Every year for 13 years, Thom Powers leads his TIFF documentary programmers through an enormous number of submissions (over 1,000 for 2018) to cull their final selection (27, five more than 2017).
This year, more of them are for sale than ever before, including new work from indie auteurs Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, at a time when not many narrative films are luring buyers. “I count at least 13 documentaries for sale represented by significant players,” said Powers, who also programs influential November festival DOC NYC. “Coming off this year’s summer of blockbuster documentaries, a lot of people are coming with their checkbooks.”
While many expect those summer hits “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “RBG,” and “Three Identical Strangers” to land three Oscar nomination slots, there are at least three high-profile Oscar contenders playing TIFF — possibly several more — along with many movies about women, global politics, and advancing technology. Something overtly political could hit a nerve before the midterm elections, or something stunningly visual.
There’s agitator-at-large Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” whose anti-Republican polemics have fared best at the box office; music biopic “Quincy,” which Netflix Documentaries will promote; and National Geographic’s exciting action thriller “Free Solo.” But Powers thinks the right TIFF movie pickup could also become a factor, as Magnolia did two years ago, filing their Oscar paperwork on the last day of the festival for eventual nominee “I am Not Your Negro.”
Here’s a list of 15 must-sees for TIFF 2018, in decreasing order of their potential to shake up this year’s awards race.
1. “Fahrenheit 11/9” (September 21)
Michael Moore opened the TIFF documentary program before, with 2016 world premiere “Where to Invade Next?” His new movie “will be finished when we pry it out of his hands just before the festival,” said Powers. “Michael likes to subvert expectations. There’s something timely about this film coming out two months before the U.S. Congressional elections. But there’s also something timeless about the film; it’s a broader critique of American politics and who holds power in America, which makes it an evergreen.”
Tom Ortenberg, who worked with Moore at Lionsgate on “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko,” and also commandeered the campaign for Oscar-winner “Spotlight” at Open Road, is launching his new company Briarcliff Entertainment (still in pre-launch mode) by partnering with Moore to release “Fahrenheit 11/9.” Open Road alum Liz Biber will run marketing and veteran Steve Bunnell (Weinstein Co., Regal, Cinemark) will handle distribution.
2. “Quincy” (Netflix)
Quincy Jones’ daughter, writer-director-producer-actress Rashida Jones, collaborated with documentarian Alan Hicks, who met Jones during the shoot of his 2014 Oscar-shortlisted Oscar jazz documentary “Keep on Keeping On.” “Rashida brings the insider perspective as a family member,” said Powers. “She does it all in a behind-the-scenes role; Alan is a gifted filmmaker. They were filming over a couple years in the lead-up to the opening of the National Museum African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. where Quincy Jones produced a fantastic concert. He’s reflecting on decades of African-American contribution to music. He’s instrumental in all of the post-war American scene, from Dinah Washington and Michael Jackson to his influence on hip hop.”
3. “Free Solo” (National Geographic)
This buzzy premiere (rumored to be a part of the ultra-secret Telluride lineup) should pop out of the pack, both visually and viscerally. Alex Honnold is the first person to climb El Capitan’s 3000-foot sheer granite rock face without ropes, and brilliant mountaineer and cinematographer Jimmy Chin was there to document it, partnering for the second time with his documentarian wife E. Chai Vaserhelyi for their follow-up to “Meru.”
“This film will have you white-knuckled with sweaty palms for the last half hour,” promises Powers. “If there is a more suspenseful film at TIFF this year I don’t know what it is. These filmmakers are skillful storytellers, and Jimmy Chin is a stunning cinematographer who knows this world.”
4. “Meeting Gorbachev” (A&E/The History Channel)
Werner Herzog and his frequent producer André Singer co-directed this portrait of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev for A&E’s History 100 series. (Submarine is repping the theatrical sale for this presumed Telluride debut.) German filmmaker Herzog has rarely interviewed politicians over his 50-year career, but “in the case of Gorbachev, admires him,” said Powers, “not least of all for his role in the reunification of Germany. What we get is a portrait of a leader who makes such a marked contrast to the leaders we have today. Gorbachev is a man of grace and wisdom and commitment to peace, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with him, to see someone with so agile a mind as Werner Herzog draw him out on a number of subjects.”
5. “The Truth About Killer Robots” (HBO Documentary Films)
Maxim Pozdorovkin (“Our New President,” “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer”) investigates the robots that have killed humans, from a Volkswagen assembly plant and a Tesla self-driving car to the Dallas police, who sent a robot to blow up a terrorist. “This is the beginning point,” said Powers. “He’s also looking at the way robots are job killers around the world, much more than we need to worry about cheap labor and immigrants, we should be paying attention to the number of jobs lost thought different ways of automation.”
6. “Maria By Callas” (October 26, Sony Pictures Classics)
French actor Tom Volf is a bonafide Callas devotee, having published three books about her. “This kind of film only gets made through the single-minded determination of the filmmaker,” said Powers. “He threads anecdotes and an interview with Maria Callas by David Frost throughout the film that was thought to be lost, not in the official archives. But the filmmaker found her butler who videotaped the interview and saved a copy, which is how it reaches us today.”
7. “The Elephant Queen” (Mister Smith Entertainment/Endeavor Content)
Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble’s nature documentary is a “widely accessible film for a wide range of audiences,” said Powers, “comparable to ‘March of the Penguins’ in the way it takes the story of animals and does it in a visually stunning and emotionally endearing way.”
8. “American Dharma” (Endeavor Content)
This time Errol Morris doesn’t take on Robert McNamara (Oscar-winner “The Fog of War”) or Donald Rumsfeld (“The Unknown Known”), but Steve Bannon, the Donald Trump advisor and far-right media mogul. “Errol Morris is not sympathetic at all,” said Powers. “He’s a little more confrontational with Bannon that you are used to seeing with him; typically his style is to sit back and let his subjects talk. In this film he is not using the Interrotron; he’s sitting across the table with Bannon, engaging in a fascinating dialogue. For many liberals, they felt dismissive of Steve Bannon as a marginal figure who was going to go away as soon as HiIlary Clinton won the election. Clearly it didn’t turn out that way, and its important that people, whatever their political stripe, confront what Bannon is and what makes him tick.”
9. “This Changes Everything” (ICM)
Tom Donahue (“Casting By”) has been working for years on this assemblage of “a who’s who of women to tell the history of gender inequity in Hollywood,” said Powers. “On the list is Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes, Jessica Chastain, executive producer Geena Davis, Britt Marling and Reese Witherspoon. Some chapters to this story I did not know, including movements in the 1960s and 1980s making the same fights we see today.”
He started learning about the subject while reporting “Casting By” and several of the women wanted him to tell this wider story. He could not be bringing this out at a more propitious time.
10. “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema” (Dogwoof)
TIFF will screen the first four-hour installment in a 16-hour series about female filmmakers, narrated by executive producer Tilda Swinton, which prolific Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins (“The Story of Film: An Odyssey”) expects to finish by year’s end. Powers experienced mixed emotions while watching the film. “I was embarrassed by how many international women directors I had never heard of before,” he said. “I was angry that so many people have been written out of histories. And that gave way to delight in the bounty of filmmaking that Mark was putting on screen.”
11. “Maiden” (Dogwoof)
British filmmaker Alex Holmes chronicles the heart-tugging story of the first all-women crew (led by British skipper Tracy Edwards) to compete in the around-the-world sailing competition once called The Whitbread Cup. “This crew competed in the 1989-90 race that takes several months to complete,” said Powers. “This film builds and builds; in the last 10 minutes, my eyes were not dry.”
12. “Screwball” (30WEST)
The documentary from Billy Corben (“Cocaine Cowboys” and ESPN’s “The U”) “plays like an Elmore Leonard Miami crime comedy about the baseball doping scandals that caught up Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and other baseball major leagues players,” said Powers. “It’s about the oddball agency in Miami that gave them performance-enhancing drugs.”
13. “Angels Are Made of Light” (Roco)
Likely to play all four fall festivals is a movie from two-time Oscar nominee James Longley (feature “Iraq in Fragments” and short “Sari’s Mother”), who filmed inside Afghanistan elementary schools.
14. “Putin’s Witnesses” (sales title)
Ukraine-born filmmaker Vitaly Mansky worked for many years in Russia and now lives in Latvia. In 2000, when Vladimir Putin was put into office by Boris Yeltsin after a surprise announcement on New Year’s Eve 1999, Mansky was hired by Putin’s team to film him for his first six months in office. “Putin’s Witnesses” draws upon that footage. “It’s a fascinating portrait unlike any others,” said Powers. The movie won Best Documentary at Karlovy Vary in June.
15. “The Biggest Little Farm” (UTA)
Shot over eight years outside Los Angeles, John Chester (“Rock Prophecies”) explores one mode of farming that is “the opposite of the mono-culture farm,” said Powers. “It’s regenerative farming, bringing the land back to life. The film is beautiful.”
Other for-sales titles include Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron’s “Ghost Fleet” (Endeavor Content), which focuses on a crusader against the modern slave trade; Alexis Bloom’s “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” (Cinetic) a profile of the Fox News creator; “Heartbound” (CAA and Cinetic), about a town in Denmark where over 300 men married women emigres from Thailand; and “Walking on Water” (CAA), Bulgarian filmmaker Andrey Paunov’s The Floating Piers homage to the late great Maysles’ brothers who long chronicled Christo’s art projects.