On April 24, 2014, North America’s largest documentary film festival, Hot Docs, begins in Toronto with a screening of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, the first of its 197 films. I’ll be heading north so I was excited to get Charlotte Cook, the director of programming for Hot Docs, on the phone for a story I wrote for the New York Times about the spate of documentaries about Ukraine just now hitting the festival circuit. (There are six—six!—playing at Hot Docs alone. You should check them out. Click here [LINK] to read that story.)

Cook is a fair-minded person, and she didn’t want to play favorites when I asked her about what films to see. “What I want to say about the program is that people often think that documentaries are only social-issue based but that isn’t the case,” she said. “Documentary can be so many different things.”

Based on the sort of films submitted, Cook and her team came up with two special categories: “Love, Factually,” about relationships and love, and “Mystery, Myth & Legend,” about which Cook says, “[It] looks at the mysteries and exceptional within the real world. It shows that some of the most compelling real stories can also be the inexplicable or fantastical. We’re hoping to broaden the perception of what documentaries can be and believe this amazing group of films will elicit wonder and amazement.”

There are a number of great documentaries playing at the festival that I’ve already seen, so keep that in mind with this list (loosely in order) of 10 Hot Docs documentaries I am most eager to see:

1. Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Directed by Dave Jannetta)

This story about the mysterious death of a math professor in a small Nebraska town already had my interest, but Cook called it “Twin Peaks-esque” which is all I need to hear. I’m there.

2. Virunga (Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel)

Maybe it’s the striking promo image of an African park ranger standing in front of a gushing volcano, but this film about protecting gorillas has me very intrigued.

3. Super Duper Alice Cooper (Directed by Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen & Sam Dunn)

I think I’m ready to press rewind to look at the Alice Cooper phenomenon and what exactly happened to that chicken on that stage so many decades ago. The fact that Cooper will actually be present makes this a must-do on my list.

4. The Great Invisible (Directed by Margaret Brown)

I want to see what my college classmate director Margaret Brown can bring to this story of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. I expect subtlety, depth and a sense of (in)justice.

5. Harmontown (Directed by Neil Berkeley)

This portrait of Dan Harmon, the self-destructive creator of TV show Community looks to be dark, deep and funny. I like those elements (in reverse order).

6. The Immortalists (Directed by David Alvarado & Jason Sussberg)

Of late, I’ve been drawn to the Big Questions of human existence, and this story of two men who want to find the key to immortality promises to reveal either the greatest discovery of all time… or, more likely, yet another example of the tragicomic limitations of man.

7. Mission Blue (Directed by Robert Nixon & Fisher Stevens)

This is the story of marine biologist Sylvia Earle, whom I’ve never heard of, and maybe I’ll care about her soon enough, but what draws me to this film is the promise of “incredible underwater cinematography.” Playing at the state-of-the-art TIFF Bell Lightbox theater, this should be a treat.

8. Pine Ridge (Directed by Anna Eborn)

I don’t know if there’s a great documentary out there about the contemporary Native American. I want to find it here in this Danish doc about the impoverished South Dakota Lakota Sioux reservation.

9. The Writer with No Hands (Directed by William Westaway)
Hollywood and the life of the writer, two subjects close to my heart, are the backdrop to this story of a screenwriter’s mysterious and gruesome death. The title intends to provoke — consider me provoked.

10. The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest (Directed by Gabriel London)

There’s a reason filmmakers keep making documentaries about the unjust prison system: They are drawn to this juncture where flawed humanity, morality, the legal system and the dramatic possibility for redemption all meet. This story of a possibly wrongfully jailed man who made 13 breakout attempts joins an already long list.

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival will take place April 24 to May 4, 2014 in Toronto Canada. Tickets and showtimes are available on the Hot Docs website.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen