What makes a film festival special? Is it the chance to see the celebrities and flmmakers? Is it the thrill of being the first among your friends to see the film with all the buzz? Could it be the comradery of the other film fanatics passionately discussing why THAT film is important and what is their favorite actor/director/film for this year? Fall film festivals afford us the opportunity to see the films that will might be nominated for Academy Awards. Not that long ago, it was when festival audiences could spread the word about the must-see films coming to theaters.
In a year that has turned most festivals virtual and cancelled the Telluride Film Festival, is it worth the time and energy (and expense) to attend the ones still happening? That answer is a resounding YES! The closest feeling to attending a film festival of pre-pandemic times is to go to a Drive-In. Many festivals have pivoted to create them. NYFF58 even added Drive-Ins in other Burroughs (Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn) and Woodstock Film Festival added screenings in other nearby towns. There’s an element of togetherness you don’t get from sitting at home on your couch.
At a Drive-In, you might see the stars on the big screen doing a Q & A. They may even be there in person like Bill Murray and Rashida Jones were for On The Rocks with Sofia Coppola at NYFF58 this past month. If it’s a usually star-studded affair like the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF43) in Northern CA, you can pay to watch Tributes and Award Presentations featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins, Regina King, Kate Winslet or Dame Judi Dench. Many of those programs would’ve been sold out and not accessible to the general public during a “normal” film festival.
The Denver Film Festival (DFF43–Oct 22-Nov 8) opens on Thursday, Oct 22nd with Chloé Zhao’s (writer/director/editor/co-producer) Nomadland at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater as a Drive-In screening. Film Festivals have been blessed by a couple of films that are particularly well-suited to the outdoor screening treatment. Nomadland has sweeping vistas and the cinematography features the play of light across the expressive face of Frances McDormand. Ammonite (Frances Lee, writer/director) also has powerhouse actors in Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Screening at Red Rocks on Thursday, Oct 29th; the windswept seaside of England and stark whites and greys look great on the big screen. The story of an intimate relationship between a grieving young woman and the hard-working paleontologist, Mary Anning, seems suited to the seclusion that you’ll share — because you’re isolated inside your car.
One of the blessings of the virtual screenings of film screenings, you don’t have to be in that town…or sometimes, even that STATE, to attend. There have been wonderful interviews from the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival (BFI) on Facebook. New York Film Festival (NYFF58) was accessible from anywhere in the United States. Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF43) has an Encore program of some the highlights of their wonderful festival available now. Go to MVFF.com. There’s a wonderful intimate conversation between MVFF Director of Programming, Zoë Elton and Dame Judi Dench that’s not to be missed.
You do need to be in Colorado to view most of the Denver Film Festival’s program as the screenings are geo-blocked. It’s an extensive program of documentaries, narratives and short films. Many of the films feature Q&A’s from filmmakers as part of the program. Be the first among your friends to see the film that looks to be the Oscar submission from Greece, Apples (Mila, Christos Nikou) – a surreal fable in the vein of The Lobster. It’s one of the films that was selected for the Telluride Film Festival but didn’t receive a screening there, and is now featured at DFF. The list includes Nomadland, Ammonite, There Is No Evil, MLK/FBI and the latest from perennial TFF favorite, Werner Herzog (with Clive Oppenheimer), the documentary Fireball.
The film I’m most excited to see at DFF43: Minari (Lee Isaac Chung) is a charming story of family resilience as a Korean-American family try to establish roots in a small Arkansas town. It looks like a great cast with Steven Yeun and Will Patton and the talented 10-yr-old, Alan Kim, as the son. A film that blew me away last year, Ema (Pablo Larrain, Chile) stars Gael García Bernal trying to navigate a relationship with a complex, fiery wife (Mariana Di Girólamo). A reggaeton dancer, Ema uses her sexual allure to create the alliances she needs to reunite her family. The documentary, I Am Greta (Nathan Grossman), about Greta Thunberg is a timely selection. There’s films by local filmmakers like Most Guys Are Losers (Eric Ustian) based on the book and life of Denver bar owner Mark Berzins; a Hallmark-style Holiday film that stars Mira Sorvino.
You may still miss having the conversations that come with standing in line and bumping into old friends at the concession stand, but attending film festivals virtually means you can pause the film. You can make your own snacks. You can forget about the cold nights or the rain and focus on settling in to let a film take you away to another place and another time. Forget about politics and the pandemic for a moment and indulge in some cinema joy.