After just seven years, the Middleburg Film Festival has become a major cultural event, showcasing not-yet-released films likely to be on a lot of year-end ten-best lists, presented by filmmakers, all in one of the state’s most beautiful settings out in the countryside about 30 miles from Washington D.C. For me, the highlight every year is an event unique to Middleburg, a tribute to a film composer. Festival founder and visionary Sheila Johnson originally studied to be a concert violinist, and she says that without music, movies have no soul. She wants audiences to understand that film scores are not about what you hum as you leave the theater; the music helps to tell the story and reveal the characters. It helps you feel the feelings the people who made the movie wanted you to feel. The festival always includes a tribute featuring a full orchestra performing the composer’s work.
This year’s awardee was Terence Blanchard, who has composed the smoky, jazz-influenced scores for films including Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” “Clockers,” “BlackKklansman,” “Inside Man,” and “25th Hour” as well as Lee’s documentary that was very personal for Blanchard, who is from New Orleans, the Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke.”
Blanchard also brought his own ensemble, the E Collective. He spoke about his career, including performing with Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey, about going to music camp with Wynton and Branford Marsalis when they were children, about how he works with different directors, and about his long friendship with director Kasi Lemmons, from “Eve’s Bayou” to her newest film, “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo, which was also featured at the festival. Blanchard and Lemmons have collaborated on an opera based on Charles Blow’s memoir, called “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
Another event I look forward to every year is the “Talk Back to the Critics” panel, when audience members get to ask us about movies and let us know when they disagree with our reviews. Sharing the stage with my friends Travis Hobson, Tim Gordon, Susan Wloszczyna, and Jason Fraley in the sunny courtyard of the Old Ox Brewery
“Harriet” was one of the highlights of the festival, the stirring story of Harriet Tubman, who escaped enslavement by running from Maryland to Pennsylvania without a map — and could not have read one if one existed. She then returned repeatedly to rescue more than 70 other enslaved persons, including elderly and an infant and then, during the Civil War, became the first — and still one of the very few — women to lead U.S. military forces in batter. Erivo’s performance is powerful and moving, and the superb cast includes “Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom, Jr., Jonelle Monae, and Joe Alwyn.
Probably the most anticipated film at the festival was saved for the last spot, which, as Festival director Susan Koch, had gone to the films later selected for Best Picture Oscars the previous two years. This time it was Martin Scorsese’s elegiac three and a half hour epic “The Irishman,” starring Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro as the title character, once Hoffa’s most trusted colleague, who later confessed to murdering him. We see the characters age over 40 years, with the help of computer imaging.
Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in a searing look at a deteriorating relationship. Each appeared in another high profile film in the festival, Johansson in “Jo Jo Rabbit,” about an Austrian boy in the last months of WWII — with writer/director Taika Waititi playing the child’s imagined version of Hitler, and Driver as the real-life investigator who wrote the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the torture of witnesses detained by the CIA.
Ira Sachs’ “Frankie” is the sensitively told story of a day in the life of an actress (Isabelle Huppert) vacationing with her family in Portugal. “Waves” is a poetic look at a family with two teenagers who have to deal with the aftermath of tragedy. My favorite, and I suspect the favorite of many others, too, was Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Put it on your calendar to take the family to see for Thanksgiving. And maybe put Middleburg on your calendar for next year as well.