We go to film festivals for the same reasons we see our favorite bands in concert.
Or pop into bookstores instead of downloading novels onto Kindle. Or go out to restaurants instead of tossing leftovers into the microwave. Because it’s not the films themselves—nor the music, or the prose, or the food—that we’re looking for, but the chance to experience them in their best possible iterations. (For us, that means on a big screen, surrounded by people equally excited to be there.) A great festival is an exercise in cinema transcending form to become more than itself, whether taking on a broader political urgency or, when you least expect it, congealing into that screening you’re always searching for, the One that Changes Your Life.
Every film festival offers up its own individual take on a “best possible experience,” whether that’s a self-described “gonzo cultural summit” in the deep, dark heart of Miami, or a festival that molds itself in response to war, screening films in defiance of destruction and trauma. When this is done in the right spirit—as it is in the following 25 festivals—even the wildest idiosyncrasies can feel like obvious choices. These celebrations from around the planet, picked from nominations by our 2015 Panel of Cool, have the purity of vision to guarantee experiences that you’ll think and talk about for years to come—ones that just might change your life.
The 2015 Panel of Cool
Daniel Barber is the director of The Keeping Room, which opens September 25 from Drafthouse Films. Previously, Barber directed the Academy Award-nominated short “The Tonto Woman” in 2007 and the feature Harry Brown in 2009.
Dan Brawley is the chief instigating officer at Cucalorus and the founder/developer of a growing creative campus in Wilmington, North Carolina. Brawley identifies as a performance artist and community organizer and loves to wander with his dog Izzie (Isabella Rossellini).
Philip Cheah is a film critic and the editor of Singaporean pop culture magazine BigO. He is honorary secretary of the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema, founding member of the Singapore International Film Festival, and program consultant for AsiaPacificFilms.com and festivals in Yogyakarta, Seoul and Dubai.
Aaron Katz is on the party planning committee (read: director of acquisitions) and Kate McEdwards is the VP of getting freaky on the dance floor (read: head of non-theatrical booking) at Oscilloscope Laboratories. They help release indie feature films.
Leah Meyerhoff is the director of the feature I Believe in Unicorns, which screened at dozens of film festivals before its theatrical release in June. Meyerhoff is also the founder of Film Fatales, a global community of female filmmakers.
Dan Mirvish is an award-winning director, writer, producer and author, and co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival. His last film, Between Us, played in 23 festivals in seven countries, and he has served on several festival juries. Next, he directs the feature Bernard and Huey.
Ravi Patel and Geeta Patel are the sibling directing team behind the romantic comedy documentary Meet the Patels, opening in theaters September 11 from Alchemy. Ravi co-stars in the new Fox series Grandfathered. Geeta’s other directing credits are the documentary war thriller Project Kashmir and the upcoming Mouse.
- American Film Festival // Wroclaw, Poland // October 20-25, 2015 // americanfilmfestival.pl
Cool theaters: “screens of IMAX proportions.” Cool audiences: “fashionable young crowds and the hottest new bands.” Cool digs: “five-star accommodations, fancy dinners and tours of the local castles.” No wonder Wroclaw is a hot ticket for U.S. moviemakers, “dignitaries” to the “best festival in Poland and perhaps all of Eastern Europe.” Celebrating a different kind of American cinema than what traditionally permeates those far-flung shores, AFF doesn’t just showcase indies, it nurtures them: Panelists love their U.S. in Progress program, which awards cash prizes to features in post.
- Atlanta Film Festival // Atlanta, GA // April 1-10, 2016 // atlantafilmfestival.com
What’s one advantage of running a festival in April? Throwing an annual Game of Thrones-themed party to coincide with a new season of HBO’s hit show. Word is that this shindig is “off the hook, with giant wolf puppets, costumed revelers and a feast fit for royalty.” We also love AFF’s Creative Conference educational program, which boasts such atypical panel topics as “Silhouette Animation: 3D Printing and Laser Cutting,” and an opening casting call where actors get just one minute to pitch themselves to an audience of filmmakers and casting agents.
- Bahamas International Film Festival // Harbour Island and Nassau, Bahamas // December 1-12, 2015 // bintlfilmfest.com
BIFF provides a respite from the stress of the festival circuit. Think of it as adult spring break: “Paintball on the beach with fellow filmmakers, boat trips and yacht parties, a Heineken party bus with stripper poles, hobnobbing with the prime minister, accommodation in a water park resort, fried conch under a bridge, meeting a gigolo-slash-spoken-word artist at the local bar…” rattles off one panelist who, shall we say, heartily partook. It’s a wonder that any moviegoing takes place, but a wide international selection of indie offerings keeps butts in seats.
- Berlin International Film Festival // Berlin, Germany // February 11-21, 2016 // berlinale.de
Can a major international festival circuit presence be a coolest festival? You bet. The Berlinale combines the spirit of a fresh, hungry festival and the resources of a 65-year-old powerhouse. Its consistently risky programming challenges droves of attending cineastes (2015 saw half a million theater visits). Yet the fest’s forward-looking heart is nowhere more apparent than at its annual summit Berlinale Talents, where 300 international next-big-thing artists participate in labs and attend master classes by the likes of Joshua Oppenheimer, Bong Joon-Ho and Laura Poitras. And hey, “if you like great currywurst, look no further,” adds a panelist.
- Borscht Film Festival // Miami, FL // December 2016 // borscht.info
“There are a few things that I can’t tell you because I don’t wanna go to jail—but let’s just say Borscht is a fully fueled Miami experience. There was a cinematic bike journey through Wynwood, and an amusement park called ‘THE MULTIVERSE’ with a virtual reality playground and a huge movie about corals. Some events started two hours late and one was an eloquent failure, but it was a real experience crafted by the warped minds of filmmakers Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva. You’re part of a secret club of ass-kicking commandos on a mission to change the way people see movies, one mushroom at a time.”
- Cinema Rehiyon // Philippines // August 2016 // cinemarehiyon.com
“Jaded film critics who need to experience again how film culture grows should travel to this one,” suggests a panelist. In the seven years of its existence, Cinema Rehiyon has taken place in seven different regions across the 7,107 islands of the Philippines—to cement “the notion that Filipino cinema is not centered on the capital city, Manila.” It also has a different festival director to accompany the change in scenery—a move that culminates in a “wonderful ceremony where the incumbent festival director hands the torch to the next director,” a veritable sight to see.
- Il Cinema Ritrovato // Bologna, Italy // Summer 2016 // festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it
Prestigious restoration lab L’Immagine Ritrovata puts on this elegant celebration of restored classics every summer in Bologna. This year’s edition featured sections as diverse as Color Film in Japan and Ingrid Bergman: the Early Years, each print so lovingly preserved “you feel like everything you’re seeing is essential—and it is.” Every night, one film is blown up on a screen in central Piazza Maggiore, adjacent to the massive Basilica of San Petronio. Don’t be surprised when the whole town—plus delegations of international cinephiles—shows up to watch even the obscure gem of cinematic history.