Fest bets: Making the most of your Virginia Film Festival schedule

Antonio Banderas stars in Pedro Almodovar's Pain and Glory, playing on Friday at Culbreth Theatre. Courtesy of VAFF. Antonio Banderas stars in Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, playing on Friday at Culbreth Theatre. Courtesy of VAFF.

Every year, the Virginia Film Festival brings the best in films past, present, and future. Critics and writers appearing at VAFF include Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times and CBS, Soraya McDonald of The Undefeated, Alonso Duralde of “The Wrap,” and “Linoleum Knife,” and Alissa Wilkinson of Vox, Rolling Stone, RogerEbert.com, and others. Put faces to the tweets and seek out some of the freshest voices in cultural commentary today.

There’s no right way to fest, with amazing films, panels, and exhibitions scheduled for every block, but here are our picks for what to watch this year.


Wanuri Kahiu will appear to present her international breakthrough, Rafiki. The film made headlines when it was banned by the Kenyan Film Classification Board for its depiction of love between two women. Kahiu challenged the ban and won without altering her vision, playing to sold-out crowds at home and winning acclaim abroad. Once the world accepts that these stories are valid and it is no longer necessary to fight for LGBTQ visibility, the film itself will endure as a beautiful love story with charismatic performers and visionary direction. Homophobia plays a significant part in the story, but Kahiu shows that Kenya is bigger than its problems, and the beauty of Nairobi, vividly captured in all its colorful splendor, heightens the intensity of the emotions inherent in the story. (October 26, Jefferson School African American Heritage Center)

Varda by Agnès

Audiences get the opportunity to see some of the biggest hits from the 2019 festival circuit before their wide release. Here is a recommendation to stay one step ahead of your friends: Varda by Agnès, a fitting farewell from the unstoppable filmmaker who passed away earlier this year. Varda made her name during the French New Wave but constantly evolved over the next six decades. She was a master of her craft who was still excited by discovering new people, and who better to pay posthumous tribute to that enthusiasm than herself? (October 25, Violet Crown Cinema)

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Ethan Hawke will attend a Q&A following Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a taut thriller that endures as a showcase for its exceptional cast and the last work of its legendary director. When two brothers plot to rob their parents’ jewelry store to solve their money woes—they know the place, the place is insured, nobody gets hurt—an unexpected complication brings tragedy and tears apart the already fragile lives of the entire family. Hawke performs alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman as his brother, Albert Finney as their father, and Marisa Tomei as Hoffman’s wife with whom Hawke is having an affair. The actors all show their range and the chemistry is phenomenal, highlighting the magic that turns a good story into a great film. (October 26, The Paramount Theater)


Parasite, the new film from Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja), is making waves for selling out entire theaters in New York on its debut weekend, and is looking to be another critical and commercial smash from Korea’s highest-grossing director. Bong’s films are a collision (sometimes literally) of social themes, stylistic experimentation, cutting satire, and gripping entertainment. One could call him a pessimist, but it’s more accurate to say he understands the full scope of what’s at stake in his parables. (October 26, Culbreth Theatre)

In Fabric

If you’re a fan of genre films, you likely already know the name Peter Strickland, creator of Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, and now In Fabric. Strickland is a master of breaking down genres to their essence, elevating the material while appreciating the foundational elements from which he draws. The Duke of Burgundy was an erotic drama of the kind you might find in 1970s Europe, but it featured no explicit sex. Berberian Sound Studio focused on a foley artist making the sounds for an Italian exploitation film, recreating the emotional effects of witnessing on-screen violence while no actual violence occurs in the film. In Fabric sees Strickland returning to the giallo, as strange events occur surrounding a particularly beautiful red dress. (October 25, Newcomb Hall Theatre)


Pain and Glory

Two films that were not on my radar until my colleagues raved about them following the Toronto International Film Festival are Waves, a drama from Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night), and Pain and Glory, the latest collaboration between Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas. Consider this your friend-of-a-friend-said-it’s-good recommendation. (Waves: October 24, Culbreth Theatre; Pain and Glory: October 25, Culbreth Theatre)

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