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Top 5 Films from Hot Docs 2014

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Hot Docs just concluded this weekend, and, oh, what a great festival it is! With more than 100 documentaries screening there, it might seem like one could get lost and miss the good ones. But I found myself seeing one great film after another. Some were planned, and others I stumbled upon. Keep in mind that I saw 17 films while at the festival, and a few more screeners earlier, so my picks are from a fraction of what was shown. This is a list of my five personal favorite documentaries from Hot Docs 2014.

5. In Country

The best thing about this movie — about men in Oregon who become weekend warriors by recreating Vietnam War battles — was practically an afterthought: the juxtaposition of archival and personal footage from Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq with the war game (some of the reenactors are veterans of those wars). It’s in the editing that this film really shines, creating a poignant portrait of boys playing with guns and what happens when men go to war.

4. Rich Hill

There’s plenty of buzz about this documentary about three boys living and struggling in poverty in Missouri. The film makes me a little uncomfortable in its polished, cinematic depiction of its subjects as I just wrote in my previous post but, ultimately, the camera of directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Palermo creates a compassionate gaze. Rich Hill made me feel like I can reach out and touch these boys’ pain, promise and individual humanity.

3. 112 Weddings

Director Doug Block’s latest film has a straight-forward setup: In addition to being a seasoned documentary director, Block is a videographer of weddings. Here, he merges the two worlds by going back to some of the couples years after he documented their weddings for them. But they would only be willing to do that if they were living happily ever after, right? No! The cringe-worthy moments are many in this fascinating, important film that peels back the ravages of age, parenthood and marriage. It ain’t a pretty picture.

2. Harmontown

112 Weddings might be a more worthy and vital film than this one, but, the really funny documentary is far and few between, so it gets my number 2 slot. This film is about comedy writer Dan Harmon, best known as the creator of the TV show “Community,” but also for being a self-destructive, heat-seeking missile who’s been fired from his own show and had a nasty tiff with Chevy Chase. I’d never seen his work, but I was very glad to spend 101 minutes with him, as this documentary follows his uproarious and often heartfelt road show. It’s a celebration of nerd fandom, heavy drinking, and dungeons and dragons, oh my! As much as I enjoyed Harmontown, the film is executive produced by Harmon, so the film is inescapably a tool for professional self-promotional and personal redemption for a guy who appears to have been a total shmuck for many years. Still, I didn’t let that bother me.

1. Virunga

Virunga is the best documentary I’ve seen this year. In fact, it is one of the best I’ve ever seen. For me, it’s the game changer that Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing were.

Because it is as well told, vital, and challenging. And, thanks to its furry subjects, it’s also a joy to watch. The film creeps up on you. It starts out as a depiction of Virunga, a national park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that is the home to some of the last living mountain gorillas. It feels like a nature film about those awesome animals and their protectors. But then it becomes something else, entirely.

When SOCO, a British mining interest, threatens to enter the park, the film becomes a thriller on par with Hollywood feature films such as Constant Gardner, Gorillas in the Mist and, dare I say it, Blood Diamond. Hidden camera footage is shot by a young, idealistic French female journalist, revealing insidious corruption. War threatens, and then consumes, the park as we watch breathlessly.

This is not your everyday documentary. It’s a hybrid, in the style of The Summit and The Imposter (all by Brits, as is Virgunga, who are cornering this particularly stylish aesthetic. Virunga is directed by Orlando von Einsidel, a former snowboarder who runs a London production company and clearly has sophisticated, commercial instincts). This is not a typical film for the doc crowd. It’s a movie for the mainstream. But that very well may be its greatest flaw. The doc audience could be thrown by the slickness of Virunga, and its Hollywood-style storytelling. And can mainstream audiences be drawn to a documentary that doesn’t have a celebrity attached to it that depicts Africa? That’s a tough sell. Who this film does speak to is me. I loved it. I’m a doc lover with a mainstream sensibility. I just hope that the right distributor picks it up and knows how to handle it. I know it’s way too early to say this, but if a movie has ever deserved to win both the best film as well as best documentary categories at the Oscars, then this is it. I hate to be part of the hype, because there’s inevitably going to be a backlash, but I can’t help myself. See this movie.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki