AFI Docs 2018 — You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Posted on June 14, 2018 at 7:55 am

From space to skates. From doctors in a remote New Mexico town to toddlers competing in a beauty contest in Brazil to Brooklyn teenagers trying to get into college and queer and trans athletes trying to get a chance to compete and politicians trying to fight the forces undermining democracy. There is no superhero blockbuster, no story of vampires in love, no comedy about college friends catching up 20 years later that can come close to the heartwarming, terrifying, passionately humane impact of a documentary. And every year, in Washington DC, the American Film Institute Docs festival brings together the best from the US and abroad, from established, award-winning filmmakers and first-timers making the most of micro-budgets.

Copyright 2018 Discovery Channel

Some are stories of the past. The best-known documentary of WWII was “Memphis Belle,” directed by Hollywood legend William Wyler. Using footage Wyler shot from the National Archives, director Erik Nelson has made a new film called “The Cold Blue,” featuring gripping narration from some of the last surviving B-17 pilots. Some are stories of the future. Rory Kennedy’s “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” shows us that the most important part of our voyages into space is not what we learn about other planets but what we learn about our own, as new missions give us critical data about the state of our environment. Some are intimate family stories, like “Witkin and Witkin,” about septuagenarian twin artists, and “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” about a boy and his grandmother who live just miles from the war in Ukraine. Others tell the stories of remarkable people like Father Theodore Hesburgh, Gilda Radner, Alexander McQueen, and Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Some are about unsung heroes, those working to protect children, rehabilitate prisoners, and open up opportunities for oppressed people.

Some documentary stories are on a global scale, or even beyond, into outer space. Some help us understand the very medium of film itself. “Hal” is the story of director Hal Ashby (“Shampoo,” “Coming Home,” “Being There”).

Some take us places we would otherwise never get to see, like “Into the Okavango,” a stunning journey down an African river.

This year’s Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree is Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “The Interrupters,” “Life, Itself”), an extraordinary filmmaker who truly understands that the essence of documentary filmmaking is empathy. Documentaries can be tragic, provocative, infuriating, inspiring, heartwarming, informative, and hilarious, in any combination or all of the above. Just like life.

AFI Docs: June 13–17, 2018, Washington D.C.

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Ebertfest 2018

Posted on April 22, 2018 at 10:01 am

Twenty years ago, Champaign, Illinois native Roger Ebert began what was then called the “overlooked” film festival, following a very successful screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey” on the campus of the University of Illinois to celebrate the birth of the HAL computer. According to the film HAL began at the university on January 12, 1992, a date still far in the future when the film was released in 1968, now half a century ago.

Twenty years later and five years after the death of its beloved founder, the most influential movie critic of all time, Ebert’s widow Chaz has kept the film going very much in the spirit of the man who called movies “an empathy machine.” Unlike most festivals, where people dash around to stand in long lines in many different venues to see not-yet-released films and there is enormous pressure and competition to see the most and the best, the festival now lovingly termed Ebertfest has an extraordinary sense of community because only one film is shown at a time and everyone watches everything together in one of the grandest venues in the country, the magnificent Virginia Theater, with its enormous screen and impeccable projection (on film!) and audio.

It was an honor and a thrill to share the critics panel with so many people whose work I love and so many who have become my friends.

I especially enjoyed seeing three very different films on Saturday, all brilliantly done and all about fathers and daughters: “Interstellar,” “Selena,” and “Belle.” It was very moving to see the tributes to the “three queens of cinema,” Amma Asante (“Belle”), Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”), and Ava DuVernay (“13th”). One of my favorite films of last year was “Columbus,” and it was even more dazzling on the 70-foot screen. I got a huge kick out of co-presenting this year’s silent film with live musical accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra, a cherished Ebertfest tradition. The selection this year was the Japanese film, “A Page of Madness,” a challenging story written by Yasunari Kawabata, who would go on to become the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

All of the panels, introductions, and Q&A sessions are available on YouTube. And be sure to read Chaz’s comments about the history and aspirations of the festival in Variety.

Jeff Dowd, who inspired “The Dude” character from “The Big Lebowski” said that it was Roger Ebert who really tied the room together. Ava DuVernay talked about the searing documentary “13th” — and about meeting “Mr. Thumbman,” Roger Ebert, when she was 8 years old. She teared up talking about his life-changing support for her first film, the one she made with the $50,000 she was saving to buy a house, including three reviews and 27 tweets. She also had a nice shout-out to Carrie Rickey, the other critic who championed the film, not knowing she was sitting in the audience. Also, there were dancing dinosaurs celebrating the festival’s 20th anniversary, because why not. On to the next 20!

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Ebertfest 2017 and 2018

Posted on October 30, 2017 at 3:23 pm

As Ebertfest begins to prepare for its 20th anniversary in 2018, it has released a video from Shatterglass about last spring’s festival.  It is always one of the highlights of the year.

Roger Ebert’s 19th Annual Film Festival // A Retrospective Documentary from Shatterglass Studios on Vimeo.

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Middleburg Film Festival: Sheila Johnson and Susan Koch on This Year’s Films

Posted on October 19, 2017 at 2:59 pm

In its fifth year, the Middleburg Film Festival has grown from a tiny gem at the splendid Salamander Resort in Virginia hunt country to a major powerhouse with a very strong line-up ranging from major awards contenders to exceptional independent films, plus interviews with promising newcomers and established greats. The festival opens October 19, with The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. In an interview, founder Sheila Johnson and executive director Susan Koch talked about the festival’s highlights, including a tribute to women directors, a presentation to composer Nicholas Britell featuring not just movie clips but a full live orchestra, and a conversation with Legacy Award winner James Ivory.

What inspired this year’s special focus on women directors?

Koch: It’s funny because we had these films and these incredible directors and all of a sudden I realized we have four of the leading women directors coming to the festival with these great films. We have Dee Rees with Mudbound, an epic film. We have Greta Gerwig with Ladybird. We have Maggie Betts making her directorial debut with Novitiate and we have Valerie Faris, co-director of Battle of the Sexes. Given everything that is going on, I think that it’s just great to have a dialogue that focuses on the accomplishments of women.

Johnson: It’s not that we go looking for films by women. It is really done organically. It’s because they have done the job and they’ve made some of the best films. We did not know that would be a theme until we saw what we would be presenting.

As much as I love seeing the films, my favorite thing about your festival is your great tributes to the composers, this year to Nicholas Britell of “Moonlight” and “Battle of the Sexes.” There’s nothing like it at any other festival. How did that come about?

Johnson: We wanted something that was different, that no other film festival was doing. I’m also a violinist, and so when I watch movies I really listen to the music. And so Susan and I thought it would be really great if we could really celebrate that “unsung” hero (pun intended), the composer. It gives us a chance to expand the educational component of the festival by bringing in the incredible student musicians from the Shenandoah student orchestra. And we can show clips on the big screen with the dialogue off just to hear the music. And this year one of our previous awardees, Marco Beltrami, will return to do a master class with Nicholas.

What made you decide on James Ivory for the Legacy Award?

Johnson: Well just look at what he’s done. His are my favorite movies in the whole world.

Koch: He’s 89 and he’s not showing any signs of stopping. We will be showing his new film, Call Me by Your Name, and it seemed like such an opportunity to recognize his tremendous body of work. He’s got an incredible, elegant visual sense and he portrays people with such understanding and humanity.

I’m very exciting about participating in the festival for the first time on the Talk Back to the Critics panel!

Koch: We love having you out there and people want to meet you. The people who come to the festival have a lot to say about movies so we are expecting some lively discussions.

The films this year range from family-friendly to adult material, from ultralocal to international.

Johnson: Yes, we Wonderstruck, based on the book by Brian Selznick, we have have entries for the foreign-language Oscar, and we have a documentary filmed in Middleburg called Music Got Me Here, the story of a young man who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury that left him unable to talk until his former music teacher was able to reach him.

What do you want this festival to do?

Johnson: There is something about seeing a film as part of a community experience. You’re sitting there experiencing it together and afterwards it just really fosters dialogue. I think the other thing that we’ve been thinking about a lot especially at these times is that there is an incredible need for people to talk to one another. We have seven countries’ submissions to the Oscars and we hope people will be expanding their views of the world through these incredible foreign language films. I just really hope that in so many ways, we are not are only presenting incredible films but also giving people a lot of things to talk about.

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Middleburg Film Festival Announces the 2017 Schedule

Posted on September 27, 2017 at 9:27 pm

The Middleburg Film Festival announced today the riveting wartime drama DARKEST HOUR, starring Academy Award©-nominated actor Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, will open the festival on Thursday, October 19. Actor Ben Mendelsohn, who portrays King George VI, screenwriter Anthony McCarten, and producer Lisa Bruce will participate in a conversation following the screening.

Middleburg Film Festival, now in its fifth year, runs from October 19 to October 22 in Virginia’s historic wine country located one hour from Washington, DC.

LADY BIRD, the impressive directorial debut of actress Greta Gerwig (FRANCES HA), will screen as the Saturday Evening Centerpiece Film on October 21 with Gerwig in attendance. Gerwig also penned the script of this uproarious comedy starring a perfectly cast Saoirse Ronan. LADY BIRD’s terrific ensemble also includes Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, and Beanie Feldstein.

On Sunday, October 22, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (DIR Martin McDonagh) will be featured as the Sunday Centerpiece Film. The film, starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage, is a darkly comedic drama about a bereaved mother who demands accountability from the town sheriff.

This year, the Festival has selected three Spotlight Films: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (DIR Luca Guadagnino) and MUDBOUND (DIR Dee Rees) will screen on Friday, October 20; and I, TONYA (DIR Craig Gillespie) will screen on Saturday, October 21.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME stars Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in a sun-soaked romance set in Northern Italy. MUDBOUND, set in the Jim Crow South and starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund and Mary J. Blige, tells the epic story of two men divided by race yet bound by war. I, TONYA features Margot Robbie as the infamous skater Tonya Harding in the scandal that rocked the 1994 Winter Olympics and ended her skating career.

The 2017 Festival will recognize three artists and their contributions to films and filmmaking. On Friday, October 21, James Ivory, screenwriter of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and half of the iconic Merchant/Ivory filmmaking duo, will be honored with the 2017 Legacy Award for 60 years as director and/or screenwriter of such classic films as HOWARD’S END, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, and ROOM WITH A VIEW. Dee Rees, director of MUDBOUND, BESSIE and PARIAH, will receive the 2017 Visionary Award on October 21, presented by Lee Daniels (THE BUTLER, EMPIRE).

Academy Award©-nominated composer Nicholas Britell will be honored as this year’s Distinguished Film Composer on Saturday, October 21. The Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra presents a selection of his most memorable scores accompanied by film clips. Britell will perform two solo piano pieces and also discuss his creative process. Britell’s scores include BATTLE OF THE SEXES, MOONLIGHT, THE BIG SHORT, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (BATTLE OF THE SEXES) will introduce Britell.

“The Middleburg Film Festival marks our fifth year with an extraordinary slate of films and special guests,” said Middleburg Film Festival Executive Director Susan Koch. “We’re especially delighted to welcome three incredibly talented female directors – Dee Rees, Greta Gerwig, and Valerie Faris. We’re also pleased to honor James Ivory, not only for his recent achievement with CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, but for sixty years of stunning filmmaking.”

“From the very beginning, it’s been important for us to present diverse voices in filmmaking,” said Middleburg Film Festival founder Sheila C. Johnson, “Especially in these divisive times, films have a way of bringing people together, expanding our understanding of the world and encouraging dialogue. The festival also celebrates some of the film industry’s unsung heroes. One of my favorite events is our Symphony Orchestra concert honoring a renowned film composer – and this year we are thrilled to recognize Nicholas Britell.”

The Coca-Cola Company returns as Middleburg Film Festival’s Presenting Sponsor.

The Washington Post is the founding media sponsor.

For showtimes and festival information, please visit: www.middleburgfilm.org or download the mobile app for iphone or android

Follow us on Twitter @middleburgfilm and like us on Facebook at facebook.com/MiddleburgFilmFestival.

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