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Location, Location, Location: The Middleburg Film Festival

Sometimes where you are when you see a movie can make a big difference.

That point was made abundantly clear while watching “The Homesman,” a rare female-driven Western directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. While focusing on the plight of Hilary Swank’s self-sufficient plains dweller and Jones’s scofflaw scalawag as they accompany three mentally disturbed women across a godforsaken expanse of the Midwest, I heard a voice behind me suddenly utter, “Sweet horse.”

That reaction made all the sense, equine and otherwise, in the world I was in: the midst of the autumnal splendor of Virginia hunt country, an hour or so drive from Washington, D.C. Afterwards, I asked the woman why she had made that comment. Basically, she admired the handsome white-and brown steed’s acting abilities. Never mind that two Oscar-winning humans were turning in their own strong performances.

I had missed the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival last year—mostly because I had never heard of it before. But the rave reactions to the event by fellow D.C.-area critics made me determined to participate this year. Besides, how many film festivals use a sprawling luxury resort as their home base? Or thrive without having an actual movie theater? Or are surrounded by some of the state’s premier wineries?

Besides location, the size of the four-day festival is also a draw. Unlike the frustrating lines, overwhelming choices and crush of star-gazing humanity that defines the Toronto International Film Festival, Middleburg is a cinematic version of a high-end boutique experience. That’s partly because its main venue is the ballroom of The Salamander Resort and Spa, while the others are a small performing arts center, a sports museum and a historic hall. I did not pursue the possibility, but I wondered if they offer a movie-and-massage package? 

But even though the seats and sightlines might be less than perfect, there is no denying that the titles being shown—20 this year, two more than last—are impressive in their scope, quality and diversity. The centerpiece was the Oscar-touted biopic “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch as brilliant World War II codebreaker Alan Turing. Both the film’s director, Morten Tyldum, and actor Allen Leech (hunky Tom Branson of “Downton Abbey”), appeared as fest participants. Another Academy-friendly entry is "Mr. Turner," Mike Leigh’s masterful opus about the legendary British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner.

There were also a large number of foreign-language Oscar hopefuls: “Two Days, One Night” from Belgium, “Force Majeure” from Sweden, “Human Capital” from Italy. And some of the best-reviewed docs of the year made the trip as well: “The Overnighters,” “Seymour: An Introduction,” “Red Army.” 

Even the special events—including a tribute to three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood (a Tim Burton fave whose handiwork is on display in the upcoming “Big Eyes” and “Into the Woods”) followed by a Halloween-themed masquerade ball and a concert with a 75-piece orchestra in honor of composer Marco Beltrami (besides “The Homesman,” his resume includes “The Hurt Locker,” “Snowpiercer,” “World War Z” and “Scream”)—exhibit great care, exquisite taste and the savviness of a Hollywood insider. 

Those qualities are a reflection of the primary initiator of this little fest that could: Sheila Johnson. The billionaire co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), an investor in several local pro sports teams and the second wealthiest African-American female in the United States (right after Oprah Winfrey) is a patron and participant in the arts. She began taking violin lessons at age nine and majored in music at Roger Ebert’s alma mater, the University of Illinois.

But Johnson, 65, has always been a movie fan as well. The first film she remembers seeing was “West Side Story.” “That was made a huge impression on me,” she says. “I went back four times.” “My Fair Lady” made an impression. She loves comedy, but not slapstick. She enjoys James Bond adventures and love stories, but not sci-fi.  “And I adore foreign films,” she says. “I just came back from Bali, and saw four foreign films going there and four more coming back. That is a lot of subtitles.”

Johnson is also a filmmaker herself, having served as an executive producer on four documentaries and on “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”—which, naturally, was part of last year’s schedule. She also is on the board of the Sundance Institute. That is how the Horse Whisperer himself, Robert Redford, became Johnson’s Festival Whisperer. When she invited him to see the 340-acre site for her resort, he looked around the quaint environs of Middleburg and proclaimed, “This would be a great place for a film festival.”

But Johnson made sure that her annual salute to the movies reflects her surroundings. Instead of red carpet opportunities and celebrities stealing the spotlight, she wants to provide an opportunity for locals and beyond to share in the communal act of watching a film and engage in debate both with filmmakers and each other afterwards. “Festivals like Sundance have gotten so big,” she says. “People come to this festival with friends. They can walk here. I want to open their minds. When we showed “The Butler,” people were crying afterwards. They had immersed themselves in the film. It is so important that people aren’t afraid to step outside themselves and get into critical debate.”

The fact that many of the films and events were sold out proves that there is a hunger out there to have a more enriching movie-going experience.

It makes sense that this onetime music teacher decided to open this year’s edition of the festival with a musical, “The Last 5 Years,” an adaptation of the cult off-Broadway show starring Anna Kendrick and directed by noted screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (“Beloved,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “The Fisher King,” TV’s “Behind the Candelabra”). And, unlike many small festivals, LaGravenese was in attendance and did a Q&A afterwards. He proved to be a candid and witty addition, remarking to the D.C.-area crowd that included Tim Kaine, a Virginia senator and former governor, “If anyone has to leave to fix the economy or check on drones, don’t be afraid to leave.”

Judging from the fairly packed houses at the four movies I attended on Friday, the first full day of the festival, Redford was right. This is a great place for a festival. Of course, no festival, no matter how well-planned, is immune to glitches. And the morning started with a biggie: Just as Marion Cotillard hit her lowest point in “Two Days, One Night“ as a factory laborer who must beg her co-workers to vote for her to save her job, the screen flashed first yellow, then green and then went silent. With about 15 or so more minutes left to go, the audience was left hanging. It seems that the digital copy that was sent was flawed. Disappointment hung heavy in the air, but any grumbling was kept to a minimum.

As fate would have it, those who stayed to see “Dior and I,” which plays like “Project Runway” on steroids, would receive some sort of closure. The documentary captures eight frantic and intense weeks in 2012 when creative director Raf Simons produced his first fall-winter collection for the esteemed French fashion house. The climax, of course, is the runway show, and who should show up, looking more like her usual glowing self than her emotionally beaten character in “Two Days, One Night,” but Cotillard.

My final film of the day was “Clouds of Sils Maria,” a fascinating take on an “All About Eve” situation set in the breathtakingly mountainous terrain of Switzerland. Juliette Binoche is a famous actress about to perform in a revival of a play that made her the star—only this time as the older character. Chloe Grace Moretz is the Hollywood brat upstart who takes over her career-making role while a bespectacled Kristin Stewart is quite good as Binoche’s confidant and assistant.

I started to love the fact that so many of the films during the first full day of the Middleburg festival, as well as the tribute to Atwood, focused on women and female-driven films. Yet as I went to the ladies room after the film, I was bugged by how one major character disappears without a trace in “Clouds of Sils Maria.” As I washed my hands, I noticed a woman at the other sink. Suddenly, I blurted out, “So what did happen to (so and so)?”

It was as if she was bursting at the seams to discuss the scene with someone. We got into a passionate discussion, with us both settling on a reasonable theory to what occurred by the time we exited the venue.

Johnson would have been so pleased.

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