middleburg-film-fest-posterI’m told this was the best slate of movies ever presented at the Middleburg Film Festival. So I picked a good year to make my debut trip into Virginia horse country to partake in four days of film, schmoozing, and lively discussion. Granted, I did not get the full-on glitz and glamor experience, choosing to stay in a lovely $79/night Hampton Inn about 30-minutes from the main venues, rather than the stunning but pricey $700/night Salamander Resort & Spa owned by the festival’s founder. But it was still a solid introduction to a festival that, in four short years, has sown the seeds to compete with the likes of Sundance, AFI, Toronto Film Festival, etc. (I think Cannes is safe). Here’s the blow-by-blow:

Thursday, October 20, mid-afternoon: I’m intrigued as the congested roads out of metropolitan DC suddenly give way to rolling meadows, historic mills, wineries, B&Bs and polo fields. I’m a bit taken aback by the giant Trump banners near the entrance to Middleburg but decide to try and put politics aside for a few days (easier said than done). I stay on the two-lane “main road” until I come upon the Middleburgh Community Centcoffeeer that serves as the Festival Box Office. I pick up my press pass and take a walk around town (it’s just a few blocks – so that didn’t take long). It’s quintessential quaint with an air of money – old and new. Sufficiently charmed and caffeinated, it was off to the races – er, movies!

First up: LION. First lesson learned: bring tissues! Lion is based on the true story of a five-year-old boy named Saroo who gets lost after boarding a train that takes him thousands of miles away from his family in a poor village in India. He is forced to survive as a street kid in Calcutta but eventually ends up in an orphanage, is adopted by an Australian couple, and 25 years later, uses Google Earth to search for his birthplace, mother, and older brother. A child actor named Sunny Pawar plays the young Saroo and he is phenomenal. Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire) picks up the role in the latter part of the film. He is good too. But Sonny… wow.

One of the cool things about film festivals is that screenings often include Q&As with filmmakers and other special guests.

The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday moderates a chat with Saroo Brierley.

In this case – the real Saroo Brierley was in attendance to talk about his life and his book, “A Long Way Home”, on which the movie is based. It’s truly an amazing, heart-wrenching journey. Lion went on to win the Audience Award for Best Narrative at the Festival. A good choice. The film definitely stuck with me.

The opening night screening was preceded and followed by VIP receptions that imposters like me were allowed to crash. Drinks, nosh, and temporary tattoos for everyone!tattoo-sticker

Then it was time to call it a night. I dodged a few deer in the headlights (literally) along the dark road out of town, and made my way back to my nice, affordable hotel room in the shadow of Dulles Airport.

Friday, October 21: The real movie marathoning begins. Four movies. Three venues. And no time for lunch. (Lesson learned: pack snacks – and a seat cushion.) The first venue of the day is Buchanan Hall, about nine miles up the road in Upperville, Virginia to see I, DANIEL BLAKE, a British drama about a middle-aged carpenter who requires state welfare after suffering a heart attack on the job. He befriends a single mother who, like him, is forced to battle an absurd bureaucracy in their struggle to survive and get back on their feet. It’s another heartbreaking, poignant, well-acted film that will resonate with anyone who’s ever filed for unemployment or disability benefits, or filed an appeal with an insurance company. I really liked it – a lot. Lesson learned: bring more Kleenex.

Fittingly, it’s raining as I get back into my car and head back into Middleburg proper for a screening at the National Sporting Library and Museum. It’s my first and only documentary of the festival (so many movies, so little time!) and my least favorite of the bunch. It’s a documentary called DISTURBING THE PEACE. It follows a group of former enemy combatants – Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters – who join forces to rally for peace. The film means well, and I appreciated the message, but it lacked the structure and emotional resonance needed to pack a more powerful punch. I wanted to stay for the Q&A with some of the film’s participants, but I had to dash off to the next venue — the Salamandar Resort — for the two spotlight films of the day: MOONLIGHT and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Both have generated awards buzz, and deservedly so. They are very good, and yes, require even more tissues. Just for dabbing the eyes though. No outright bawling on this night. Moonlight chronicles the story of a young black man from childhood to adulthood who struggles with his sexual identity while growing up in a tough neighborhood in Miami. It’s a bit like watching Brokeback Mountain with young urban African-Americans instead of young, white cowboys. It’s a powerful story, with superb acting. Moonlight could easily become one of those smaller, underdog movies that doesn’t need an A-list cast to break through.

There was barely any time to process Moonlight (and scavenge for a snack) before it was time for the next heartbreaker, Manchester By the Sea. It’s about an uncle who suddenly finds himself the guardian of a teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies of a heart ailment. Fortunately, the drama is peppered with enough wry humor to prevent folks like me from totally falling into the emotional abyss. I’m willing to bet that Casey Affleck scores a best actor nomination for his role as the haunted and conflicted uncle. His performance is awards-worthy, and made even better by the chops of his stellar co-stars in small, but powerful supporting roles.

Note: It’s probably not very healthy to finally eat dinner at a resort restaurant at 11 p.m., but it does provide a great opportunity for informal meet and greets. (Shout out to new friends Jazz and Jennifer from LA!). Then it was more deer dodging in the dark en route to the hotel for a few hours’ sleep.

Saturday, October 22 – The day started back at the Salamander for a somewhat late, but much-anticipated addition to the festival slate… a screening of JACKIE, about Jackie Kennedy’s efforts to hold herself together and preserve JFK’s legacy in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. The narrative is framed by interviews that Jackie gave for an exclusive article in Life Magazine. I didn’t love the movie as a whole, but I did love Natalie Portman’s performance– emoting the grief, strength, class, charm, fortitude and vulnerability that defined the former First Lady. If Meryl Streep could be nominated (and win) for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the generally weak movie The Iron Lady, then Portman is a shoe-in for a nomination as Jackie. (Note: good luck getting the music of Camelot out of your head!)

Film festivals are like giant puzzles. It aint easy mapping out which movies, panel discussions, and other special events can be attended back-to-back-to-back. (Yeah, I know, #FirstWorldProblems). My original plan was to hang out at the Salamander all day and catch a concert honoring film composer Henry Jackman (Birth of a Nation, Captain America, Captain Phillips). But the sun was shining, and a cool breeze blowing, so I joined a few of my fellow critics from the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) for a nice sit down lunch at the Red Horse Tavern on Middleburg’s main drag. It’s actually quite rare that we WAFCAites have a chance to mix and mingle outside of a dark theater, so it was definitely time well spent!

Lunch with the women of WAFCA.

After lunch, I pondered going back to the Salamander for the concert (which I hear was excellent) but decided to venture out to The Hill School to see the latest Almodóvar film, JULIETA (prono: Hoo-lee-eh-tah), lest I be accused (from the likes of Arty Chick or my deep-thinking podcast partner Charlie) of only seeing mainstream stuff. Julieta is a quiet, emotional roller-coaster film that retraces the events that led to a mother and daughter’s lengthy estrangement. It’s not my typical genre, but all things considered, I quite liked it. The strong performances and beautiful scenery kept me engaged and alert enough to read the subtitles. And it allowed me to check ‘Spanish arthouse film’ off my festival bucket list. ☺

I contemplated squeezing one more afternoon film into the mix, but I needed to cleanse my cinematic palate for the Saturday Centerpiece movie… the most highly-anticipated film of the weekend: LA LA LAND. The Salamander was packed for this one. It didn’t hurt that star Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle were in the house!

La La Land director Damien Chazelle and star Emma Stone get a standing ovation, and a tin of customized M&Ms!

I definitely liked the movie, a lot, but I also fell victim to over-inflated expectations based on the buzz of a swarm of festival reviewers. I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, though the music, the direction, the story, and the chemistry between Stone and Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) all add up to an obvious Best Picture nomination and possible win. I’ll definitely see it again on a big screen in a real theater to get a better appreciation of this modern tale that pays homage to old Hollywood musicals. It’s a thought-provoking, unique, entertaining and bittersweet film about dreams, relationships, and the paths taken – or not taken – in life.

The after-party was a claustrophobia-inducing crush of Middleburg and Festival elite, so I snagged my tin of commemorative M&Ms and called it a night. mandms

Sunday, October 23. I checked out of my hotel and made the drive one last time back to the Salamander for one final movie. It seemed only fitting that I take advantage of the opportunity to see the film LOVING in the state of Virginia. After all, it’s about a landmark Supreme Court case in which the Justices ruled, in 1967, that Virginia’s law banning interracial marriage was unconstitutional. The film is not a traditional legal drama. It focuses instead on Richard and Mildred Loving as a couple, and their efforts to live a normal, quiet and private life while the legal process played out over 10 years. It really is a fascinating story that isn’t all that well known but certainly should be. It’s a bit odd that the film should star an Aussie (Joel Edgerton) and an Ethiopian-Irish actor (Ruth Negga) as native Virginians. But they pull it off rather well. The movie isn’t great, but it’s solid, and relevant to modern times, particularly in light of the recent ruling legalizing gay marriage. As former Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out in a post-screening Q&A, the high court generally reflects our times. “The rulings are an indication of where we are as a nation.” Hopefully, we’ll continue to move in the right, Loving direction.

So I left Middleburg on a high note, zipping back to my home in Rockville, Maryland in just over an hour, thanks to light Sunday afternoon traffic. Four days. Four venues. Nine movies. Good times. Hope to see you next year, Middleburg!

Middleburg Film Festival founder and director Sheila Johnson says Robert Redford suggested Middleburg would be a great location for a film festival. Good call. Perhaps he’ll show up for the Festival’s 5th Anniversary in 2017?




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