As I did in 2016 and 2017, I just recently attended the Middleburg Film Festival (founded in 2013), in its sixth iteration, from October 18-21. As always, it takes place in a beautiful part of Virginia, about an hour from Washington, DC. With almost 30 features to choose from, the festival, small as it is, has a lot to offer the avid cinephile, especially since so many filmmakers and actors attend, as well. I once more only saw 8 films on the ground, though I had previously seen 7 others at the Toronto International Film Festival. What follows are my top five from the movies I watched at the actual festival, in alphabetical order, with brief capsule reviews of each (adaptations of longer reviews I wrote for Hammer to Nail). Unfortunately, none of my choices received either of the audience awards – which went to Green Book (narrative fiction) and The Biggest Little Farm (documentary) –though I assure you that the movies listed below are all excellent. Enjoy!
As addiction dramas go, Ben Is Back may not be as brutal as some of the recent documentaries about our national opiate-abuse problem, like Recovery Boys or the Oscar-nominated Heroin(e), but it still packs quite the dramatic punch. Featuring powerful performances from its two leads – Julia Roberts (Wonder) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) – as mother and son Holly and Ben, the film profiles their struggle to overcome past trauma and make a fresh start. The fact that it’s Christmas only heightens the tension: take the usual family dysfunction at the holidays, add a dash of drugs and danger, and one has a recipe for more than just disaster. In the capable hands of writer/director Peter Hedges (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) – and yes, Lucas is his son – the potentially maudlin material is never less than gripping, taking us on an emotional roller coaster of a ride right up to its fraught final moments. Beyond the central narrative, I particularly admire Hedge’s light touch around the edges, reminding us that not all moments, even in tense situations, need be highly pitched (a cute little dog helps). Ben Is Back should be seen, and seen now, speaking as it does to our past, present, and possible future.
Based on Garrard Conley’s eponymous 2016 memoir, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased follows the story of a young man compelled to attend gay-conversion therapy after he is outed by a college classmate. Jared has grown up in a deeply conservative religious family, expected to follow his parents in faith and mission. When his personal trajectory deviates from the norm, those parents act – according to their beliefs – to save him from himself. The consequences are unpleasant. This is Australian actor Edgerton’s second feature as director (his first was The Gift, in 2015). With remarkable emotional reserve, he walks us through material that could quickly descend into histrionics, maintaining his cinematic cool as he explores the complex drama with sharp observational skills. Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) movingly plays Jared as a vibrant – if confused – soul, in need of genuine empathy, struggling against a system that offers only disapproval. Given that the film roundly condemns the widely debunked therapy at its center, Edgerton nevertheless refuses to reduce Jared’s antagonists to caricature. It is to the film’s great credit – and is, in fact, its main thesis – that everyone suffers when we deny human nature.
An intriguing and witty period piece from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite tells the story of Queen Anne of Great Britain and Ireland (1665-1714, ruled 1702-1714) and the duel between two cousins over who should be her prized lady-in-waiting. Such a tale might sound odd to anyone familiar with Lanthimos’ earlier work, which includes such delightful oddities as Dogtooth and The Lobster (his first English-language feature), but the film is not as much of a departure as one might think. As ever fixated on dispassionate examinations of secretive groups governed by arcane rules, he has found in early-18th-century England a perfect time and place for his obsessions, at least as he represents life at court, here. What is new is the amount of emotion and verbal jousting on screen. Leaving the monotone delivery of dialogue behind, Lanthimos empowers his excellent cast – headlined by Olivia Colman (Queen Elizabeth in Season 3 of Netflix’s The Crown), Rachel Weisz (My Cousin Rachel) and Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes) – to express themselves with a wider range of feeling than that usually allowed in his œuvre. Combined with his customary precise compositions and mise-en-scène, this twist in style makes the film at once fresh and familiar.
Nia DaCosta’s debut feature, Little Woods, begins with a late twentysomething (or so) woman, Ollie, digging up a mysterious package in a forest, in morning or evening twilight. Her task done, she walks down a country road, only to find herself chased by a pickup. Smash cut to her sudden awakening, and we assume it’s a dream, though we soon learn that some nightmares remain even after sleeping. Ollie, it seems, cannot escape her demons, real or imagined, trapped as she is in her native North Dakota, where the oil boom makes legitimate money for everyone but the locals. All she can do is sell illegitimate OxyContin to the drillers; that is, that’s all she could do, before, but by the time we meet her, she’s on parole, her drug-selling days behind her. Ollie is played by Tessa Thompson (South Dakota), a highly skilled actress who telegraphs intelligence and emotion with little externalization. Her sister Deb – single mother to a young son, living in a trailer illegally parked in a commercial shopping center – is played by Lily James (Cinderella). Thompson and James make a fine pair, matching each other resentment for resentment, kindness for kindness. Spare in her writing and expressive in her visuals, DaCosta works with an adept assurance that belies her dearth of experience behind the camera. Unafraid to leave much unsaid, she does exactly that; her characters speak as people do when they have long history, without unnecessary exposition. The story may be bleak, but the discovery of a talent as bright as DaCosta’s is as hopeful as it gets.
Coming to Netflix on November 2 are two related films, the one the long-awaited completion of a project first begun in 1970 by Orson Welles (1915-1985), and the other a documentary about that same movie: The Other Side of the Wind and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. I haven’t yet seen the former (yet), but the latter is a brilliant exploration of the nature of art, celebrity and storytelling, offering a detailed look at the creative process of one of the 20thcentury’s most visionary cineastes. Director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) walks us through the movie’s complicated history with panache, combining artfully staged talking heads with copious amounts of archival footage, both of the behind-the-scenes variety and of the actual movie within the movie. Actor Alan Cumming (After Louie), nattily dressed and photographed in black and white, is our nominal narrator, but there are plenty of other commentators on the action, among them Peter Bogdanovich (a rising directorial star at the time of The Other Side of the Wind, who plays a version of himself in that film), Danny Huston (son of John Huston, who plays an Orson Welles-like character in Wind), Beatrice Welles (daughter of Orson), Oja Kodar (Welles’ leading lady at the time, both on- and off-screen), among many others, as well as Welles, himself, featured in most of the period material. It’s a terrific snapshot both of the era and of the timeless difficulties of independent filmmaking.
As for the three other films I saw at the actual festival, I really enjoyed Peter Farrelly’s Green Book (the audience winner both here and at Toronto), and it is a close runner-up to the above top five. Starring Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) as real-life musician Don Shirley and his driver/bodyguard Tony Lip (born Vallelonga), the film offers a feel-good journey through the Jim Crow South in 1962, where tough life lessons are learned by all. Though the movie oversimplifies the issues it portrays, the two leads are very enjoyable, and we need stories of racial harmony more than ever today. It’s no wonder the movie, two-dimensional as it is, at times, is such a crowd-pleaser.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma was a bit of a disappointment. Beautifully photographed as it is (by Cuarón, himself), the film comes across as little more than a nostalgic celebration of the sacrifices made by the director’s childhood housekeeper/nanny. As such, it is insulting in its approach to domestic servitude, though the movie frequently comes close to being something more, as Cuarón approaches a myriad of important issues of race, gender, and class without doing anything with them. Still, a series of masterfully realized sketches can still be engaging, at times, and the central performance from newcomer Yalitza Aparicio holds our interest, throughout.
Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, however, starring Hugh Jackman (Logan) as American politician Gary Hart, who was forced to withdraw from the 1988 Democratic presidential primary because of a sexual affair (how quaint, right?), has even less raison d’être to justify its making. A film without a point of view on its subject – a fact strangely touted as a plus at the Q&A, by director and writers, alike – The Front Runner neither offers any insight into why this story is worth telling now, nor analyzed what it means that our politics has changed so much since then. Instead – most disturbing of all – Reitman and company imply that the real sin of the time was that the press, doing its job, went too far in invading the privacy of an otherwise decent man. Incredible, but true. Oh, and can we please stop seeing movies where powerful actresses are reduced to “the wife” kind of role? Thank you. Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) can do a whole lot better.
Of the films I had already seen, I recommend Capernaum, The Kindergarten Teacher, Shoplifters, and Woman at War. All in all, that makes 9 films I can wholeheartedly endorse, with a (slightly) qualified recommendation for the 10th (Green Book). That’s a successful festival. I will, yet again, most likely return next year. Will you join me?