Seattle International Film Festival // Seattle, WA // May 18 – June 11 2017 //

“It’s bracing to see a city give its flagship film festival so much room to breathe,” notes a panelist. “Room” is right, both geographic and temporal—you’ve probably heard of SIFF’s languorous three-week runtime, which lets even the busiest moviemakers squeeze in a visit (in spring, which another panelist points out is “the perfect time to enjoy this city”). The line-up is vast—and that’s not even including the off-the-record titles at SIFF’s Secret Festival, a mini program of screenings the fest is quote-unquote not supposed to show. Viewers have to sign a legally binding oath of silence (really).

A still from Chad Hartigan's Morris From America, which screened at SIFF this spring. Courtesy of Seattle International Film Festival

A still from Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, which screened at SIFF this spring. Courtesy of Seattle International Film Festival


Sitges Film Festival // Sitges, Spain // Oct. 7-16, 2016 //

Sitges, or the International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia, is “the granddaddy of all genre film festivals in its 49th year,” says a panelist, who says his first experience “changed me forever.” The expansive Fantàstic sections are absolutely tops, though animation, documentary and classic cinema tributes also feature. Burned out on screenings? A zombie walk takes over the coastal resort town one night every year. Plus, Barcelona’s just a drive away—and the region’s fresh seafood and sparkling Cava means that “you stumble into great food and wine everywhere.”

Miguel Ángel Vivas's feature Inside opens this fall's Sitges Film Festival in October

Miguel Ángel Vivas’ feature Inside opens this fall’s Sitges Film Festival in October


Sonoma International Film Festival // Sonoma, CA // Mar. 29 – Apr. 2, 2017 //

“All times are good times to visit wine country,” notes a panelist, “but pair five days in early April with great food and wine while you watch movies, and there really is nothing better.” With local boys Francis Ford Coppola, Danny Glover and John Lasseter on the alumni roll, Sonoma has cinema in its soil. This pastoral landscape, all grapevines and charcuterie boards, is one of the more relaxing stops on the worldwide circuit: films play the pretty Sebastiani Theatre venue, and parties are homey and grub-filled. P.S. “Everything is walkable, so you can drink away!” cheers a panelist.

Ditch Hollywood for Sonomawood at Sonoma International Film Festival. Photograph by Kingsley Hurley

Ditch Hollywood for Sonomawood at Sonoma International Film Festival. Photograph by Kingsley Hurley


Sound Unseen // Minneapolis and Saint Paul, MN // Nov. 10-13, 2016 //

From musician biopics to concert footage to Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, “this gem of a fest features some of the best music documentaries and sound-centric films around,” says a panelist. Now in its 17th year, the event has transcended its early underground beginnings and established itself as a mainstay of the Twin Cities (where, after all, Prince lived). Prepare to rock hard over five days at four music-friendly venues. Our panelist adds: “Every event has live music. I saw the band Tickle Torture at one of the after-parties—they put on one amazing show.”

Venus de Mars performs at the 2013 edition of Sound Unseen. Courtesy of Sound Unseen

Venus de Mars performs at the 2013 edition of Sound Unseen. Courtesy of Sound Unseen


Telluride Film Festival // Telluride, CO // Sept. 2-5, 2016 //

Panelists love Telluride for “the high of the mountain air, the kindness of the volunteers, and the sense of discovery.” If you’re afraid of the pomp that often surrounds “prestige” festivals, you’ll be surprised to find this heavyweight relatively laid-back. “Filmmakers can mix with studio executives, festival-goers and volunteers equally,” says another panelist. The festival famously doesn’t reveal its line-up until the day of, but for attendees the thoughtful curation and deep post-screening discussions are worth the leap of faith. (And if the titles turn you off, take a hike! You’re in gorgeous scenery.)

The Abel Gance Theatre at the Telluride Film Festival. Photograph by Merrick Chase

An outdoor screening at Telluride’s Abel Gance Theatre. Photograph by Merrick Chase


True/False // Columbia, MO // March 2-5, 2017 //

One panelist admires the fact that True/False, another perennial “Coolest” favorite, “has converted the entire population of Columbia, Missouri into hardcore documentary fans. Even the busboys at restaurants would give recommendations when they saw my badge.” One reason for the community engagement: The festival kicks off with a free-for-all parade through town. But it’s not just the locals who love the cerebral-yet-engaging mix of documentaries, abundance of live music and art installations here; visitors tend to come away starry-eyed and fired up about the possibilities of cinema.

Columbia, Missouri comes live during True/False's March March parade. (Photo by Noah Frick-Alofs)

Columbia, Missouri comes live during True/False’s March March parade. Photograph by Noah Frick-Alofs


Zerkalo Film Festival // Ivanovo, Russia // June 2017 //

Zerkalo (“Mirror”) Film Festival, better known as Tarkovsky Fest, is set in the birthplace of the late, great Russian director: the Ivanovo region several hours outside of Moscow. As you might expect, there’s a strong emphasis on Russian cinema (and Tarkovsky’s own films are screened every year), but audiences are treated to films from all over the world that make up, as a panelist describes it, “one of the most progressive and uncompromising selections around,” under the direction of moviemaker Pavel Lungin. Sure, it’s a trek, but serious cineastes will find this a treat.

Cinephiles Courtesy of Zerkalo Film Festival

Cinephiles unite! Courtesy of Zerkalo Film Festival

What festivals did we miss this year, and what should be on next year’s list? Share your opinion, comments, and festival circuit anecdotes in the comments below! And revisit 2015’s 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World here. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2016 issue, available on newsstands September 2016. Illustrations by Meredith Miotke.

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