad-ass, cool or the like, but he said it was “beautiful.” I’m there.

American Commune: This is the story of a commune created in 1970 in Tennessee. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject, and the directors have MTV backgrounds, which I don’t consider a negative. I’m looking forward to a film with polish.

Blood Brother: This Sundance hit has been on my radar because it’s about one man’s journey into India, doing good for kids who are HIV-positive, but it’s also about his search for self. When a doc can cover an important issue but also tell a narrative I can identify with, I’m interested.

The Human Scale: I like docs about design and this one is about how screwed up our urban landscape is. Give me Koyaanisqati-like images and insight, and I’m yours.

Sick Birds Dies Easy: Four men go to Africa in search of existential answers, as well as a cure to their addictions. The festival calls it a cross between Heart of Darkness and Fear and Loathing, which is all I needed to hear.

Our Nixon: Long-forgotten Super-8 footage of Richard Nixon could be a total bore or a supreme revelation in the right hands. Can first-time filmmaker Penny Lane make archival magic? I’d like to find out.

God Loves Uganda: This look at Uganda, where human rights groups and the evangelical movement battle over homosexuality, is directed by Roger Ross Williams, the guy whose Oscar win for Music by Prudence, was marred by the interruption of his former producer. Hey, I’ve always been tickled by that moment.

Naked Opera: What is this weird movie? A portrait of a critically ill European man who takes decadent trips to see Don Giovanni. Sounds peculiar, but potentially fascinating, if the subject is.

Just the Right Amount of Violence: This one could be a bust. It’s a depiction of families with children who are so troubled that the parents enlist interventionists who bring them to a reform school. There’s vérité and dramatizations which can be a slippery slope, but if done right, could be great.

And special mention goes to two of the most provocatively titled docs of the fest; I Will Be Murdered, about a man who publicly predicts his murder, and Menstrual Man, about an Indian man who wants to do good with sanitary pads for women. I hope to see both.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen