Awards: Middleburg Film Festival Cements Best Film Year This Century

2019 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: This past weekend the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival wrapped up, marking its seventh year of incredible film titles, and putting a laser and insightful focus on filmmakers and diversity. This was AwardsCircuit’s fourth year attending, with myself, Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience, and Jazz Tangcay of Awards Daily hosting our first “Coffee & Contenders” panel, highlighting the presumed Oscar contenders for 2019. With a near sold-out room by fireside, general movie lovers, industry insiders, awards voters, and critics alike joined in the conversation and speculation.

Catching up with some of the year’s most anticipated films, along with second viewings from high-profile contenders that debuted earlier this festival season, a conclusion was drawn upon as we quickly race to the end of this historic decade.  Not only is 2019 the best movie year of this decade, but it is also the single best year of cinema this century thus far, probably since 1994’s historic time that included the likes of “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Lion King,” among others.

Examining Middleburg in a vacuum, and through the eyes of someone who attends some of the most popular and largest festivals in the world in working towards an awards ceremony held in February, it’s refreshing to watch movies alongside your average movie lovers. Attending for the fourth year, there are regulars at the festival. A woman attends with her mother, splitting the cost of the festival passes and staying at the beautiful Salamander Resort & Spa. A lovely couple who lives next door to Middleburg Founder Sheila Johnson speaks about having the opportunity to see some of these powerful films and hopes that someone will rebuild a movie theatre that was demolished in town and pave the way for a near-by arthouse theatre. And then there are the veterans and up-and-coming voices in film criticism. Tim Gordon, Travis Hopson, Charles Bright, and many more always feel like the family we haven’t seen and are just picking up where we left off.

Executive Director of the Middleburg Film Festival Susan Koch has committed to finding the very best movies of the year but to provide an even better opportunity for those behind the camera to have their equal share of the spotlight. That was proven this year with highlights and conversations with Noah Baumbach, writer, and director of “Marriage Story” that opened the festival. Baumbach received the Spotlight Award, and based on the reactions out of the first screening, will be a force on the circuit this year.

Baumbach’s film, which is being released by Netflix, had the daunting task of screening just two hours after the first unofficial opener, “Parasite” from Bong Joon-ho. Only released in major markets at the moment, it was the film that had such electric energy that was palpable. Coming up in several conversations with audience members throughout the weekend, many were disappointed that the film was only screening one time, and they would have to wait a bit more before the NEON release made its way near them.

This is the only festival in which my wonderful wife Jessica attends, and one that she feels utterly comfortable going off and making her own movie decisions without being influenced by my “predictions” or “overrated praise,” as she can say once in a while. That was shown by her decision to go see Alma Har’el‘s “Honey Boy” from Amazon Studios while I ventured off for Marielle Heller‘s “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” from Sony Pictures.

In dissecting Heller’s film, which tells the story of a journalist (played by Matthew Rhys) who is assigned to do an article famed children’s show host Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), it was one of the most surprising films of the year that I had assumed I was going to have trouble connecting. For one, the filmography of Heller hasn’t been one that has entirely convinced me that she is the profound filmmaker she is rumored to be by my colleagues in the film industry. This is her best film yet and is a remarkable construction of forgiveness and love, backed by a magnificent turn from Rhys, one that will surely urk me all year when he’s passed over for lead actor consideration. Taking a few beats to get used to Hanks’ interpretation of Fred Rogers, he ends up settling well into the role, showcasing another strong outing, alongside an even better Chris Cooper.

Jessica absolutely adored “Honey Boy,” calling it her second favorite film of the festival, and when I caught up with it at a second screening during the weekend, her loving husband was on the opposite scale. Jessica shared that she loved the story that focuses on a child’s relationship with a flawed parent, and how that affects their contribution to the world as an adult. Despite a riveting turn from young Noah Jupe, the film felt too unfocused and messy for me to find any strong connection. Har’el’s direction is assured but this felt like an incomplete assignment and I would be curious to see if there’s a longer cut somewhere on her shelf.

NEON’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” demonstrated an engaging love story between two women in the 18th century, helmed by its two leads Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel. Another obvious example of why women need to be afforded equal opportunity to tell their own stories. Compare this to something like “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which I find inauthentic and dishonest in its focus on depictions, director Céline Sciamma‘s French film doesn’t utilize the women’s understandable beauty with any overdone sexualized love scene to pull in the viewer. She respects their abilities as actors, with her own screenplay, to tell a story that will be very popular with critics and their precursor prizes when they’re handed out over the winter. I’d be willing to give it another viewing as the second half supersedes the first by a wide margin, but there may be some new discoveries to unfold.

Ending Friday evening with one of the two Spotlight films, “Waves” from Trey Edward Schults, the film had the disadvantage of following one of only two films that received a standing ovation from any festival-goers, “Harriet” from Kasi Lemmons. With the way passes are sold at Middleburg, many of those attendees sat for back-to-back movies, and as we quickly learn, not everyone is as crazy as a film critic like myself that can sit for three, four, or even at times, seven movies in one day. Sitting for two can be challenging, especially one after another. Partner those thoughts with starting at 8:00 PM and a 135-minute runtime, it may have been challenging for a few.

In regards to “Harriet,” the entire room swallowed it up. During 2018’s Middleburg Film Fest, Lemmons was filming just miles from the prestigious resort. While the movie is very problematic in general narrative structure and being too “paint by numbers” Oscar biopic-y, there’s plenty to extrapolate from the movie including Cynthia Erivo‘s elegant portrayal of Harriet Tubman and Terence Blanchard‘s uplifting score (which he performed on Sunday morning with a full orchestra). I’d also welcome more Janelle Monáe any day of the week. Despite critics being mixed on its merits, this has the goods to be the one that the people really get behind, giving Focus Features hopes in multiple categories including original song.

In what will be explored in a longer review this week, “Waves,” which is being released by A24, is dynamically rich in a way not many films have been this decade. First getting my eyes on it at the Telluride Film Festival back in August, with my second outing, more tears and emotions were shed this time around. Backed by outstanding direction by Trey Edward Schults, the film’s ensemble is where it shines at every frame, in particular, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Taylor Russell. The young actors, already making names for themselves, showcasing two of the year’s best performances. Harrison, Jr.’s approach is one of fearless commitment to a character that is unable to see his own deterioration and dare to have the viewer love him still. Russell’s passageway is one of innocence, and subtle sensitive reveals that are all finessed into special scenes shared with Lucas Hedges and especially Sterling K. Brown. I’ll never stop recommending it enough, even if it’s one of the more difficult watches of the year.

One of the festival big highlights was having the opportunity to moderate a Q&A with “Just Mercy” co-star Karan Kendrick. The film, which tells the true story of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), who recounts his experience working with death row inmate Walter McMillan (played by Jamie Foxx) in the early 1990s. With audible sniffles in the theater, the poised and gifted actress, who plays Minnie McMillan, the wife of Walter, gave thoughtful insight into her approach of a powerful woman, and her own thoughts on the death penalty and how this cemented her feelings even further. The film is traditional Oscar-friendly filmmaking from Destin Daniel Cretton, and that’s not always a bad thing. Boasting mighty acting work from Jordan and Foxx, the film features compelling and effective turns from its ensemble, appropriately Kendrick, Brie Larson, and Rob Morgan, who receives best-in-show notices from this viewer and deserves any role that Hollywood can give him.

During the Q&A, Jessica was watching what she called “her favorite film of the year” and that was Taika Waititi‘s satirical film “Jojo Rabbit.” Sharing three separate tear drops throughout the movie, she was enamored by Waititi’s depiction of Hitler and childhood innocence, all bottled in the work of Roman Griffith Davis. Wishing I could have sat down for a second viewing following its critic screening a few weeks ago in New York, and shared on one of our latest Circuit Breaker podcasts, the film is undoubtedly entertaining and moving but creates a few wonderings on whether or not you “should be laughing” at what is on screen. This thought was echoed in a few conversations with attendees on Saturday evening’s party. Jessica shares my sentiments and strong feelings that Thomasin McKenzie is a force of nature but she goes even further with a soulful championing of the turns of Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson, who she hopes receives citations this awards season. She also bestowed her thoughts that Johansson was stronger in “Jojo” than she was in “Marriage Story.”

Still from “Knives Out”

Saturday’s Spotlight selection was 20th Century Fox’s “Ford V Ferrari” from director James Mangold, but over at The Hill School, one of the festival’s offsite venues, my most anticipated film of the year from Rian Johnson was screening for the first time since its TIFF debut. Lionsgate’s “Knives Out” was all the fun I had hoped for and then some. Realizing that the film was not just structurally sound but much more ambitious than what festival-goers may have thought, the film was one of the most enjoyable outings at a festival perhaps ever. Hearing the infectious laughter fill the room any time Daniel Craig‘s hilarious detective took the screen, or when Ana de Armas‘ multi-faceted nurse portrayal reveals just one more trait about herself, is one of those special experiences not to be forgotten.

It may be easy to write the film off as “popcorn” or just simple “whodunit” but it all plays out against a backdrop of sumptuous production design, tremendous editing, and a script that runs through the mind like a smooth palette.

As announced, Fernando Meirelles‘ “The Two Popes” won the coveted Audience Award. Last year, Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” took the award, and went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Other films that were in the mix were “Just Mercy,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and “Harriet,” according to sources. All of these will likely nab big box office numbers, and contend for that “audience” lane this awards season a la “Hidden Figures” or “The Help.” Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins look poised for their Oscar nominations, but as you can see from the latest predictions on The Circuit Hub, we all must begin to take the film seriously in categories like picture, director, production design, makeup and hairstyling, perhaps even score. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who received a tribute on Sunday morning, looks all but assured the nomination for adapted screenplay, and will be hard to beat. Distributor Netflix, who also has “The Irishman,” which closed the festival, will contend strongly in all categories as well.

Netflix looks good for three movies making the Best Picture lineup at the Oscars, but there’s plenty of more road left, and what looks good today, can falter tomorrow. Hold on to your butts. Full reviews of the films already are linked. New reviews coming later this week.

Check out the gallery of images taken throughout the weekend below:

RATINGS FOR FILMS SCREENED AT MIDDLEBURG
(In no particular order, on a four-star scale)

Are you excited for the films that are still come to theaters? Share your thoughts and current awards thoughts in the comments below!

CHECK OUT ALL THE OFFICIAL PREDICTIONS ON THE CIRCUIT HUB AND MAKE YOUR OWN!