Another year at a fabulous festival! I wonder how long this little Virginia horse country festival can keep it up. It’s sure to burst its seams soon. This year’s slate was amazing, as usual. I was only able to fit in 10 of the 29 films offered in my three days of the festival and missed quite a few I really wanted to see. But what I saw was impressive. The big winner for me (it won the audience award, too) was Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, which will certainly be vying for the Oscar. But there really were quite a few standout films. Here’s my list with trailers and my preliminary impressions. Full reviews of select films will come later, so check back.
Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity) recreated the Mexico City neighborhood of his childhood to tell the story of Cleo, an indigenous woman who worked for his family and was an integral and loving part of his life in the 1970s. The film is populated mostly by non-actors, and Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo is riveting. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film has all the details of a child’s memory, while bringing Cleo’s life and her struggles into the story of a family going through some difficult changes. It’s a very arty film, and I loved it, but I know it won’t be a mainstream hit. It will no doubt get some awards season love though, and already won the big prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Aparicio won the festival’s 2018 “Rising Star” Award, and I do hope she continues to act. She was in attendance and in the Q&A admitted that when she went to the casting call, she was afraid it might be human trafficking since that happens to her people. She also said that she had to be talked into it. Thanks goodness she listened to her family and went with it.
A Private War
In this excellent biopic, Rosamund Pike turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as prize-winning conflict journalist Marie Colvin, who went into some of the most dangerous situations on earth because she believed that the victims of war needed to be seen and their stories heard. The film begins as she’s covering the Sri Lankan Civil War, where she would lose an eye while crossing between sides. When she returns to work, she meets photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan, 50 Shades) who remains by her side until she is killed covering the siege of Homs in Syria. The film takes her from her home base in London to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, where’s she is unafraid to get into the fray for the story of civilians being killed for political ends. She even interviews Gaddafi shortly before his demise. It’s a sad and aggravating film for its truth about war and the innocents that are pawns. And it is very well done!
This Japanese film from the director of Nobody Knows is a beautiful drama about what family means. In it a group of mostly unrelated people live together in a small house. A grandma, a sex worker, an assembly line worker, a shoplifter and a young boy who’s learning the craft. One day they find a little girl who has been abandoned to the elements. They take her in and she becomes one of them. But there are a lot of outside forces working against them all living happily ever after, and ultimately their little world cannot hold. But while it does, it’s a warm and human story.
Writer/director László Nemes won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for his first feature Son of Saul, so my expectations were high for this one. But GOD! It’s 142 minutes long and felt like twice that. In 1913, a young Hungarian woman returns to the town where she was born hoping to work in the store that bears her name, where her parents died in a fire when she was only two. No one wants her there, and then she finds out she has a brother she knew nothing about, only he’s a murderer. She seeks him out and it seems he’s involved with a gang who are out to take down the nobility. And that’s about all I can tell you, since it’s all pretty convoluted and goes on and on. The central actress has essentially one expression throughout the film and I am hard pressed to tell you what she wanted out of it all. Save yourself and skip this one if it comes around.
Javier Bardem is the draw of this film (for me). In it, Laura (Penélope Cruz) comes home to Spain for a family wedding. She brings her teenage daughter and young son along. Paco (Bardem) still lives in the town and owns a vineyard. It’s clear there is still a spark between him and Laura, but they’re both married, happily it seems. But when Laura’s daughter is kidnapped, Paco takes center stage and a secret from their past comes to the fore. It’s a film to see mainly for the performances, since the story is sadly lacking.
I thoroughly enjoyed this Polish love story. Set in Soviet-era Poland, Zula, a young singer, enters a state-run performing academy where she meets the love of her life, Wictor, the pianist-musical director of the program. The film follows their on and off relationship across decades as they escape the Iron Curtain and ultimately return. The music is particularly wonderful. There is one song that is sung first as an audition piece, then as a chorus in concert, then as a Polish jazz song, then translated into French. Joanna Kulig’s performance is particularly good. She sings all the songs and her face lights up the screen. The film is told in gorgeous black and white, extremely photographic, much like the director’s previous Oscar winning film Ida, which I loved. This one could very well get an Oscar nod, too. It won at Cannes.
Happy As Lazzaro
This one was billed as a fable. Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a sweet and simple young man who is too good for this world and is frequently taken advantage of. He lives in a remote Italian village called Inviolata, which has somehow missed the modern age. There he works with a group of families on a farm in near serf-like conditions, where they’re all being used by a Marchesa to keep her tobacco empire going. They share a lightbulb at night, never have enough food, and are refused permission to ever leave the farm. But when the Marchesa’s son Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) visits with her and pulls Lazzaro into his scheme to fake his own kidnapping, and the police come, the jig is up and the families are set free. The second part of the movie takes place years later, and where some of the freed serfs are living hand to mouth in the city and reconnect with Lazzaro and Tancredi. There is some magical realism about the second part and it doesn’t entirely work (especially the ending). Taken as allegory, I can almost make sense of the last part. But…
I loved this one, too! Queen Anne was such as sad queen. But this period dramedy of the fight to be her favorite is wickedly funny and full of Oscar-worthy performances, particularly Olivia Colman (The Lobster, Broadchurch) who plays Anne, the gout-ridden, isolated monarch with little interest in doing the job she was born to. Fortunately she has Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) to take care of her and all those pesky decisions she’s supposed to make. But when Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at court and finagles her way into the Queen’s good graces, the gloves come off and it’s every woman for herself. And it’s savage and hilarious! The dialogue alone in this film makes it worth seeing, but the direction and attention to detail make it sing. Oscar!
The Front Runner
And the winner for most disappointing film of the festival goes too… I was really looking forward to this tale of Gary Hart’s sad fall from grace during his 1988 Presidential campaign. But Jason Reitman’s film is kind of a bore. In the Q&A following the film he explained that he wanted to give the audience neutral information and let them make up their minds for themselves, but a film needs a point of view. And my biggest problem with the film was that Gary Hart was supposed to be inspiring and yet he comes off as a dud. And what a waste of Hugh Jackman!
BEST FILM OF THE YEAR! Two great performances by Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali. This one is based on the true story of a working-class New York Italian bouncer who was hired to drive a classically trained black pianist on a tour through the Jim Crow South. It’s the best road trip flick in ages as it explores race and class through an unexpected friendship. And it is by turns sad and funny and sweet and horrifying. Somewhat surprising is that this nuanced film comes from Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, Something About Mary), but he brings this tale to life with a deft understanding of character. Both Ali and Mortensen demonstrate their considerable talents to the fullest. And I can’t say enough about how good this film is! I’ll definitely see it again in the local theater when it arrives just in time for Thanksgiving.
All in all, Middleburg Film Festival did not disappoint, again. But I am afraid of the secret getting out. Many of the films were sold out this time around, and there were simply too many things I wanted to see that the schedule would not allow. But I’ll be back next year for sure. Sheila C. Johnson has created such an exciting festival that pulls together a fabulous slate combining big Awards season front-runners with a diverse foreign mix and some worthy documentaries, alongside Q&As with directors and actors in the best of the bunch. It’s a great experience!