Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 18th, 2023
The annual Middleburg Film Festival, held in Middleburg, Virginia, is back for the 11th time, the 2023 iteration running Thursday, October 19, to Sunday, October 22, with almost 40 exciting feature films to choose from, along with the usual number of exciting other events, including panels and an outdoor concert. Highlights of this year’s festival include Rustin director George C. Wolfe attending in person and being presented with the festival’s Impact Award. Other guests who will be in attendance include The Holdovers director Alexander Payne (to receive the Director Spotlight Award), Saltburn director Emerald Fennell (to receive the Agnès Varda Trailblazing Film Artist Award), and noted film composer Michael Giacchino (to receive Distinguished Composer Award). Many other artists will be present at their movies’ Q&As. To see a full list of all screenings and events, visit the festival website.
I have seen a number of films playing Middleburg, mostly at previous festivals, including La Chimera, The Lady Bird Diaries, and Past Lives (titles hyperlinked to my reviews), all of which I heartily recommend. What follows are my additional recommendations of 5 films I have only just recently watched via screener link. Each of these titles is hyperlinked to the movie’s page on the Middleburg site. The capsule descriptions are excerpted from longer reviews I have written for Hammer to Nail (only two of which have been so far published, as of this writing). Once I see more films on the ground in Middleburg, expect some full-length reviews for this site.
Invisible Nation (Vanessa Hope) [excerpted from my pending Hammer to Nail review]
An island with a long history of colonization by both Europeans and Imperial Chinese, Taiwan (the Republic of China, or the ROC) is in as precarious a position as ever it has been, thanks to the “One China” principle of mainland China (the People’s Republic of China, or the PRC), via which it lays claim to the ROC as its own. And given the PRC’s current economic and political might on this only planet of ours, it has managed to strong-arm many other countries into adopting the same policy, or something close to it. This is the story told by director Vanessa Hope in the aptly named Invisible Nation, a documentary that centers Taiwan’s fight for survival. Given that the ROC has, since the 1970s, moved firmly away from its previous authoritarianism (courtesy of one-time ruler Chiang Kai-shek) towards a multi-party democracy, one would think this fact would make the country a natural ally of other democracies. Indeed, one would think.
Some folks get high on life, others on narcotics, while still others on God. Religion is a hell of a drug, in fact. In The Mission, the latest documentary from the married duo Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (Boys State), we meet John Chau, a well-intentioned young Christian would-be missionary who, in 2018, fell afoul of the very folks he hoped to convert: the residents of North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal. Cautionary tales are a cinematic dime a dozen. This one truly resonates.
The Persian Version (Maryam Keshavarz) [excerpted from my pending Hammer to Nail review]
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Maryam Keshavarz’s semi-autobiographical film The Persian Version comes from its ability to manage vastly disparate tones and make the combination so often work. From ribald humor to pathos rooted in genuine hardship and tragedy, writer/director Keshavarz (Viper Club) mixes contrasting scenes into a flavorful cinematic stew that proves mostly filling. Her energetic cast, jaunty score and vibrant production design all add to the satisfying meal.
The Teachers’ Lounge (Ilker Çatak) [excerpted from my pending Hammer to Nail review]
In his latest film, The Teachers’ Lounge, German director Ilker Çatak (Blurred Lines) crafts a harrowing emotional thriller set in a secondary school. Not since Laurent Cantet’s 2008 The Class have we seen a movie tackle classroom politics in quite such a direct and moving fashion. Filled with powerful performances—many from the child actors, but also from magnificent lead actress Leonie Benesch (Persian Lessons)—this searing drama of connection forged through betrayal holds us in its thrall from the very first scene.
The tragedy of death is that life is precious, no matter the frequent horrors of this world. The best films about dying remind us of this basic fact, and Tótem, from Mexican director Lila Avilés (The Chambermaid), is very good, offering a child’s point of view on the rapid decline of a parent. There’s nothing like innocence lost to contextualize sorrow in universal terms. Tótem transforms its meditation on loss into a grand cinematic carnival that still manages to respect the gravity of the situation. The mostly handheld camera work of cinematographer Diego Tenorio (The Dove and the Wolf), shooting in the Academy ratio, works in close tandem with the seemingly effortless performances of the talented ensemble to deliver moments of powerful sentiment. May we all live so fully.