AWFJ @ Middleburg Film Festival – Sandie Angulo Chen reports

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The ninth year of the Middleburg Film Festival brought back the fest’s in-person programming in Virginia horse country. Founded by Sheila Johnson and run by executive director Susan Koch, the four-day festival continues to feature an impressive slate of diverse and thoughtfully-curated narrative and documentary feature films (34 this year). AWFJ members in attendance included Nell Minow and Susan Wloszczyna, both of whom once again participated in the Talk Back to the Critics’ session; Jazz Tangcay, who moderated the festival’s tribute to women in film music, including the legendary Diane Warren (MFF’s 2018 Distinguished Songwriter Honoree); Lauren Bradshaw; Leslie Combemale; and Sandie Angulo Chen. Several of us attended the annual Women in Film luncheon, and frequently got together in between screenings to compare notes about our favorite films and performances from the 2021 festival.

Here are our picks for AWFJ readers to put on their must-watch lists.

Mae Abdulaki: Written and directed by Mike Mills, C’mon C’mon explores adults and their confusing, beautiful, poignant, gentle relationships with children and one another. The film hinges upon Johnny’s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationship with Jesse (Woody Norman), the nephew he hasn’t seen in over a year after Johnny’s sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) leaves town to care for her ill husband. Interspersed with Johnny’s interviews with kids from around the country — “What scares you the most?” “What is your hope for the future?” — Mills infuses the film with thought-provoking, contemplative conversations about life, love, and pain. The film is soulful and deep without being pretentious. In the writer-director’s capable hands, C’mon C’mon is a beautifully told and captivating story that pulls at the heartstrings.

Lauren Bradsaw: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter is a triumph — a brave and powerful portrayal of motherhood and womanhood from a perspective we never get to see onscreen. It focuses more on a woman’s love of herself than one solely focused on her role as a wife and mother. Olivia Colman gives a powerhouse performance, with the uncanny ability to make you laugh out loud one second, cringe another, and finally cry your eyes out the next. Her chemistry with the always-amazing Dakota Johnson is off the charts, despite having few scenes with direct conversations between the two. The Lost Daughter is a movie that is going to stick with you for a while in the way that any great art piece does, and maybe even make you think twice about how society speaks about motherhood and the female experience.

Sandie Angulo Chen: I was only able to attend five films at this year’s festival, so instead of selecting a movie, I’m going to highlight some wonderful performances. First, Ann Dowd, who received the 2021 Agnès Varda Trailblazing Film Artist Award, is a revelation playing the mother of a school shooter in Mass. Although it’s Will Smith in the titular role, King Richard benefits from fabulous turns by Smith’s on-screen wife Aunjanue Ellis as Serena and Venus Williams’ outspoken, hard-working mom Brandi. The girls are amazing as well — Demi Singleton (Serena) and Saniyya Sidney (Venus). Molly Parker stands out opposite an excellent Clifton Collins Jr. as a horse trainer in Jockey. Last but certainly not least, Kristen Stewart is luminous as the late Princess Diana in Spencer.

Leslie Combemale: Of all the films I screened at the Middleburg Film Festival, Cyrano was the film that surprised me the most and blew me away. I had heard about The Power of The Dog and knew it had gotten great buzz, so its greatness wasn’t a surprise. I’ve seen at least six staged theater versions and every film adaptation of Cyrano. I can say that Joe Wright’s film, based on a musical interpretation by Erica Schmidt, is wonderful, joyful, and poignant in all the best ways. Peter Dinklage is at a career best, bringing a new authenticity to a beloved character introduced to the world in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. The music is powerful and personal, written by members of the indie band The National. All the songs are sung live, keeping a truth and a rawness that only enhances the storytelling. I can’t wait for audiences to see it!

Nell Minow: I loved every one of the films I saw at Middleburg, and, as always, the highlight was the annual composer award, this year to Charles Fox, who had us singing along to some of his classic TV theme songs. The movie that meant the most to me this year was “Cyrano,” on many levels. The original play is a long-time favorite and I have seen many versions. And Peter Dinklage has been a favorite of mine since “The Station Agent.” His complete command of his subtle, complex, gallant, heart-wrenching performance was breathtaking. The settings and costumes were breathtaking and the heightened theatricality of tone was perfectly suited to the story. I can’t wait to see it again.

Jazz Tangcay: Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s piece de resistance. It is a masterpiece. Everything from his casting to his cinematography to his editing – and, of course, the incredible Van Morrison soundtrack – that make up the film are beautiful. In Belfast, Kenneth Branagh has shared a very deeply personal story with audiences to love. It will make you smile. It will make you laugh. It may even make you cry. But it is a beautiful tale. And watch out Academy Awards! I think we have our Oscar Best Picture frontrunner.

Susan Wloszczyna: The Humans: I have always adored films that involve dysfunctional families — Pieces of April, Hannah and Her Sisters, Home for the Holidays, The Big Chill, You’ve Got Mail — that take place at Thanksgiving, and this one is a doozy, considering it often feels like a haunted house movie whose setting seems to reflect the uneasy emotions of the clan. Director Stephen Karam’s big-screen adaptation of his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play that is set in a rather ram-shackled and likely dangerous Manhattan apartment avoids feeling cramped and stagey thanks to a setting that has multiple levels. But what truly makes this essential viewing are the cast members. Amy Schumer gets most of the laugh lines while Beanie Feldstein plays her sister and hosts the spread with husband Steven Yeun. But it is the elder cast members that make the biggest impression – Jayne Houdyshell as the mom, June Squibb as their grandmother and — most of all – wonderful character actor and two-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins as their worrywart father. If he isn’t a shoo-in for a little gold man for this role, there is no justice to be had.

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Sandie Angulo Chen

Sandie Angulo Chen is a feature writer, film critic, and book reviewer. She’s written about movies and pop culture since high school, contributing to outlets like Common Sense Media, The Washington Post, EW, Moviefone, and Variety. She lives outside Washington D.C. with her husband and their three young cinephiles.