Hot Docs 2021: 11 must-see films according to NOW critics

The annual documentary film fest is streaming across Canada until May 9


The annual documentary film festival Hot Docs goes all-virtual for a second straight year, meaning you can rent most movies on-demand – across Canada – from now until May 9. With more than 200 titles to choose from, Hot Docs 2021 is as sprawling as the traditional in-person event. Fortunately, we’ve seen several docs already – here are our 11 favourites (so far).

Update: We keep discovering more titles and have added the ones we loved.

Acts Of Love

Part of Hot Docs’ Nightvision series, directors Isidore Bethel and Francis Leplay’s film uses casual dating and hookup culture to create a bold, brave meditation on intimacy, honesty and the power dynamics that exist both in interpersonal relationships and between artist and subject. Springing from Bethel’s short film project based on dating app conversations, the movie offers a strange, voyeuristic thrill at a time when dating is considered a no-no. Read Glenn Sumi’s review

All Light, Everywhere

Essayistic Baltimore filmmaker Theo Anthony follows up his breakout feature debut Rat Film with a chronicle of how humans have attempted to use camera technology to overcome bias in how we see things. What’s most surprising is how wedded the historical evolution of the camera has been to automatic weaponry, giving Anthony an entrée into an insider exploration of police body-worn cameras manufactured in the Terminator 2-like offices of a U.S. company that holds 85 per cent of that market. Full of high-tech sci-fi visuals and darkly ironic corporate mythologizing, Anthony makes a compelling case that no matter how much we tweak technological flaws, the social structures that give rise to oppression reliably remain the same.

Come Back Anytime

It wouldn’t be Hot Docs without a top-notch foodie film and this year the must-see in that genre is director John Daschbach’s gentle portrait of chef Masamoto Ueda’s tiny Tokyo ramen bar. Food documentaries now have a predictable polish, but Come Back Anytime is messy and casual, with conversation spilling into the kitchen as Ueda works his magic. And though the food will make you salivate, the movie is more about the community that can spring up around a neighbourhood eatery – a subject that feels extra urgent these days. Read Norman Wilner’s review

Gallant Indies

Philippe Béziat’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about a Paris Opera production Les Indes Galantes, which integrated krump, voguing, flexing, popping dance styles into baroque opera, is both impressive and unexpected. Rather than interviewing artist Clément Cogitore and choreographer Bintou Dembélé about their intentions, Béziat shows us specific sequences that obliquely comment on the opera’s themes of colonialism and otherness. Read Glenn Sumi’s review

In The Same Breath

One Child Nation director Nanfu Wang’s striking film about Wuhan’s coronavirus lockdown solidifies her reputation as one of the most ingenious and resourceful investigative filmmakers working today. Produced remotely with footage from a fleet of on-the-ground cinematographers, Wang circumvents the Chinese government’s propaganda machine to draw disturbing parallels between the pandemic responses in both China and the U.S., laying bare moralizing patriotic rhetoric while unpacking its appeal among the general public in both countries. Read more

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy

Director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’s documentary methodically takes viewers through the work of activists and doctors – including her mother Esther Tailfathers – attempting to affect a paradigm shift in drug treatment on the Kainai First Nation in Alberta. It’s an intimate yet expansive community portrait that illustrates how structural forces in Canadian society off-reserve shape the lives of the people within the community. What emerges is a compelling look at grassroots work that exists in a space between patient resolve and intense urgency. Read more

One Of Ours

Yasmine Mathurin’s stellar debut finds an intimate and sensitive way into a complex and weighty conversation on identity. The film follows Haitian-born Josiah Wilson, who was adopted as a baby into an Indigenous family living in Calgary. Wilson is part of the Heiltsuk First Nation, but his sense of belonging was shattered in 2016 when the organizers behind the All Native Basketball Tournament invoked a blood quantum rule to disqualify the young man from shooting hoops with his peers. The layered, emotional film considers the role experience, connection and affection plays when forming identity, and the role community can play on the path to healing. Read more

The Sparks Brothers

British director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) profiles Sparks, the cult pop duo from America who have put out 25 studio albums over half a century without ever sustaining mainstream success. Superfans Flea, Patton Oswalt and Weird Al Yankovic are among the talking heads in this exhaustive and passionate documentary portrait that is full of infectious enthusiasm for its subjects. Read Norman Wilner’s review

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Based on Michael Davis’s book about the history of the long-running children’s public television show, Street Gang makes a case that educational television that is diverse, inclusive and engaging can be genuinely revolutionary. The film explores the show’s roots in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, and how those values influenced generations of children and parents. Behind-the-scenes footage shot in the early 80s – including interviews with Jim Henson, director Jon Stone and producer Joan Ganz Cooney – is priceless. Read Norman Wilner’s review

Subjects Of Desire

Canadian director Jennifer Holness thoughtfully deconstructs the cultural history of beauty imagery in North America to understand the recent shift that has seen Black aesthetics inform a new “global” standard. Drawing on stereotypes like the mammy, sapphire (or angry Black woman) and Jezebel, the movie connects the dots between state-backed oppression and the power of media imagery to shape perceptions that can have negative real-world implications for Black women. Interviewees including musicians India.Arie and Jully Black, Ryerson prof Cheryl Thompson and – most provocatively – self-proclaimed Black woman Rachel Dolezal offer a range of views and though many of their experiences overlap, Holness leaves plenty of room for grey areas and discussion.

Summer Of Soul (Or… When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Ahimr “Questlove” Thompson’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner finds the perfect equilibrium between stunning concert footage and insightful musical and social analysis. Focusing on the overlooked Harlem Cultural Festival from 1969 (aka the “Black Woodstock”), Summer Of Soul is a pure joy to take in, with thrilling performance after thrilling performance giving The Roots drummer a chance to unpack what a particular artist’s image and musical style reflected about the socio-political climate for Black Americans in the 60s – and vice versa. This footage has been locked away for 50 years so when fans and musicians see it for the first time, the resulting interviews feel as emotionally charged as the source material. Read more

For more movie picks, visit our Hot Docs 2021 reviews directory and for complete film info visit hotdocs.ca.

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