The 11th Annual Middleburg Film Festival was held over the weekend, bringing cinematic talent and magic to this gorgeous Virginia countryside resort. DC-based movie fans were treated to major upcoming award contenders including Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, and George C. Wolfe’s Rustin.
MFF’s Director Spotlight Award went to Alexander Payne. He was at the festival for his film The Holdovers starring Paul Giamatti as a disgruntled boarding school teacher who is stuck watching the kids with nowhere to go over the Christmas holiday. Director Todd Haynes won the Visionary Director Award for his latest work in May December, a psychological drama about the fallout of an inappropriate relationship through the eyes of the actress set to play one-half of the couple in a movie. Celine Song was honored for her moving take on life’s “what ifs” in Past Lives.
I saw thirteen films over the course of the four-day festival. While I liked most of what I saw, I noticed that biopics and toxic relationships ruled this year’s lineup. Some films fell into both of those categories like Maestro and Priscilla. I tended to favorite some of the more unconventional narratives like the grounded and tender coming-of-age story Frybread Face and Me by Indigenous filmmaker Billy Luther or German director Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge, a tale that twists school politics with everyday injustice. Both gentlemen were at Middleburg.
Thirty-nine films were shown this year. Of course, I didn’t get to see every single one, and l left with some future must-sees. Fellow critics raved about Cord Jefferson’s satiric take on representation and Blackness in American Fiction, which our Travis Hopson reviewed. Someone told me that the animated Robot Dreams was a film they could have watched over and over. The documentary short The Last Repair Shop comes from Middleburg favorite Kris Bowers who you may know from his scores in Bridgerton, King Richard, and Green Book. The one-hour film was shown on Sunday, with Bowers getting an award on Sunday.
Here are my three favorite films I saw at the Middleburg Film Festival:
Anatomy of A Fall
Sandra Hüller gives a riveting and calculated performance as a woman put on trial for possibly killing her husband in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. Even though the film is two and a half hours, the realistic and precise dialogue makes the time in the theater fly by. Triet smartly uses the courtroom drama format to not only cut through what happened but to shine a light on a troubled and long-dead marriage. Newcomer Milo Machado-Graner gives a nuanced performance as the blind son struggling with his mother’s possible innocence.
Barry Keoghan could get his second Oscar nomination for his twisted and dazzling performance in Emerald Fennell’s brilliantly deviant Saltburn. The Irish actor stars as Oliver Quick, an Oxford student of low social and financial standing who spends the summer at his rich friend’s home (Jacob Elordi) to disastrous consequences. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant stand out in killer supporting roles. You may remember Fennell for her first feature Promising Young Woman. If you thought that film was biting, Saltburn will take your head clean off. Debaucherous, Shocking, and just plain fun, it won’t be for everybody but those who do love it, are lucky.
All of Us Strangers
No easy answers are given in director Andrew Haigh’s romantic and heartbreaking fantastical drama. The always brilliant Andrew Scott plays a lonely gay man living in an almost empty London high-rise. When he starts getting close to a neighbor (a mesmerizing Paul Mescal), he starts seeing his dead parents played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell. It’s the small everyday conversations that Scott has that devastate you as a viewer and Haigh’s dialogue knows just what buttons to push to move his audience. All of Us Strangers is a harrowing meditation on grief.