The 2018 Virginia Film Festival: Opening Minds, Engaging Hearts     

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By Ken Wilson –

We gather in the dark to see better in the light. Revelation and apprehension, moral suasion and informed reflection . . . cinema expands our knowledge, clarifies our thinking and moves us to action for our own sakes and our neighbor’s. Opening our eyes, it opens our hearts—or just our mouths to laugh out loud.

Always topical, always surprising, by turns invigorating, agitating and just plain funny, the Virginia Film Festival takes over Charlottesville theaters each fall with a hometown-curated selection of buzz-generating new films and history-making oldies, attracting cinemaphiles, cinematographers, the clued in and the merely curious. All told, it’s an intense four days—and it’s coming right up. 

Set for November 1-4 on big screens all around the city, the 31st annual Virginia Film Festival will center on 150 films, locally produced to internationally acclaimed, including a tribute to one of the art form’s most innovative and intriguing figures, Orson Welles.

“Our 2018 program is highlighted by a selection of some of the most talked-about films on the current film festival circuit,” said Jody Kielbasa, director of the Virginia Film Festival and Vice Provost for the Arts at the University of Virginia, “including many that have vaulted to the top of the current major award season conversations.”

When the closing credits roll, the talk will begin. Over 100 industry guests from around the world (including director, writer, actor and producer Peter Bogdanovich, director and producer Allen Hughes, and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz) will join local thinkers and shakers for Q-and-A’s, galas, parties and general geekdom with an engaged, let’s-change-the-world edge.

Opening Night Drama
America’s racial tensions, ever festering and newly inflamed, will be examined from a number of angles this year, starting on November 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the Paramount Theater with Green Book, the dramatic feature debut of director Peter Farrelly.

Inspired by the true story of Jamaican-American jazz and classical pianist and composer Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and New York bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who chauffeured Shirley on a tour in 1962, the film takes its name from a segregation-era travel guide written to help African-Americans manage the legal roadblocks, dangers, and soul wearying degradations of the Jim Crow South.

Martin Luther King III on Charlottesville
Charlottesville’s own recent racial ignominy is the focus of Charlottesville, a documentary about the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 that asks “How could this happen in modern America?”

Martin Luther King III, son of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, will address the community following the film’s national premiere on Saturday, November 3 at

4:00 p.m. at the Paramount. King will then take part in a discussion moderated by UVA Center for Politics director Larry Sabato.

“Martin Luther King III has dedicated his life to carrying on the cause to which his father dedicated, and ultimately gave his life,” Kielbasa says. “We are proud to be working with our friends and partners at the UVA Center for Politics to share this powerful documentary and to be part of a conversation about how we can and must move forward together in our ongoing effort to create the kind of world Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned for us all.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, where he’d gone to support striking sanitation workers. Before his death he’d planned a March on Washington on behalf of the poor.

This year’s Centerpiece Film, Roma, Saturday, November 3 at 8:30 p.m. at the Paramount, is director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical tale of one such member of this often forgotten, overlooked and taken for granted class of people, a live-in housekeeper caring for four school-aged children in Mexico City in 1970.

An examination of family dynamics,  Mexican social matters, and the passage of time, the film is Mexico’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2018 Academy Awards.

A Little Laughter
Variety calls The Favourite, a period comedy concoction about two cousins vying for the favor of Queen Anne in early 18th century Britain, “a perfectly cut diamond of a movie.” Kielbasa calls it “a stunning film” and “an incredibly fun watch” about which there is “tremendous Oscar buzz.” Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s dark and bawdy comedy with a lesbian love triangle stars Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, and may be seen on Friday, November 2 at 7:00 p.m. at the Paramount.

Before the talkies the movies were already funny. Ben Mankiewicz and Peter Bogdanovich will screen and discuss the latter’s critically-acclaimed documentary The Great Buster, a look at the life and career of silent film icon Buster Keaton, on Saturday, November 3 at 11:00 a.m. at St. Anne’s-Belfield School.

Orson Welles
A collaboration of sorts between two celebrated directors, living and dead; a controversially received, late period attempt at a “new kind of film”; and two context-setting documentaries—par for the course for the Virginia Film Festival, where intellectually enticing deep dives are just part of the fun.

When Orson Welles died in 1985 with his quasi-autobiographical film, The Other Side of the Wind,  still unfinished, his good friend Peter Bogdanovich vowed to complete the project.

Nearly a half century after production began, Bogdanovich has fulfilled his promise, editing and assembling hundreds of hours of Welles’ raw footage to recreate what he envisaged: a satire of Hollywood’s golden age, and a film-within-a-film starring one Hollywood legend as another one attempting a comeback.

Bogdanovich will introduce They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Morgan Neville’s new Netflix documentary about Welles’ final directorial efforts, on Saturday, November 3 at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Virginia’s Culbreth Theatre.

He will present The Other Side of the Wind itself on Sunday, November 4 at 12:00 noon at the Paramount, then discuss the film and its original director in a conversation moderated by Ben Mankiewicz.

Welles’ experimental docudrama F For Fake, which puzzled fans and critics upon its release in 1973, will be shown at Vinegar Hill Theatre on Friday, November 2 at 3:15 p.m. A discussion with director Allen Hughes, who chose the film and for whom Welles was a major influence, will follow.

On Thursday, November 1 at 7:30 p.m. Vinegar Hill Theatre will show The Eyes of Orson Welles, a new and very personal tribute by director Mark Cousins based on Welles’ own drawings and sketches.

Allen Hughes
Allen Hughes and his twin brother Albert started young and worked fast. The two Detroit boys produced their first homemade films at age 12, dropped out of high school to direct music videos for hip hop artists like Tupac Shakur at 18, and premiered Menace II Society, the first major motion picture rooted in hip hop culture, at the Cannes Film Festival when they were only 20.

Allen Hughes will present Menace II Society on Friday, November 2 at 8:30 p.m. at Vinegar Hill Theatre. On Saturday, November 3 at 7:00 p.m. at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Hughes will screen and discuss The Defiant Ones, his popular HBO docu-series about the unlikely and often contentious partnership between music moguls Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.

Christoph Waltz
German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz won Academy Awards for Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and Django Unchained in 2012. Academy Award-winning producer Mark Johnson will interview Waltz and show highlights of his work in A Tribute to Christoph Waltz on Saturday, November 3 at 1:00 p.m. at the Paramount.

“Our audiences will not only have the chance to hear from someone who is clearly one of the leading actors working today, but also one who is at the very top of his game, and whose star is still on the rise,” Kielbasa said. “He is truly one of the most interesting and talented actors of his time, and brings a sense of originality to every role that makes it nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in it.”

National Geographic
Beginning a new partnership with National Geographic, the Festival will present a trio of documentaries, including Science Fair (Thursday, November 1 at 6:00 p.m. at UVA’s Newcomb Hall Theatre), a chronicle of nine high school students from around the globe competing for honors at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Two former fair winners will join Charlottesville High School’s Matthew Shields, founder of the internationally acclaimed science club BACON (Best All-around Club of Nerds), for a panel discussion after the screening.

Free Solo (Saturday, November 3 at 2:15 p.m. at St. Anne’s-Belfield School) follows rock climber Alex Honnold, as he pursues a lifelong quest to scale Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan—alone, and without a rope.

In Into the Okavango (Sunday, November 4 at 11:00 a.m. at the Culbreth), National Geographic photographer Neil Gelinas accompanies researchers on an expedition to the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana to discover why the Okavango River is drying up.

Biggest Little Farm
Documentary director John Chester and his wife Molly, a chef and cookbook author, are the intrepid young couple at the heart of Biggest Little Farm (Saturday, November 3 at 3:45 p.m. at the Culbreth), the autobiographical story of how the Chesters ditched their two-bedroom Santa Monica apartment for a whole ‘nother ecosystem, fighting coyotes, insects and wildfires to establish a self-sustaining biodynamic farm outside L.A..

“It’s a feel-good film,” Kielbasa says, “a great story that will resonate here in our community, which is such a strong supporter of farm-to-table and sustainable living and locally sourced food.”

Family Day
Film, fun and food (some of it no doubt of the sugar high inducing sort) is the bill of fare for Family Day on the Betsy & John Casteen Arts Grounds at UVA on Saturday, November 3 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Five family-friendly shorts will be shown at 10:00 a.m., followed at 1:00 p.m. by Disney/Pixar’s 2017 hit Coco and a 90th anniversary viewing of Steamboat Willie, an eight-minute black-and-white cartoon which, in Kielbasa’s words, “really launched Mickey Mouse and the Disney Company.”

UVA faculty, students, and community organizations will lead arts-inspired workshops (some require pre-registration). As always, the Festival’s Young Filmmakers Academy will roll out the red carpet to premiere films by local school kids produced in collaboration with Light House Studio, and the Charlottesville Symphony will offer a musical instruments petting zoo.

Family Day is free and open to the public; complimentary and convenient parking will be available at the Culbreth Road Garage.

The Front Runner
This year’s Closing Night Film, set for Sunday, November 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Paramount, is a work with exceptional resonance in today’s political climate. Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman, looks back at Gary Hart’s 1988 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, abruptly aborted after the press, following Hart’s own dare, uncovered evidence of an extra-marital affair.

The film’s stellar cast includes Vera Farmiga as Hart’s wife, J.K. Simmons as his embattled campaign manager, and Alfred Molina as famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

“Given everything that’s been happening with the press and our country and the world in the last two years, I cannot think of a more immediate and compelling subject than the three-week period when Gary Hart suddenly became the frontrunner in the presidential race and then his race imploded,” Kielbasa says.

“It has issues of personal character and judgment and the right to privacy, and it’s really an extraordinary film coming up a couple of days before the mid-terms.”

Resonance, relevance, range and power—thirty times now the Virginia Film Festival has brought the world to Charlottesville, entertaining and astonishing, giving pause for reflection, spurring action from resolve. Silence your phone and take a breath. Thirty-one is about to start.

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