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The 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2019

The 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2019

MovieMaker Coolest Film Festival Festivals

Annual Lists

Let’s talk about the coolest film festivals in the world. And if you think it’s easy being cool, think again.

According to author Raymond Benson, no less than Sean “007” Connery had to secure his role as James Bond by agreeing to be tutored in “the ways of being dapper, witty, and above all, cool.” Coolness is a synonym for effortlessness,and if they can see you sweat the battle is lost. With that in mind, the festivals in our latest edition of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World have all gained a reputation for putting on a graceful, seemingly-effortless showcase—one that elides the hard work, ingenuity, and planning invested by their founders and artistic directors. In most cases these impresarios would prefer to remain Oz-like, behind the curtain, and allow you, the patron, to feel like the gamma rays of pure cinema pulsing through your body at their event sprang up as naturally as a Brooklyn block party.

The ’90s marketing term “coolhunter” never quite got off the ground—except in William Gibson novels—but it would be aptly applied to the eight taste-forecasting industry panelists we’ve wrangled to provide (blind) insights about our chosen film festivals. These insiders run the gamut from moviemakers, actors, and novelists to fest directors, film journos, and publicists, each immersed in festival culture and able to separate wheat from chaff when it comes to a quality, forward-looking fest experience, rather than one that feels labored, repetitive, or past its cultural sell-by date.

Of course, coolness really comes down to taste and taste isn’t quantifiable. How much value-add you ascribe to a film if you’re watching it on a decommissioned Army base or lounging by the rooftop pool of a NYC hotel with a view of the Meatpacking District competing for your attention is on you. For some of us, it’s still all about the celluloid, distractions be damned. For others, coolness is inseparable from conscience in these times, and a festival’s merits are bound up in its progressive bona fides—the causes it’s endorsing or illuminating. “Cool” for some is simply something new to their experience, like a quiet, unassuming doc festival in a former Soviet Bloc country. For others, all things being equal, well…who wouldn’t choose the film festival that’s frequented and occasionally guest-curated by John Waters? Let the cool-hunting commence.

—Ryan Stewart

2019 Panel of Cool

Matt Grady is the founder of Brooklyn-based indie distribution company Factory 25, an indie film distribution company launched in 2009 with the mission of “keeping physical media alive.” Recently named “One of the Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture,” by Brooklyn magazine, Grady was formerly director of production at Brooklyn-based Plexifilm.

Eric Allen Hatch is many things besides one of your favorite Twitter personalities, with north of 15,000 followers. A film programmer, critic and consultant based in Baltimore, Maryland, Hatch was Director of Programming for the Maryland Film Festival from 2007 to 2018. He’s also a co-founder of Beyond Video, a Baltimore-based non-profit video store.

Bing Liu is a Chicago-based director and cinematographer named by Variety as one of 10 documentary filmmakers to watch in 2018. His film Minding the Gap won acclaim, including a Special Jury Award at Sundance and a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the 91st Academy Awards. Liu was also a segment director on America to Me, a 10-hour doc series spotlighting inequities in America’s education system.

Jillian Mayer is a Miami-based visual performance artist and moviemaker whose work has been featured at SXSW and Sundance. She’s worked with Borscht Film Festival collaborator Lucas Leyva, creating such short films as “Kaiju Bunraku,” which was picked up by The Criterion Collection to be paired with Mothra vs. Godzilla on the Criterion Channel. In 2017 Mayer voiced a robot in the sci-fi feature Everything Beautiful Is Far Away.

David Ninh is the Director of Press and Publicity at arthouse distributor Kino Lorber, Inc. overseeing press outreach for theatrical, home video, and streaming. Prior to that, he was a Senior Communications Specialist at Kickstarter, working with creators during the initial funding stages of their projects, and worked on the press teams of the Film at Lincoln Center, the New York Film Festival, and PMK*BNC. He calls Brooklyn, NY home.

Ina Pira is a curator for Vimeo’s signature Staff Picks. Previously, she was the Senior Programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival, the Montclair Film Festival, and the Sarasota Film Festival. Ina has served on over a dozen festival juries and is regularly invited to speak at festivals, conferences, and universities about film festivals, online curation, and digital distribution. She also recently launched a Live Director’s Commentary screening series in New York City.

Adam Piron is the Assistant Curator of Film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where, according to an interview last year, he seeks to “provide a blended mix of classics and offer different perspectives, expanding the definition of classic films.” Prior to joining LACMA he was a Sundance programmer, serving as manager of the festival’s Native American and Indigenous Film Program from 2014 to 2017.

Sandi Tan is a moviemaker, writer, and critic known for her 2018 documentary Shirkers, which debuted at Sundance 2018 and won a directing award. She’s working with Animal Kingdom and Cinereach to write and direct an adaptation of Elif Batuman’s autobiographical 2017 novel The Idiot. Her forthcoming novel, Lurkers, is a darkly comic tale on a group of suburban L.A. neighbors with interlocking furies and desires.

Always for Pleasure

December 2019 / New Orleans, Louisiana / alwaysforpleasure.org

Les Blank and Dr. John are gone, but there’s still crawfish to eat and culture oozing from every corner in New Orleans. One shining example is the work of Court 13 Arts, a Big Easy-based multidisciplinary art-making collective and production company known for their team having co-produced 2012’s dreamlike ode to bayou life Beasts of the Southern Wild. More recently they inaugurated a moviemaker-curated showcase fest, Always for Pleasure, and its reputation has only grown. Five raucous days of movies, music, art, and performance partially contained in the historic Orpheum Theater (a stage for vaudeville and silent movies back in the day) it serves as an outlet for local talent and showcase for Court 13’s artist-in-residence installations. As one panelist notes, the festival is “a DIY art explosion” and “a filmmaker-spawned fest based out of a compound arts warehouse that includes parades and game shows—fun and sort of lawless.” If that isn’t wild enough, they’re offering something this year described as “the world’s first karaoke flotilla.”

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

BendFilm Festival

October 10-13, 2019 / Bend, Oregon / bendfilm.org

Having written previously about the indie film haven of Ashland, Oregon, with its increasing population of working moviemakers, we now invite you to look 200 miles north to the mountain town of Bend, with its evergreen forests, clear mountain lakes, and the BendFilm Festival, now in its 16th year. Supported by an arts community that loves its craft beer (23 local breweries at last check) and able to dole out cash prizes to winning moviemakers despite being a single-weekend fest, BendFilm is a natural crowd pleaser. Recent years have seen panel discussions on how to pitch a project and the ins and outs of documentary storytelling, and last year’s competition had a 50 percent ratio of films directed by women. (Don’t be surprised to see movie studio scouts in attendance.) The pride of the fest is its Future Filmmakers program, founded in 2006 and open to Central Oregon students. Says one panelist: “The audiences are some of the most engaged you’ll find and have led to some of the best Q&As I’ve ever seen. Films are shown in their historic movie theater downtown and even inside a craft brewery. You feel like you’re in a utopian bubble.”

BendFilm Festival

Academy-award nominated Debra Granik (L, Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace) receives BendFilm Festival’s Inaugural Indie Women of the Year Award from Executive Director Todd Looby (R). Photograph by Steven Addington

Borscht Film Festival

Spring 2020 / Miami, Florida / borsc.ht

Miami-based Borscht Corp. is a non-profit that creates shorts and videos and showcases them at the bi-annual Borscht Film Festival, a week-long affair that exists “to tell Miami stories that go beyond the typical portrayal of a beautiful but vapid party town.” In fact, Borscht’s films have screened at Cannes, Tribeca, Sundance, and even at the Guggenheim in NYC. The festival’s desire to continually up its artistic game is matched only by its determination to put on the most memorable, creative events, which in past years have included a cinematic bike trail though Miami’s Wynwood district, an amusement park with a VR playground, and a “fake Criterion” release party. Adds one panelist: “These guys are on everyone’s radar, but I’m always impressed how each festival is both different and a step up from the previous one.”

Crested Butte Film Festival

September 26-29, 2019 / Crested Butte, Colorado / cbfilmfest.org

Advertised as being “four beautiful hours southwest of Denver,” this boutique film festival includes a focus on the restorative properties of cinema immersion combined with bikes, hikes, and mountain views. Sample the fest’s traditional narrative and doc categories mixed in with more narrowcast genres like children’s film and outdoor adventure film, all screened at venues within walking distance of each other. You may also be interested in the Trailhead Children’s Museum, a dynamic camp environment with activities designed to foster youthful interest in the creative arts. One panelist notes: “When you end up playing glow-in-the-dark ultimate frisbee at 3 a.m. in a soggy field with the real- life Warren Lipka from American Animals and go back to your hotel in the wee hours bruised and mud-caked, you know you’ll want to come back to this one.”

Millennium Docs Against Gravity Film Festival 

May 2020 / Warsaw, Poland / mdag.pl

“We encourage you to FREE YOUR MIND!” implores the charming website for the 16th annual Millennium Docs Against Gravity festival, the largest doc film festival in Poland (and the country’s first to organize a feature documentary competition, in 2008). Taking place across six Polish cities (Warsaw, Wrocław, Lublin, Gdynia, Katowice, and Bydgoszcz) in late spring, the festival’s most recent iteration boasted 160 film titles attended by a record-breaking 93,000 patrons. A further 19 cities were since added to the festival’s reach with its “Weekend with Millennium Docs Against Gravity” selection showcase of the fest’s best offerings. Recalls one panelist: “Am I a little biased because I won four awards from this festival with cash prizes? Maybe. Am I surprised that on my last night in Warsaw the festival staff ended up back in my hotel room finishing off bottles of bison grass vodka and watching the sun rise? Maybe not.”

Ljubo Stefanov (R) receives the Bank Millennium Grand Prix Award in Millennium Docs Against Gravity Film Festival 2019’s main competition for Honeyland, which he co-directed with Tamara Kotevska. Photograph by Anna Czarnota

Continue for more of MovieMaker‘s 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2019

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