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The 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2016

The 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2016

Fall 2016

Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival // Lisbon and Estoril, Portugal // Nov. 4-13, 2016 //

“[Acclaimed producer and festival founder] Paulo Branco’s event has become a great honor to be invited to, a decade since its inception, due to the excellent programming,” says a panelist. Indeed, LEFF boasts comprehensive and eclectic fare from auteurs, newcomers and household names alike, at picturesque locations around the city of Lisbon and the Portuguese Riviera town Estoril. What distinguishes this fest are its interdisciplinary concerns: cinema-adjacent visual art exhibitions, concerts and readings by authors such as Paul Auster, Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee blend into a refreshingly broad way to engage with movies.

2015 Lisbon Wim Wenders with the director of LEFFEST Paulo Branco and actress Victoria Guerra

Wim Wenders (R) with LEFFEST director Paulo Branco (L) and actress Victoria Guerra (background) at the 2015 edition of the festival. Courtesy of Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival


Lumière Film Festival // Lyon, France // Oct. 8-16, 2016 //

“We balanced a steady diet of amazing repertory discoveries and deep-cut director dives with stunning lunches and dinners,” says a panelist, who liked that fellow audience members at this classic movie fest were “middle- and high-schoolers being both exposed to film history and taught the art of respectful cinema viewing.” Speaking of young’uns, the festival has a program which brings screenings to three nearby children’s hospitals. Visitors also enjoy free parties on the Rhône, an all-nighter screening event, the only film market in the world dedicated to classic cinema, and “an incredible museum of film miniatures in the old town.”

Martin Scorsese receives the Prix Lumière tribute at the 2015 Lumière Film Festival. Copyright Jean-Luc Mège photographies 2015 - Institut Lumière

Martin Scorsese receives the Prix Lumière tribute at the 2015 Lumière Film Festival. Photograph by Jean-Luc Mège; courtesy of Institut Lumière

Migrating Forms // Brooklyn, NY // March 2017 //

Migrating Forms is an endeavor by Brooklyn Academy of Music (responsible for the popular BAMcinemaFest, which also made our shortlist this year). It’s admittedly a bit of a misnomer to call Migrating Forms a “film” festival, as a panelist explains: “Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry’s annual showcase is constantly collapsing boundaries—between the narrative and the avant-garde, between the movie theater and the gallery space.” Though projects are just as likely to be culled from a biennale as from the Berlinale, don’t worry, you won’t have to stare down a sea of Vines just yet (case in point: 2016 featured three Haskell Wexler films).

A still from Ed Atkins' Even Pricks, which played at Migrating Forms 2015. Courtesy of Migrating Forms

A still from Ed Atkins’ Even Pricks, which played at Migrating Forms 2015. Courtesy of Migrating Forms


Montclair Film Festival // Montclair, NJ // Apr. 28 – May 7, 2017 //

The arts-friendly township of Montclair has a number of famous residents, including Stephen Colbert, an ardent patron of this festival, and—formerly—the late Bruce Sinofsky and David Carr, whose names grace some of MFF’s prizes. Certainly, the key to this festival’s burgeoning success is its people: its executive director, “the great Tom Hall,” has “worked the same magic here he did with Sarasota Film Festival: transforming a smaller regional festival into a genuine destination,” says a panelist. With ace programming, fun extras (last fall saw a “Celebrity Nerd-Off” fundraiser between Colbert and J.J. Abrams) and only five years under its belt, this is one to watch.

Montclair Film Festival 2015's opening night screening of Life, Animated. Photograph by Neil Grabowsky

Montclair Film Festival 2016’s opening night screening of Life, Animated. Photograph by Neil Grabowsky


Nordisk Panorama // Malmö, Sweden // Sept. 16-21, 2016 //

What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold. Founded in 1990 to celebrate documentaries and shorts from the five Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway), the once-itinerant Nordisk Panorama recently found a permanent home in Malmö, near Copenhagen. One panelist’s memories include “dance parties in abandoned churches, a sauna-set industry gathering where I jumped naked into the freezing ocean, fun staff who can hold their akvavit, and so much good food.” If you’re at all interested in Scandinavia, “it’s a great opportunity to meet the film commissions, and get a sneak peak of what they have coming.”

Reykjavíkurdætur Photo credit: Johanna Persson

Icelandic band Reykjavíkurdætur performs at Nordisk Panorama 2015. Photograph by Johanna Persson


Palm Springs International Shortfest // Palm Springs, CA // Jan. 2-16, 2017 //

Unlike the winter-set Palm Springs International Film Festival, Shortfest takes place in summer—so “be prepared for the heat,” warns a panelist. Still, Shortfest is more riotous than its stately sister. This past edition included intimate roundtables, a day-long Virtual Reality Experience, a Bowie tribute party and the annual Gay!La (where you “boogie as your authentic self”). Of course, Palm Springs itself is never less than fascinating. Our panelist recalls “a party where we stumbled onto a miniature golf course and croquet set-up, tried to crash a wedding, and made it back before last call. It was wild.”

A filmmaker Q&A at the 2016 Palm Springs ShortFest

A filmmaker Q&A at the 2016 Palm Springs International Shortfest. Courtesy of Palm Springs International Shortfest


San Francisco International Film Festival // San Francisco, CA // April – May 2017 //

The longest-running film festival in the Americas, San Francisco International Film Festival celebrates its 60th birthday in 2017—making it the funky, adventurous grandma you wish you had. Newly relocated to the Mission District, counting an Alamo Drafthouse theater and digital arts facility Gray Area amongst its venues, SFIFF “continues to have great integrity and taste,” says one panelist. Another finds the fest to be a greatest hits of NorCal charm, “from seeing movies at the Castro theater after the organist plays, to taking a break between screenings to sit in Dolores park to catch some sun—when it’s out.”

The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival Opening Night Party at Public Works. Tommy Lau, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

The opening night party for the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival in April 2016. Photograph by Tommy Lau; courtesy of San Francisco Film Society


Santa Barbara International Film Festival // Santa Barbara, CA // Feb. 1-11, 2017 //

Yup, another entry that takes place in a coastal town (funny, that). “There is a reason why all the stars go to Santa Barbara,” says a panelist. “If you want to bike to the beach, it’s right there! Executive Director Roger Durling and his staff have done an amazing job putting SBIFF on the map.” The festival has a reputation for being an awards precursor, but it’s not all cocktails and galas (now held in new headquarters: the gorgeous Riviera Theatre). Programs include silent classics accompanied on a rare antique pipe organ, and the Wave Film Festival, mini selections of international cinema held multiple times a year.

Alicia Vikander takes pictures with fans at the 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Alicia Vikander takes a selfie with fans at the 2016 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Courtesy of Santa Barbara International Film Festival


Sarasota Film Festival // Sarasota, FL // April 2017 //

One of a couple “regional” exemplars on our list, SFF pairs a sharp selection of new indies with throwbacks to classic Hollywood, like this spring’s guests Olympia Dukakis and Sophia Loren (and if it’s cool enough for Sophia, it’s cool enough for us). Programs also feature partnerships with nonprofit Through Women’s Eyes, which presents female-driven films at SFF, as well as the LGBT-centered Harvey Milk Festival. Overall, SFF is “extremely accommodating,” says a panelist, who fondly remembers “a massive luncheon focusing on women filmmakers—we shared our experiences with one another and talked about our ‘secrets.’”

First Girl I Loved, directed by Kerem Sanga, played at Sarasota Film Festival this year

First Girl I Loved, directed by Kerem Sanga, played at Sarasota Film Festival this year

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  1. Lynn Larson says:

    The coolest is the Traverse City Film Festival. It is located in beautiful Traverse City, staffed by 2800 local volunteers who love their festival and area and are very helpful. Lots of documentaries and indies are shown at 10 venues all within walking distance of each other. It is awesome: fourth week in July.

  2. Hopefully you will consider for next year. We have been film jury members at Sonoma IFF for last two years.
    American Express Essentials just named us Top 23 festivals in the world for foodies

  3. Claudia says:

    Rome International Film Festival – A very charming festival in the Smoky Mountains with wonderfully warm Southern hospitality and amazing music.

  4. Terry Porter says:

    You left out Moondance International Film Festival in Boulder, Co
    awesome location and very classy films. on right now this wk-end. Sept

  5. Nnena Nchege says:

    BronzeLens Film Festival was a favorite this year! What’s the criteria for this list?… We’d love to be considered! | @BronzeLens

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