Middleburg Film Festival gives rural Virginia a sneak peek at Oscar race

Great cinema comes to beautiful horse country at the Middleburg Film Festival. (Courtesy Middleburg Film Festival)

WASHINGTON — Nothing says fall like watching leaves and films in Virginia horse country.

It’s time once again for the sixth annual Middleburg Film Festival running Thursday to Sunday.

“It’s beautiful,” founder Sheila Johnson told WTOP. “The leaves are changing, it’s now chilly, we just have a lot of fun parties, it’s a big open space and everyone can walk around and enjoy the town. We are now up to 29 films, the most films we’ve ever had, so we’ve really grown.”

This year’s festival is expected to bring 5,000 people to picturesque Middleburg, Virginia.

“Ticket sales have just skyrocketed,” executive director Susan Koch told WTOP. “I mean, there’s a limit, because we like the intimacy of the festival, so we don’t want people to feel like it’s going to get too big or crowded, but I think we’ve grown. There’s different ways to grow, and one of the ways we feel that we’ve grown is by the talent that will be coming this year.”

It’s also our area’s first look at many of this year’s upcoming Oscar contenders. That includes the acclaimed opening night selection of “Roma,” the latest by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron of “Gravity,” “Children of Men” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

“It’s an extraordinary film,” Koch said. “I’ve seen it twice, and I just feel like it kind of just draws you in and all of a sudden you feel like you’re just immersed in it. It’s Alfonso’s most personal film because he painstakingly recreated his childhood down to the slightest detail. It’s set in 1971 Mexico City, where there was political turmoil going on, but it’s really about the two women in his life: his mother, who’s going through a difficult marriage, and his nanny.”

Lead actress Yalitza Aparicio will attend to explain her rags-to-riches journey.

“Alfonso has been quoted as saying she’s the most extraordinary actress that he’s ever worked with,” Koch said. “She’s now on all of the top lists for an Oscar nod for Best Lead Actress. Never acted before, she was found in a small village in Mexico, she wasn’t even going to try out, she went along with her sister who was trying out … and the rest — there ya go!”

Friday continues with “Boy Erased” starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton, who will hold a post-screening Q&A about writing, directing and starring in the movie.

“He plays a self-anointed therapist at a gay conversion treatment center,” Johnson said. “It’s a very timely film that the LGBT community can really relate to. This young man who’s gay has parents, the father’s a pastor, so they do not believe in being gay, put him through ‘conversion therapy.’ It’s a very dramatic, painful film, but very telling. Something we all need to watch.”

The fun continues Saturday with a tribute to Diane Warren, who will give a live performance.

“She’s a great Academy Award-nominated songwriter,” Johnson said. “She’s done everything from Lady Gaga’s songs, Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Tina Turner, Elton John, Whitney Houston, the list can go on and on. We’re very excited to have her.”

Saturday afternoon also includes a panel discussion at the Boxwood Winery with four local movie critics, including Nell Minow, Travis Hopson, Susan Wloszczyna and yours truly.

“For all of you who disagree with the critics, this is your chance to talk back!” Koch joked.

Saturday’s centerpiece film is “The Front Runner” about the downfall of Sen. Gary Hart, played by Hugh Jackman. Director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air,” “Juno,” “Tully”) will be in attendance.

“It takes place over the course of three weeks when Senator Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign looked like he was going all the way. There were rumors about marital issues and he dared the reporters to put a tail on me. Two Miami Herald reporters did just that and caught him with this woman, Donna Rice. Within three weeks the campaign was over.”

Sunday kicks off with an intimate conversation with Maggie Gyllenhaal at the Salamander Resort and Spa, followed by a screening of her new movie “The Kindergarten Teacher.”

It all culminates with the closing night film “Green Book,” a sort of reverse “Driving Miss Daisy” about a black concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver (Viggo Mortensen) traveling to gigs in venues where he can’t eat or use the restroom due to racism in the 1960s South.

“It’s about an African American concert pianist who hires a white driver to get him through,” Johnson said. “It’s a very timely movie because of things we’re still going through, racial tensions at this time. … I’m excited about it. Kris Bowers, who is the African American jazz pianist who worked with Mahershala to play the piano, is also his double in the movie!”

Regardless of what you see, there’s a good chance you’ll be watching a memorable movie.

“If the film you had your heart set on is sold out, take a chance on another film,” Koch said.

“There’s not a bad film in the lineup,” Johnson promised.

Find out more on the festival website. Hear our full chat with Sheila Johnson & Susan Koch below:


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