a Healthy Disdain

Best of Hot Docs 2011

Best of Hot Docs 2011

Often overshadowed by its flashier, fiction-friendly cousin, Hot Docs remains something of a hidden gem for Toronto cinemagoers, despite its stature as North America’s largest documentary film festival. Certainly, though, whatever it lacks in TIFF’s style and star power, it more than compensates with the terrific substance of its programming. Altogether, I saw 18 of the 200-plus films on offer, and was very seldom disappointed. Indeed, the following films – my top 5 of the festival – will rival anything else released this year. Hats off to Hot Docs 2011 for some truly inspired selections.

5. PROJECT NIM (UK-USA, James Marsh)

The story of a mercurial primate captured in the misguided service of human curiosity, Project Nim is King Kong writ small. Ostensibly, with respect to Nim, that curiosity was scientific – a test of the timeless nature vs. nurture question, and whether a chimpanzee raised in human surroundings could be taught to communicate, via sign language, in the same fashion as a human child.

In practice, while Nim, marvelously, did develop a significant vocabulary, it was often his caregivers who surrendered to their latent animal instincts, regularly and outrageously departing from standards of scientific propriety. Meanwhile, as Nim rapidly matures from plaything to powerful and threatening, we see him betrayed, abused, and abandoned.

Throughout, director James Marsh (of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire) relates Nim’s plight with consummate skill, slickly combining archival footage with subtle reenactments and outstanding production values. Alternately magical and moving, Project Nim is, in both form a content, a remarkable demonstration of our communicative capacities, as well as a potent reminder of the extent to which we remain rooted in our basest urges.

4. BOY CHEERLEADERS (UK, James Newton)

In light of my other selections, Boy Cheerleaders represents a much-needed boost to the adorability quotient of this best-of-fest list. Accounting even for Being Elmo, there cannot have been a more endearingly uproarious film at Hot Docs 2011. Originally produced for the BBC, Director James Newton presents the wonderfully improbable story of the DAZL Diamonds, the only all-boys team to compete in the UK’s National Cheerleading Championships.

Whereas, today, it would be relatively unremarkable for nine lovable scamps from south Leeds to have joined a street dance crew, in this case, “cheerleading” means cheerleading, pink pom-poms and all. Typifying that distinction is the group’s sensationally camp head coach, the ice-blonde Ian. Despite sounding something like a Yorkshire Richard Simmons, he commands total respect, and is a firm-but-fair father figure.

As many of the boys are from single-parent homes, the competition also serves as a surprisingly poignant source of mother-son solidarity, even for all its gender-bending pageantry. Hilarious and terrifically touching, its inclusion was a no-brainer, both on this list, as well as on my Mother’s Day itinerary.

3. HOW TO DIE IN OREGON (USA, Peter D. Richardson)

A film of extraordinary compassion, sensitivity, and candor, the highest tribute I can pay How to Die in Oregon is that I sincerely wish it had been screened for the Supreme Court of Canada prior their narrow, 5-4 decision against Sue Rodriguez, who petitioned to de-criminalize assisted suicide in 1993.

Of course, the verdict may have remained unchanged, but it is genuinely difficult to conceive that the majority justices would not have been moved, variously, by the poise, courage, and grace of the film’s subjects, as captured with astonishing intimacy by sophomore documentarian Peter D. Richardson. His protagonists are several of the 500-plus terminally ill Oregonians who have gratefully availed themselves of the state’s Death with Dignity Act, as well as an advocate of a similar law recently enacted in Washington.

His fullest portrait is of the amazing Cody Curtis, a radiant 54-year-old wife and mother of two, suffering, from inoperable cancer. To say that the film is heart wrenching is a considerable understatement, but it is also truly gratifying to witness, first-hand, the autonomy, peace of mind, and contentment for which Oregon’s law allows.

2. HELL AND BACK AGAIN (USA, Danfung Dennis)

While I would never deny that the Oscar-nominated Restrepo is an important, and extraordinarily courageous piece of filmmaking (a fact underscored by Tim Hetherington’s recent untimely passing), its unrelenting assault of frontline footage ultimately left me more inured than immersed. Initially, I was wary that Hell and Back Again – another high profile, first-person foray into the Afghan war – would yield a similar result.

Instead, I found it quietly devastating. To be sure, that’s not to be taken as saying the film is lacking in sound or fury. Indeed, photojournalist-director Danfung Dennis conveys the chaos of his embedded deployment with an intense, graphic, and high-definition immediacy.

His true masterstroke, however, is in artfully interweaving his stunning battlefield images with glimpses of the physical and psychological battle waged by Sergeant Nathan Harris, a recovering soldier who, upon returning to the U.S., is abruptly confounded by the mundanity of civilian life. Notable, too, for foregrounding the plight of bewildered Afghanis caught in a literal and ideological crossfire, Hell and Back Again hits hard, and from all sides.

1. THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED (USA, Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion)

If this were merely a list of the best titles at Hot Docs 2011, The Redemption of General Butt Naked would obviously occupy positions 1 through 5. Instead, veteran filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion will have to content themselves with top spot alone.

Though broadening the parameters does introduce some competition, Butt Naked comfortably remains the best film I saw at this year’s festival. In fairness, considerable credit is owed to the film’s subject, General Butt Naked himself. Now known as Joshua Milton Blahyi, he is everything a documentarian could hope for: forthcoming, charismatic, and, formerly, a murderous warlord, responsible for countless atrocities. (Under oath, Blahyi himself cites a figure of 20,000.) During Liberia’s unfathomably anarchic civil war (1989-1996), Blahyi led the Butt Naked Brigade, a militia of cannibalistic child soldiers who fought with the voodoo-inspired belief that nudity and invincibility were one and the same.

More improbable than even that description, however, is his newfound career as an evangelical preacher, and his apparent determination to seek out his surviving victims in order to atone for his sins. Wisely, Strauss and Anastasion let the magnetic Blahyi do almost all the talking. At times his contrition appears genuine, but, at others, you sense he’s willfully exploiting an evident national need to forgive and move forward. Expertly crafted and comprehensively fascinating, the film is every bit as indelible as its title.

(This content originally published via Next Projection, May 12, 2011)



Although I didn’t find time for any mid-festival updates, now that I’m done doin’ TIFF I’ve had a chance to articulate some semi-intelligent thoughts on my faves of the fest.

I’m Still Here, the big buzz Joaquin Phoenix “documentary” had been in the running, but Casey Affleck’s recent revelations have dampened my enthusiasm considerably.  To put it briefly:  In contrast to the public pratfalls of Borat or Bruno, much of I’m Still Here features Phoenix in private, interacting with people who we now know were in on the joke.  In hindsight, Phoenix’s spiral into delusion and debauchery is admittedly very credible, but absent a compelling narrative, watching people react to someone they know is pretending simply isn’t very affecting.

With that note out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.  My legitimate favourites of TIFF 2010 were:

5. THE GAME OF DEATH (France, Christophe Nick, Thomas Bornot)

Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience study is perhaps the most famous psychology experiment of all time.  A professor at Yale, Milgram sought to determine the psychological underpinnings of the obedience demonstrated by Nazi collaborators during the Second World War.  His findings demonstrated that ordinary individuals will generally obey the instructions of an authority figure, even where their actions might result in the injury or death of an innocent human being.

French documentary The Game of Death transposes Milgram’s experimental design onto the framework of a reality TV show, with gravely disturbing results.  In the updated scenario, at the behest of a television hostess and before a live studio audience, fully 80% of participants demonstrate a willingness to endanger an innocent life.  Most distressing, through a series of post-experiment interviews, the film illustrates that the individuals involved are otherwise normal, compassionate people.

It’s difficult to label a film “important” without sounding pompous, but the Game of Death is a film to which that label certainly applies.  It’s a grimly fascinating spectacle of genuinely universal relevance, given that it deals with a facet of human socialization that is both deeply ingrained and deceptively powerful.  Just as Milgram’s findings should be general knowledge, this is a film that everybody should see.

4. THE TRIP (UK, Michael Winterbottom)

Despite being one of the most talented comic actors of his generation, mainstream popularity continues to elude Steve Coogan, particularly outside the UK.  It’s difficult to imagine that his muted stardom isn’t a source of frustration for Coogan himself, but in The Trip, he demonstrates an admirable willingness to poke fun at his limited celebrity, with hilarious results.  Director Michael Winterbottom re-teams Coogan with friend and fellow comedian Rob Brydon for what GQ UK has aptly dubbed “a very British bromance”.

Adopting fictionalized personas similar to their roles in Winterbottom’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), The Trip sees the pair embark on a week-long tour of England’s gloriously picturesque Lake District, ostensibly to review several gourmet restaurants for a London newspaper.  If the premise sounds less than enthralling, rest assured, the end result is a masterclass of wit and improvisation from a duo that share an unrivalled comedic chemistry.

Perhaps the only caveat is that the film benefits enormously from familiarity with Coogan’s earlier work – his legendary BBC series I’m Alan Partridge above all.  It’s against the larger context of Coogan’s underappreciated output that The Trip’s biting self-mockery truly shines.

3. BLACK SWAN (USA, Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a TIFF sensation in 2008, and duly went on to become one of that year’s most acclaimed films.  When it was announced that this year’s festival would host the North-American premiere of his follow-up, Black Swan instantly became the prize ticket of TIFF 2010.  Thankfully, Aronofsky’s latest largely delivers.

Mickey Rourke’s transcendent turn is a tough act to follow, but Natalie Portman copes wonderfully – even if the same cannot be said for her character, Nina.  A dancer with a prestigious New York ballet company, Nina’s perfectionism mutates into pathological obsession as she strives to embody a strenuous dual role.   Barbara Hershey emerges as the standout supporting performer, playing Nina’s aggressively overbearing mother, while Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis are superbly cast as the company’s manipulative director, and Nina’s seductive rival, respectively.

Evoking the paranoia of early Polanski, and elements of body horror as pioneered by Cronenberg, Aronofsky demonstrates an impressive stylistic versatility.  Despite adhering to some well-worn genre tropes, the juxtaposition of those tropes against ballet’s high artistry sees the film achieve a darkly operatic splendour.  While it lacks The Wrestler’s haunting resonance, Black Swan is an excellent, memorably enthralling thriller, and another notable success for Aronofsky and Portman, in particular.


2. BIUTIFUL (Spain/Mexico, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Biutiful, the latest film from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), is a quintessential festival offering.  Variously described, after its debut at Cannes, as “purposefully doleful”, “unrelentingly grim”, and “pervasively bleak”, it’s the sort of film readily summed up by Nas’ famous refrain:  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  For Uxbal (the astonishing Javier Bardem), a petty hustler with two young children, a bipolar ex-wife, and terminal cancer, things are essentially that simple.

There’s no denying that Biutiful is a sombre, and indeed harrowing affair, but to those who view film as more than mere escapist entertainment, it is also easy to recommend.  While Uxbal’s personal travails are compelling, and even deeply moving – the performance landed Bardem the Cannes Best Actor Prize – Iñárritu avoids exploiting the character’s imminent demise as a source of cheap sentimentality.  Rather, from the perspective of the audience, Uxbal’s illness actually lends the character an aura of invulnerability.  Because his death is certain, we grow more attuned to the fates of those that he will leave behind.  In Uxbal’s case, that includes not only his family, but also a cross-section of Barcelona’s migrant underclass.

The manner in which Biutiful surveys the exploitation of the disenfranchised recalls Haneke’s Code Unknown, and elevates the film beyond personal melodrama, to a work of trenchant social insight.  Amid the glitz and glamour of red carpet premiers, it’s perhaps easy to dismiss as a downer, but in such a setting it’s also surely a meaningful counterpoint.


1. OUR DAY WILL COME (France, Romain Gavras)

Introduced by programmer Collin Geddes as “one of the ‘what the fuck?’ films of the festival”, Our Day Will Come seems an unlikely candidate to top many best-of-fest lists.  Indeed, some will simply interpret the debut feature from Romain Gavras – of M.I.A.’s infamous, banned-from-YouTube, “Born Free” – as a derisive “fuck you”.  It’s an understandable take-away, given the director’s stated aim, “confusion”, and the nihilistic misadventures depicted on screen. Clearly, however, it’s not an interpretation I share.

Though it lacks the video’s genocidal overtones, Our Day Will Come echoes “Born Free” in employing redheads as an allegorical representation of marginalization and other-ness.   Olivier Barthélémy plays Remy, an implosively awkward adolescent, whose red hair becomes a source of twisted kinship with Patrick (Vincent Cassell), a bitterly disaffected therapist.  Cassell’s performance – my favorite of the festival – imbues Patrick with a listless, cynical, and manipulative charm.  Initially, Patrick’s overtures of mentorship are a source of selfish amusement, but when the long-repressed Remy blossoms dementedly, he proves impossible to control.  Fixated on the delusion that the pair will find acceptance in Ireland, an apparent ginger wonderland, Remy drags Patrick on an increasingly anarchic, oddly beautiful, crusade toward France’s northern coast.

There are significant elements of Our Day Will Come that defy ready explication, but the film crackles throughout with an undercurrent of iconoclastic intelligence.  Where “Born Free” was an overtly political gut-punch, Gavras here deliberately declines to provide a tidy message.  Despite its bracing depictions of violence, the film clearly strives to be thought-provoking, as opposed to merely provocational.  Whether or not you agree that Gavras succeeds in this endeavour, there can be no doubt that he has the makings of a genuine cinematic force.



Talk about inauspicious beginings!  Not only is this post nearly four months behind the times, it is also entirely repurposed from Facebook.  That said, I had to start somewhere, and it’s not like you paid for it.   Blah, blah, blah, here are my favorite films of 2009:

5. GOMORRAH (Italy, Mattaeo Garrone)

Cleverly dubbed “City of Godfather” by filmjunk.com, Mattaeo Garrone’s crime epic does for the slums of Naples what Fernando Meirelles’ City of God did for the flavelas of Rio. Namely, it paints a powerful, uncompromising and glamourless portrait of a region pervaded by organized crime. So uncompromising, in fact, that the author of the non-fiction book on which it’s based has been subject to death threats from several Neapolitan clans.

Known collectively as the Camorra, these clans are among the oldest in Italy, and have established a shockingly comprehensive network of criminal enterprise. Gomorrah documents these ventures across five intercut but independent narratives, demonstrating the alarming breadth of the Camorra’s virulent influence. From the obvious (drug trafficking, gun running) to the outlandish (toxic waste disposal, haute couture manufacturing), Garrone illustrates that wherever there’s a dirty Euro to be made, the Camorra are making it.

All the while, Garrone’s deromantacized approach underscores the plight of the innocent victims of the Camorra machine. His focus is on the footsoldiers of warring factions, and the civilians caught in the crossfire. Gomorrah, in this sense, turns the traditional mob movie upside down. Its overt references to Scarface are not an homage, but suggest the folly of a cinematic culture habituated to making heroes out of drug lords and Dons.

Thanks to some superb acting (and non-acting), and its vivid vérité authenticity, Gomorrah is a gripping, richly absorbing spectacle. It is decisively elevated, however, by its sobering rebuttal of some of the medium’s most iconic tropes.


4. 35 SHOTS OF RUM (France, Claire Denis)

Apart from being a superlative work of understated beauty, 35 Shots of Rum merits inclusion in my top five partly for the fact that it constituted my belated introduction to Claire Denis.

Though a recent personal discovery, Denis is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary directors, and two of her films achieved the rare distinction of featuring in the TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Best of the Decade‘ series. (2005’s L’Intrus, and her 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail.) She has a particular gift for intuitive filmmaking – almost as though her work is intended to be sensed or felt, rather than deliberately perceived. This is certainly true of 35 Shots, which is typical, magical Denis.

Described by noted critic Scott Tobias as an “intimate, accutely emotional portrait”, the film centres on Lionel (Denis stalwart Alex Descas), a middle-aged widower, who shares a flat with his doting twentysomething daughter, Joséphine (newcomer Mati Diop). Their lives have entered a delicate and potentially painful period of transition: Jo is all grown up, and, despite their enormous mutual devotion, Lionel recognizes that her moment of independence is near at hand. Denis’ dialogue is characteristically spare, but the phenomenal performances of Descas and Diop suggest a filial bond as tender and as genuine as any depicted on screen.

Part homage to Yosujiro Ozu’s father-daughter classic Late Spring, and partly inspired by the relationship between Denis’ mother and maternal grandfather, 35 Shots is evidently a deeply personal film. Even so, it remains highly accessible, and is a great entry point to Denis’ canon. A simple, sensual, bittersweet marvel, 35 Shots sees Denis develop a rich universality from the most minimal of components. It’s an achievement that serves as exquisite evidence as to why she’s so hugely revered.


3. THE WHITE RIBBON (Germany, Michael Haneke)

Another of the true contemporary greats, Michael Haneke, like Denis, has enjoyed an outstanding decade. With Code Unknown (2000), La Pianiste (2001), Caché (2005), and Funny Games (2007), he secured a reputation as one of cinema’s most intelligent, skillful, and provocative filmmmakers.

With The White Ribbon, he saw off the aughts in consummate style, bringing his full talent to bear and winning the Cannes Palme d’Or in the process. Every bit as cerebral and unnerving as his previous efforts, the film is also his most visually arresting, thanks to its breathtaking monochrome cinematography and lavish period production values.

That period is the eve of World War I, and the setting is Eichwald, a small village in the German countryside, strictly Protestant, and strictly patriarchal. Beneath its pious and pastoral veneer, a spate of mysterious, malicious violence disquiets the townsfolk and audience alike. Haneke’s mastery of ambiguity only heightens this sense of unease: much of the depravity occurs off-screen, and there are no neat and tidy answers as to the culprits or their motives. And yet, The White Ribbon positively brims with revelations, not only about its immediate setting, but, allegorically, about Germany as a whole, and the generation that would grow to embrace history’s most virulent ideology.

As a discourse on the origins of fascism, Haneke’s assertions may invite debate. As a feat of cinematic artistry, however, The White Ribbon is beyond reproach. It is meticulously directed, gloriously acted, and hauntingly beautiful. It may not end, Basterds-style, with one character glibly carving a swastika into another’s forehead, but it is almost certainly Haneke’s masterpiece.


2. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Israel, Ari Folman)

An instant personal favorite, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is a gorgeously surreal, animated, autobiographical, quasi-documentary. As that description suggests, it is a cinematic vision that genuinely defies comparison. As inventive as it is profound, it is a work wholly unlike any other.

Israel’s 1982 clash with Lebanon serves as the narrative impetus for what is a scathingly anti-war war story. Specifically, the film recounts the director’s experiences, age 19, as a member of the invading Israeli Defense Forces. Through a series of interviews with his army cohorts, intercut with vibrant, hallucinatory recreations, it depicts Folman’s attempts to recall his hazy, long-suppressed links to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila.

Visually reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Waltz With Bashir gives the impression of a warzone graphic novel come to life. The animated aesthetic is enormously evocative, and achieves unique success in conveying the obvious, but often unspoken absurdity of warfare. Yet, thanks to the intricate, lifelike quality of the illustrations, it remains every bit as compelling as a traditional, live-action account. Folman’s directorial masterstroke, however, is the juxtaposition of a live-action, archival segment that gives the film’s conclusion a resounding, devastating resonance. (That the film persists so vividly in the memory also owes a great deal to composer Max Richter. His terrific score merits special mention.)

Truly powerful in its own right, Waltz With Bashir‘s pacifist sentiments are rendered still more poignant in light of the renewed tensions between Israel and Lebanon in 2008-09, and, indeed, in light of ongoing conflicts throughout the Middle East. Rarely, if ever, have I experienced such an abundant union of style and substance.


1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (USA, Quentin Tarantino)

Having championed Gomorrah for its stark depiction of violence, and The White Ribbon for its cautionary tale of cruelty and retribution, it may seem peculiar to reserve special praise for a gore-spattered revenge epic. And that’s to say nothing of the apparent tension between Waltz with Bashir‘s endeavour to deglamorize war, and the manner in which Quentin Tarantino embraces similar subject matter with operatic grandeur.

“What gives?”, you might well ask.

The answer, I’d venture, has something to do with why Inglourious Basterds was a considerable disappointment to many: It actually isn’t, as had been billed, an über-violent, Brad Pitt-driven, Nazi killin’ romp. Nor was it intended to be blindly consumed as such. Those features are elements of its equation, to be sure, but above all else, Inglourious Basterds is a rapturous love letter to cinema, penned by an unmistakable auteur. Here, however, the numerous cinematic homages aren’t superfluous in-jokes, but are, rather, key building blocks of a fairytale honouring cinema’s limitless redemptive potential.

On the whole, Basterds may not boast the peerless casual rewatchability of Pulp Fiction, but it is Tarantino’s most audacious, and, in several respects, his most accomplished work to date. By turns deeply tragic, absurdly comic, and a great deal in between, it is easily his richest, most tonally dexterous screenplay. In particular, the film’s first and fourth chapters are consummate triumphs, protracted scenes of almost pure dialogue that – far from seeming self-indulgent – are expertly crafted, and achieve Hitchcockian levels of suspense. His characterisation, meanwhile, is typically iconic, but is also, in several cases, surprisingly nuanced. And then there’s the small matter of chief antagonist Hans Landa, who is quite simply, and without exaggeration, one of the greatest creations in the history of cinema.

Shockingly, Tarantino originally considered Leonardo DiCaprio for the role. Thankfully, he came to his senses and cast Cristoph Waltz, who, in addition to his Oscar, won the Cannes acting prize, a BAFTA, a SAG award, and a Golden Globe. He is, to put it crudely, f***ing amazing, and every bit the performer Landa deserved. Unquestionably, Waltz steals the show, but the rest of the ensemble do admirably to keep pace. Mélanie Laurent, Dianne Kruger, Daniel Brühl and Michael Fassbender are all excellent, while even Brat Pitt’s cartoonish Aldo Raine works within Basterds unique context.

That context is Tarantino’s movie-mad parallel universe, where, quite literally, film itself has the capacity to destroy the Third Reich. That notion is Basterds‘ central metaphor, and it is little wonder that Tarantino suggests that the magnificent saga he has built around that metaphor is his career’s crowning achievement. In fairness, the position of any work in its filmmaker’s canon is something best judged with the benefit of hindsight. In the meantime, therefore, I’m content simply to declare Inglourious Basterds my favorite film of 2009.


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