November 10-14 / Wilmington, North Carolina
“This festival feels more alive than any other I can think of,” says Jane Schoenbrun. “Filmmakers and performance artists introduce each screening with elaborate performances that are essentially live theater. The parties and events are as innovative and inspiring as the films themselves, and ‘chief instigating officer’ and festival director Dan Brawley does a consistently genius job of pushing at the boundaries of what a film event can be — a screening I saw a few years back of Ingrid Veninger’s He Hated Pigeons, with a live score by Rozalind MacPhail, made me audibly weep. Small-town Wilmington, North Carolina is the platonic ideal of a college town — full of great thrift shops, record stores, and a big grassy field that’s essentially festival headquarters — one that features a decommissioned school-bus you can hang out in.” What else could you ask for? Well: “We host a wild experiment every year with lots of performance art and late-night open mics,” says Brawley. “Our annual ‘Bus To Lumberton’ installation/experience honors David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, which was shot here in Wilmington with locations all around the festival venues.” Finally, he adds, “this year, radical editing collective Racer Trash has taken the challenge and will be slicing and splicing something super special for your eyeholes.”
September 3-12 / Deauville, France
Founded in 1975, this unique French festival programs a mix of American films, from Hollywood titles to independent cinema. Last year, Sean Durkin’s The Nest took home three prizes, including the Grand Prix, and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow took home the jury award. “Easily the best I’ve ever been treated as a filmmaker,” says Tyler Taormina. He also applauds the staff’s organization along with their “undying love of cinema.” He continues: “Pair this with solid programming and the charm of oceanside Deauville and you’ll have a great time.” Even if, he jokes, “the audience near-unanimously claims not to understand your film.”
October 13-17 / Washington, DC
If you love documentaries with taut, journalistic rigor — Jenny Shi’s sensationalism-free Finding Yingying is a great example — DX is the festival for you. Organizers note that it pairs “top-tier film screenings with a robust professional symposium that brings together watchdog journalists and filmmakers venturing into investigative territory.” It offers a pro bono legal clinic, one-on-one meetings with industry leaders, and thought-provoking discussions about the issues raised by the films. Past attendees have included Ezra Edelman (the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America), Maite Alberdi (the Oscar-nominated The Mole Agent) and Alexander Nanau (the Oscar-nominated Collective). “Double Exposure is the best place for documentary filmmaking to embrace investigative journalism,” says Shi. “Other than the incredible film slate, the Double Exposure Symposium is a must-attend multiple-day event where journalists, filmmakers and experts share practical skills and discuss some of the most urgent issues in the industry.”
July 24 – August 1 / Ecuador
EDOC is a traveling documentary film festival in Ecuador with institutional support from a diverse group of partners, such as the Sundance Institute and the French Embassy of Ecuador. While several film festivals encompass the diverse sprawl of a single location, there is nothing quite like a true traveling festival. “The experience of traveling around this country to show the film in different cities was unbelievable,” Almada says. Previous retrospectives have included Chilean moviemaker Patricio Guzmán and American duo Albert and David Maysles, but the festival also works hard to promote and nurture Ecuadorian documentary film.
October 6-17 / Montreal, Canada
Anja Marquardt calls the FNC “a celebration of cinema, food, art, light, and everything in between.” Founded in 1971 by two film fanatics, Claude Chamberlan and Dimitri Eipidès, the fest celebrates its 50th anniversary this October — and doesn’t coast on Montreal’s reputation as one of the world’s coolest cities. It recently signed The Creative Industries Pact for Sustainable Action, joining dozens of organizations fighting climate change, and festival director Nicolas Girard-Deltruc says the FNC also maintains strong “commitments to territorial acknowledgment, gender parity, diversity, accessibility, environmentalism, and supporting local businesses.” This year it will present the Eurimages Audentia Award, which recognizes a female moviemaker with a 30,000 euro grant.
November 11-21 / Oslo, Norway
Oslo is an exhilarating place, with brilliant, imposing architecture, beautiful natural scenery and a steadfast commitment to the arts. Also cool: It’s common to eat waffles as a snack in the afternoon, just one of the pleasant little surprises you discover in this Northern European metropolis. Films From the South welcomed 28,000 attendees in 2019, went digital in 2020, and returns in-person this year with an objective of going all-in on watching films in theaters. “With our core slogan — see the world from a different angle — we are now traveling world cinema, to catch and present new stories and perspectives lost in travel bans and global seclusion,” says Ingvild Vaale Arnesen, head of marketing and communications. It boasts three strong competitive sections, and its new Mangapolis section explores animé/animation. Another unexpected benefit, as welcome as an afternoon waffle: “Sometimes being in a far-away foreign country allows us to bond more with people from home,” observes Natalia Almada.
October 3-10 / Yerevan, Armenia
Founded in 2004, this festival is named after the fruit native to Armenia, which means “the Armenian plum” in Latin. With the theme of “Crossroads of Cultures and Civilizations,” the festival has honored many great directors over its more than 15 years, including Claire Denis, Bela Tarr, Margarethe von Trotta, Asghar Farhadi, Darren Aronofsky and many others. Natalia Almada describes the programming as “amazing.” Director Atom Egoyan served as the festival’s president for over a decade, a position fellow Armenian moviemaker Harutyun Khachatryan now holds. Yerevan, Armenia’s capital and largest city, has countless historic sites to take in between screenings, including the Erebuni Fortress, which dates back to 782 B.C.
November 11–22 / Houston
This year’s hybrid fest, run by the Houston Cinema Arts Society, has the theme of “The Third Coast,” which artistic director Jessica Green says “is in celebration of, and exploration of, the Gulf Coast region, and especially Houston, where the term was coined, and its film, art, music, cultures, performance, food, history, peoples, threats and opportunities.” The fall 2020 festival offered a combination of drive-ins and virtual screenings. The films included Francis Lee’s period-piece lesbian drama Ammonite, Pablo Larrain’s Ema and Michel Franco’s New Order. It wasn’t all contemporary, however — the festival marked the 35th anniversary of Smooth Talk, starring Laura Dern, featuring a virtual Q&A with director Joyce Chopra. “Houston is the most diverse city in the country, and we’re proud to host a film fest that reflects its rich legacy and talent, from our 2020 in-person premiere of Houstonian Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli to our annual Black Media Story Summit-Texas and our new Borders | No Borders short film competition for filmmakers from Mexico, Texas, and its border states,” adds Green.
July 16-26 / Bogotá, Colombia
Panelist Anja Marquardt says IndieBo programs “independent film from around the world” — and “it’s run by incredible people.” With its a mild, pleasant climate, there are worse places to spend a festival than Colombia’s vibrant, varied, deeply literary and artistic capital city — and not many better ones, many attendees agree. Marquardt says she’d “go back in a heartbeat” before adding that “complete immersion is all I remember. And lots of mezcal.”
January 2022 / Drvengrad, Serbia
After landing at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade, you’ll take a scenic three-hour drive southwest to a snowy mountaintop in Drvengrad, home of the Küstendorf Film and Music Festival. The town was founded by Serbian moviemaker and two-time Palme d’Or-winner Emir Kusturica, and the festival is a cozy communal affair. Tyler Taormina, who attended back in early 2020, explains: “This is probably the most bizarre and wonderful festival I’ve ever been to. The beauty of it is that it is attended by only a few hundred people, all of whom experience every film, meal and live performance together. The snowy town Dvngrad, built for Kusturica’s Life is a Miracle, feels as though from a dream.” And if it’s not too windy or foggy, some lucky festival guests might just get a private helicopter ride around the scenic mountain region. For the slightly less adventurous, there is a historic train loop which travels in a figure eight.
Continue for more of MovieMaker‘s 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World, 2021