The race always begins at Sundance, but the Toronto International Film Festival documentary lineup will impact the list of Oscar contenders — and this year, without clear frontrunners, TIFF’s influence will be greater than ever.
Every year, Thom Powers leads the TIFF documentary programmers through an enormous number of submissions to cull 22 selections. “It never gets any easier to make those decisions,” said Powers, who also programs influential November festival DOC NYC. “This year we’re going to see a greater range of different documentaries spread across the fall festivals, instead of a cluster of films that moves from festival to festival. More films will get more opportunities at the festivals this fall.”
Here’s a list of 10 must-sees for TIFF 2017 with potential to shake up the awards race.
1. “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!”: Morgan Spurlock’s under-the-radar sequel to his 2005 Oscar nominee focuses on the new craze of fast-food restaurants promoting healthy but bad organic food. This time Spurlock is trying to sell the food, not eat it. “Spurlock opens his own franchise restaurant focusing on chicken sandwiches,” Powers told me in a phone interview. “He learns a lot about the business and so do we. He’s taking a subject about what we eat, including its environmental impact, which comes up in a lot of films, but he has a way of doing it in a funny and populist style that has potential to reach an audience that other documentaries don’t reach.”
Micah Green and John Sloss are selling the acquisition title, with an eye toward 2018 awards contention.
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2. “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond”: Documentarian Chris Smith (“American Movie,” “Collapse”) got his hands on an archive of behind-the-scenes footage taken during the making of Milos Forman’s “Man on the Moon,” showing how Jim Carrey inhabited Andy Kaufman. “He remained deeply in character during the months of making that film,” said Powers. “The footage has never been made public before. Smith also conducted lengthy new interviews with Carrey and others who were witness to that period. He crafted a dual character portrait of Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman.”
WME is selling.
3. “Jane.” Expectations are always high for Brett Morgen to elevate material such as music biodoc “Cobain: Montage of Heck.” This time he gained access to more precious material, “the incredible treasure trove of 16mm footage shot of Jane Goodall in her earliest days researching chimps in Gombe,” said Powers. “We’re used to seeing Goodall as an older woman. In this beautiful footage we see her as a young woman in her 20s.” The score is by Philip Glass.
National Geographic will mount an Oscar campaign.
4. “The China Hustle.” Executive produced by “Taxi to the Dark Side” Oscar-winner Alex Gibney and Frank Marshall (“The Armstrong Lie”) and directed by Jed Rothstein (2011 Oscar-nominated short “Killing in the Name”), this movie investigates a financial disaster much as did “The Inside Job” or Gibney’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” The difference, said Powers, “is they were looking back on a financial disaster we already knew about. In ‘The China Hustle,’ we are looking at a financial ticking time bomb that we may be paying the price for later. The film raises concerns over what happens when there’s a lack of bank and financial regulation.”
UTA is selling.
5. “Ex Libris – The New York Public Library.” Prolific cinéma vérité veteran Frederick Wiseman celebrates this singularly Democratic institution, which will be released by Zipporah Films. “There are few others like it in the U.S.,” said Powers. “Everyone has equal opportunity to walk into the library to make use of it. Wiseman is paying careful attention to New York as an immigrant city just as he did in ‘Jackson Heights.’ It’s Wiseman doing what he does best.”
6. “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami.” British documentarian Sophie Fiennes (“The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”) has been working on this BBC-backed portrait of global pop star Grace Jones for 10 years, revealing her other roles as businesswoman, wife, mother, grandmother, and daughter. TIFF is so high on this biodoc, which digs into Jones’ traumatic Jamaican childhood, that they created a new Documentary Opening Night presentation for it. “Inevitably, there’s a film we want to push forward for opening night,” said Powers. “Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next’ caused a lot of stir on opening night, so we decided we might as well give it some official designation.”
West End Films is selling.
7. “One of Us.” Netflix is releasing this portrait from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Oscar-nominated “Jesus Camp”), who followed three New York Hasidic Jews for several months. “In different ways, they are attempting to break free of their community,” said Powers. “It’s an intimate character study.”
Netflix has already acquired the film, and is planning an awards push.
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8. “The Final Year.” This politically timely non-fiction film comes from Emmy-winner Greg Barker (“Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden”), who had incredible access to President Barack Obama’s key foreign policy makers in the last year of his administration. “Cameras were following Samantha Power at the U.N., Secretary of State John Kerry, speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and a few others,” said Powers,” who were racing against time in the last year of Obama’s administration to lock in his legacy on foreign policy. What a difference a year makes. To watch this film today makes a striking contrast to the foreign policy maneuvers you read about in the newspaper. This could be titled Obama Porn.”
Independent producers Barker, John Battsek, and Julie Goldman are seeking a theatrical buyer.
9. “Love Means Zero.” Not all the non-fiction entries are depressing, as this Showtime documentary joins TIFF’s tennis-movie trifecta that includes opening-night title “Borg/McEnroe” and gala screening “Battle of the Sexes.” With “Love Means Zero,” Jason Kohn finally follows up 2007 Sundance breakout “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” with this feature about controversial and influential tennis coach Nick Bollettierri. “It’s a ride with fascinating stranger-than-fiction characters,” said Powers. “The promise he had is fulfilled with this very accomplished new film.”
Showtime has the rights.
10. “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.” Making her documentary feature debut, theater and film director Sara Driver has been immersed in the New York art scene for decades, along with her partner Jim Jarmusch. Unlike Julian Schnabel’s drama “Basquiat,” Driver’s film “takes a unique perspective,” said Powers, “years before he sold first painting, at a time when he was a virtually homeless artist in downtown New York.”
ICM is selling.