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Hot Docs 2017: Victor’s 5 Must-See Films

If you appreciate all things nerdy, political, and peculiar then Sordid Cinema has some great Hot Docs selections for you.

If you appreciate all things nerdy, political, and peculiar then Sordid Cinema has some great Hot Docs selections for you.

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (Hot Docs) is set to kick off its 24th annual event this Thursday. Taking place in downtown Toronto from April 27 – May 7, Hot Docs 2017 features 230 titles from 58 countries in 13 screening programs — nearly 48% of those entries are from female directors!

Hot Docs 2017 offers documentaries in the following programs:

Special Presentations
Award-winning film, celebrated filmmakers, high-profile subjects, and special screenings.

Canadian Spectrum
A competitive program of compelling Canadian stories and perspectives.

Focus On Maya Gallus
Showcasing the work of Canadian Filmmaker Maya Gallus.

International Spectrum
A curated competition of diverse works from around the world.

World Showcase
A popular global selection of the year’s finest docs.

An interdisciplinary section of the festival celebrating documentary work that lives outside the traditional format.

Made in Japan
A selection of films celebrating Japan’s finest contemporary non-fiction cinema.

A showcase for the arts, creativity, music and pop culture.

A look at the new age of democracy.

Singular Sensations
Stories of risk-takers, rule-breakers, and show-stoppers.

Magnificent Obsessions
Stories of people who follow their bliss and leave their mark.

A program that highlights future cult classics and diverse, creative approaches to filmmaking.

Films that deserve another outing on the big screen, this year featuring female Canadian filmmakers.

Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective Honouring Tony Palmer
A retrospective celebrating the documentary filmmaker’s distinguished career.

Hot Docs massive slate is just too much for any one cinephile to take on so Sordid Cinema is putting together a list of must-see films — and throwing in several honourable mentions. If you appreciate all things nerdy, political, and peculiar then we have some great choices for you.


Long Strange Trip – 2017/USA/240-minutes

Long Strange Trip is a nearly 4-hour deep dive down an LSD inspired psych-rock rabbit-hole. The film charts the rise of legendary rockers, The Grateful Dead, and discusses the band’s formation, break-ups, and everything in between. A must-see for Deadheads as well as fans of dope music.

Whitney: Can I Be Me – 2017/UK/100-minutes

‘Whitney Houston’

Kurt & Courtney director/provocateur Nick Broomfield sets his critical gaze upon the life and tragic death of R&B legend Whitney Houston. Something tells me this doc may be a tad scandalous.

The Force – 2017/USA/93-minutes

‘The Force’

The struggling Oakland Police Department fights to rebuild their tarnished image in the eyes of the citizens they’re sworn to protect. Thanks to the smartphone era, we’ve been inundated with videos of police violating people’s civil rights. Bad cops constantly dominate the TV news cycle and it will be interesting to have a behind-the-scenes look at a police force working to repair their sullied image.

Shadowman – 2017/USA/83-minutes


Twenty years after flaming out, Richard Hambleton, a founder of New York’s street art movement, receives a second chance. Hambleton rolled with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and many consider him a forerunner to Banksy. My Instagram feed is loaded with images of street art, so I’m counting down the minutes until I can finally check out Shadowman.

DocX Series: Fistful of Stars & Unrest VR

‘Fistful of Stars”

Hot Docs’ DocX series offers plenty of surreal experiences for virtual reality enthusiasts. I never pass up opportunities to immerse myself in VR, and Fistful of Stars and Unrest VR both grabbed my attention. Fistful of Stars takes users into outer space for a breathtaking look at the cosmos, and I can’t think of a better way to relax and lose myself in a virtual space. On the other end of the spectrum is Unrest VR, which serves as a lesson in empathy. Unrest VR allows users to experience the world from the perspective of the “chronically ill.” Storytelling is the closest we get to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, and VR may be the ultimate way to share our experiences.


#5 – Libera Nos – 2016/Italy, France/90-minutes

‘Libera Nos’

According to some, claims of satanic possession are increasing around the world. I’m not sure if the Catholic church has a paranormal census bureau, but for the sake of this doc, I’m just going to roll with that claim. Whether or not we believe demonic possession exists (spoilers: it doesn’t), many people around the world still do. Director Federica Di Giacomo’s film uses the belief in possession as a way to explore how ancient religious ideas mesh with modern sensibilities.

#4 – Living the Game – 2016/Japan/88-minutes

‘Living the Game’

Director Takao Gotsu examines the high-stakes world of professional gamers, specifically Street Fighter players. While professional gaming is finally taking off in North America, Japanese Street Fighter players compete for fame and fortune – we’re talking millions of dollars. The film spotlights several of Japan’s top players, and looks at how their personality quirks help or hinder their celebrity gamer status.

In the past decade, gaming experienced an explosion in mainstream popularity. Yet, gaming has never been considered cool, and is rarely thought of as productive. Watching others turn their gaming obsession into fruitful careers always feels like a breath of fresh air. Each time I see a pro gaming squad rack up ridiculous cash prizes, my vindictive lizard-brain sees it as a middle finger salute to everyone who ever told me gaming only leads to brain rot.

#3 – PACmen – 2017/USA, Australia/82-minutes

‘Ben Carson’

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s political doc Weiner was one of Hot Docs 2016’s highlights. The film offered the sort unfettered look at political chaos that we rarely see up close. Weiner somehow captured lightning in a bottle, and I didn’t expect to see another politician broadcast their downfall, especially just one year later. Then I heard there was a political documentary which followed Ben Carson on the campaign trail, and my eyes lit up.

While PACmen covers Carson’s political rise, it’s really about the super PACs supporting him from behind the scenes. After all, who exactly decides to pour millions of dollars into backing a neurosurgeon/presidential hopeful/pyramid grain-silo truther who lacks political experience? Even though PACmen doesn’t provide Weiner-level insight into Carson’s rise and fall, it sheds light on the conservative political forces that drive right-wing discourse.

#2 – Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press – 2017/USA/93-minutes

‘Brian Knappenberger’

Somehow, in the information age, #FakeNews still manages to thrive. As elected officials get away with telling lies with impunity, the role of the free press is vital. Director Brian Knappenberger’s cautionary tale shows us the financial cost of “free speech.” Nobody Speaks chronicles the $140 million Hulk Hogan/Gawker Media courtroom battle royal that body-slammed the media giant into bankruptcy. The film also pulls back and takes a wider look at the existential threats facing modern journalism. This doc sounds both riveting and essential.

#1 – 78/52 –  2017/USA/91-minutes

Hitchcock & Leigh in Psycho

If you’re a leveled-up movie nerd, then 78/52 may be the festival slate’s holy grail. In 78/52, filmmakers, critics, and historians discuss one of the most iconic moments in American Cinema: the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Genre movie icons such as Guillermo del Toro, Danny Elfman, and Jamie Lee Curtis share their expert insights into one of cinema’s ground-breaking moments, and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say. If you have any doubts about watching such a hyper-specific documentary just take one look at 78/52‘s awesome poster art. I’m going to go book my ticket right now.

Hot Docs 2017 runs April 27 – May 7. For movies, showtimes, and ticket purchases go to

Written By

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based pop culture writer and film critic who enjoys covering the city's biggest (and nerdiest) events. Victor has covered TIFF, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada for publications all over the internet. You can find his latest posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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