Since 2013, the Middleburg Film Festival has predicted numerous Oscar contenders.
This year, the festival pivots to virtual and drive-in screenings at the Salamander Resort & Spa in picturesque Middleburg, Virginia, from Thursday through Sunday.
“We decided to keep the movies outdoors or do virtually,” founder Sheila Johnson told WTOP. “We’ve got a beautiful, huge screen set up on the grand lawn … and we’ve got 30 rooms that face the screen, so they can sit on the balconies and watch from there. We also have a drive-in set up in our lower parking lot (with) 50 cars and food trucks.”
The drive-in lineup kicks off Thursday with Venice Film Fest champ “Nomadland.”
“‘Nomadland’ is directed by Chloé Zhao, who did ‘The Rider’ … and it stars Frances McDormand,” executive director Susan Koch said. “She plays this woman, Fern, whose town out West has been completely decimated. … So she outfits an old van, takes off and joins this group of nomads, who travel through the country.”
Thursday also includes Edward Hall’s adaptation of the play “Blithe Spirit.”
“(It stars) Dame Judi Dench, Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann,” Koch said. “It’s a comedy, of course, a farce, which is always nice to have this time of year when so many of the films tend to be on the heavier, darker side.”
Friday brings the uniquely urban Western, “Concrete Cowboy.”
“‘Concrete Cowboy’ stars Idris Elba,” Koch said. “His son lives in Detroit with his mother; he’s getting into trouble … so she takes him to Philadelphia to live with his father. There he steps into this world of urban cowboys. It’s really terrific.”
Friday also brings the harrowing documentary “The Dissident.”
“‘The Dissident’ is a documentary by Bryan Fogle, who won an Oscar for ‘Icarus,'” Koch said. “It’s about the investigation into the murder of [Washington Post reporter] Jamal Khashoggi [at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul]. A very powerful documentary.”
Saturday brings Regina King’s directorial debut “One Night in Miami.”
“It’s the story of this [fictional] meeting after the Sonny Liston fight, where Cassius Clay won,” Koch said. “It’s with Malcolm X, the football player Jim Brown, Cassius Clay and Sam Cooke, played by Leslie Odom. It’s the story of their meeting on the night of that famous fight in Miami. It’s really a terrific film. The acting is superb.”
It’s paired in a double feature with the romance “Ammonite.”
“‘Ammonite’ stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan,” Koch said. “Kate Winslet digs for these dinosaurs fossils and artifacts along the windswept coast (in 1840s England). She’s an embittered woman. Saoirse Ronan plays a young woman suffering from severe melancholy, who comes to live with her. It’s a beautiful love story.”
In addition to the in-person screenings, you can also watch many of the films virtually, including “76 Days,” “MLK/FBI,” “Billie,” “I Am Greta,” “Sound of Metal,” “Minari,” “Assassins,” “Concrete Cowboy,” and “One Night in Miami.” There’s a 24-hour virtual window for all, except for “The Dissident,” which is only available for three hours.
“We’re offering 24 really fantastic films this year, and 20 of them will be available virtually,” Koch said. “There are just four, where the distributors did not want them shown virtually. That’s because there’s just such a level of security involved when you are screening films that are not yet released and are Oscar contenders.”
As always, you can also enjoy Q&As with leading artists, including Sophia Loren, Aaron Sorkin, Chloé Zhao, Aldis Hodge, George C. Wolfe and Kris Bowers.
“Every year we honor a composer,” Koch said. “We recorded a concert with Kris Bowers at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. … Kris is actually playing on the same piano that Nat King Cole used. He’s joined for two songs by Andra Day, who plays Billie Holiday in the biopic directed by Lee Daniels that’ll be coming out in 2021.”
Finally, the annual Talkback with the Critics panel will be held on Zoom this year, featuring Travis Hopson (Punch Drunk Critics), Nell Minow (Roger Ebert), Susan Wloszczyna (Gold Derby), Tim Gordon (FilmGordon) and yours truly, WTOP entertainment reporter Jason Fraley.
“We heard from so many of our filmgoers how important the festival was to them,” Koch said. “So many people wrote us saying, ‘This is our favorite event of the year, please, please [have it]. Even if it’s different, we want it.’ … We’re very excited to present this hybrid festival. If they can’t join us in person, please join us virtually.”