At this year’s Middleburg Film Festival, the keynote address – delivered by Motion Picture Association of America chair and CEO Christopher Dodd – was titled “Why Films Matter.” In the wood-paneled, richly appointed library of Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Resort & Spa, Sen. Dodd – with a loquacious assist from Librarian of Congress James Billington – enumerated the myriad ways that movies make a contribution to American life: as lucrative global export and labor-intensive industry and as a powerful medium for education, culture and driving social change.
The net effect of the combined address was a stirring call to arms to the assembled crowd of film professionals who, Dodd noted, tend to be poor communicators of their own value despite being in the communication business. But the fact that the Salamander library was packed at 10 a.m. on a glorious fall morning in the heart of Virginia’s scenic horse country also helped make the case for why film festivals themselves matter – including newcomers like Middleburg.
Founded last year by Johnson, who serves on the Sundance board, Middleburg is purposefully modest, lasting just a few days and showing fewer than two dozen films. But the festival’s tastefully curated program, along with plenty of festival sidebar events and opportunities to eat, drink and kibbitz, suggest a festival that, just two years in, is already punching above its weight in all the best ways. (Full disclosure: The Washington Post was a media sponsor of the event.)
When it comes to what makes festivals relevant, observers need look no further than opening night last Thursday — just days after Marvel Studios announced nine upcoming comic-book movies — when director Richard Lagravenese introduced his adaptation of the off-Broadway musical “The Last Five Years.”
The film – starring a luminous Anna Kendrick – was slightly polarizing, separating die-hard musical theater fans from viewers who weren’t quite as entranced by the story’s Benjamin Button-like structure and mostly-sung dialogue. But “The Last Five Years” is precisely the kind of daring, artful, admittedly niche movie that many filmgoers fear is in danger of being swamped by the bigger, louder, more cartoonish fare Hollywood is increasingly dependent on.
As a fledgling addition to an already crowded circuit, Middleburg has already staked an impressive claim to the many ways a festival can keep the cinematic eco-system a healthy and diverse one. Not only can Thursday’s audience start valuable word-of-mouth for “The Last Five Years” between now and its early-2015 opening, but the 3,000-plus filmgoers who attended Middleburg throughout the weekend can help the movies they saw in other ways.
For a documentary like “All Fall Down,” a riveting film about how race played out in one family’s tragedy in 1970s Baltimore, audience feedback can help filmmakers Emily Topper and Mary Posatko tighten and clarify a fascinatingly complicated story while they continue to edit. For the sensitive, atmospheric coming-of-age story “Low Down,” starring John Hawkes and Elle Fanning as jazz pianist Joe Albany and his daughter Amy, and the taut marital thriller “Force Majeure,” Middleburg’s local audience can talk up the film with friends and neighbors just in time for their arrival in Washington theaters on Friday.
Then there’s the all-important Oscar buzz, which got started in earnest a few months ago in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, and continues to build even in tiny venues like the Salamander ballroom, the Hill School and the National Sporting Library and Museum, where most of the films were shown. This year, executive director Susan Koch and programmer Connie White booked several foreign-language and documentary films that are likely to be awards contenders in coming months, including “Two Days, One Night,” “Force Majeure,” “Human Capital” and the hugely popular nonfiction films “Red Army,” “Dior and I” and “Seymour, an Introduction.”
And Middleburg featured at least one bona fide Oscar shoo-in in the form of “The Imitation Game,” which screened to an enthusiastic standing-room-only audience on Saturday night with screenwriter Graham Moore, director Morten Tyldum, co-star Allen Leech and former CIA chief Michael Hayden in attendance. (Middleburg was the first stop on a D.C. tour for “The Imitation Game” – starring Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II cryptanalyst and code-breaker Alan Turing – that would include screenings at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and for employees of the National Security Agency.)
Leech, best known for his portrayal of the handsome former chauffeur on the PBS hit “Downton Abbey,” would have easily won 2014’s Bruce Dern Good Sport Award, if such a thing existed, for cheerfully posing for countless selfies and charming the socks off everyone he bumped into. (Dern was similarly disarming last year when he came to Middleburg in support of “Nebraska.”) But even without Leech’s presence, “The Imitation Game” would clearly have been a hit with Middleburg viewers, who voted to give the film the Audience Award for best narrative feature; “Dior and I” and “Red Army” tied for best documentary.
Along with Leech, the biggest names on hand were costume designer and frequent Tim Burton collaborator Colleen Atwood and composer Marco Beltrami, both of whom were honored this year; all three provided just the right kind of approachable star-power for a festival that is less about red-carpet fussiness than friendliness and unpretentious warmth.
In between screenings, festival-goers could be seen window-shopping and ducking into cafes along Washington Street, or shuttling back to the Salamander, where they could catch a panel on film financing or simply relax with a glass of wine in front of fire. Films matter, of course, but so do fun and fellowship. The Middleburg Film Festival has struck a winning balance with all three, suggesting that it too will continue to matter in years — maybe even decades — to come.