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The 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World 2021, Presented by FilmFreeway

The 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World 2021, Presented by FilmFreeway

25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World festival

2021 Coolest Film Festivals

Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

September / Los Angeles

Described by Jenny Shi as a “champion for Asian international and Asian Pacific American artists,” LAAPFF went online in 2020. But this year’s 37th edition will be a hybrid event. “They are dedicated to uplifting emerging voices and improving the Asian American media representation,” says Shi, while panelist Gina Duncan highlights the “slew of events at a vibrant collection of venues in L.A.’s Little Tokyo and HiFi [Historic Filipinotown] neighborhoods.” For the last four years, LAAPFF has premiered HBO’s Asian Pacific American Visionaries short film winners. The theme for this year’s HBO APA Visionaries is “Taking the Lead,” which highlights films that portray “Asian Pacific Americans as being at the forefront of a given narrative, embracing the spirits of trailblazers, heroes, and luminaries through a unique lens.” The fest also partners with the Undocumented Fimmakers Collective, the LGBTQ Okaeri Voices, and Kayamanan Ng Lahi, which is focused on students of Philippine folk arts.

Maryland Film Festival

April 27 – May 1, 2022 / Baltimore

Tyler Taormina, whose Ham on Rye played MdFF in 2019, describes it as “one of the most important U.S. film festivals.” “For many years this festival operated under the legendary creative auspices of programming tag team Eric Allen Hatch and Scott Braid, two programmers who did more to revitalize a burgeoning American alternate indie film scene in the mid-2010s than any others I can think of,” adds Jane Schoenbrun. With Hatch and Braid moving on, Schoenbrun notes that new artistic director Christy LeMaster “spent many years running the legendary Chicago microcinema the Nightingale out of her own basement, which makes me feel optimistic for Baltimore’s film future.” When Taormina says that “the East Coast crowds flock towards this gem of a festival, including a cast of familiar faces from the New York film community,” he truly means it: Baltimore native and MdFF board member John Waters and The New Yorker writer Richard Brody are known to turn up at screenings. “The reputation for this festival is immense and well deserved. Their tastemaker programming is fantastic, and their respect for cinema is resounding,” Taormina adds.

Morelia International Film Festival

October 27 – November 1 / Morelia, Michoacán, México

Natalia Almada describes this as “just a beautiful film festival in a beautiful city,” which draws “the best Mexican cinema but also a really strong international presence.” Its impressive guest lists over the years attest to that: Recent attendees include Salma Hayek, Robert Rodriguez, Willem Dafoe, Robert Redford, Jennifer Lawrence, Isabelle Huppert, Guillermo del Toro and many more. The festival declares, “We believe in the power of transformation of a national cinema and in the importance of identifying new Mexican talents whose works can cross cultural and aesthetic boundaries, inspire international artistic dialogue, and thus have a strong impact on society. We believe in the transcendence of human ties; so we encourage meetings, in an enriching context, among others of the regions of the Mexican territory with some of the most outstanding figures of the film community of the world.”

New Orleans Film Festival

November 5-21 / New Orleans

“For my money, this is the best party festival in America, and artistic director Clint Bowie does a fantastic job of curating a slate of under-the-radar indies and a slew of great shorts to compete for their various competitions,” says Jane Schoenbrun. “One year they rented a party bus, stuffed it with filmmakers all dancing as we drove down the highway, and then dropped us at a secret warehouse somewhere in Louisiana where Win Butler from Arcade Fire DJ’d into the wee hours. Another year I ended up line-dancing at a county fair way out in the Bayou, and then eating at the Waffle House in the middle of an insane thunderstorm. If all this (and a lot of really good food, of course — it’s New Orleans!) sounds like your scene, consider applying.” We have to admit we didn’t predict waffles coming up twice on this list. But seriously, foks: With a mission to “discover, cultivate, and amplify diverse voices of filmmakers who tell the stories of our time,” New Orleans promises that 90 percent of its films come from submissions, that at least half of the filmmakers are women or gender non-conforming, and that at least 55 percent of filmmakers are people of color. Given the events of last year, this festival also very coolly paid out its entire travel and hospitality budget of close to $40,000 directly to moviemakers.

Oak Cliff Film Festival

June 2022 / Dallas

25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World

Oak Cliff Film Festival. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

A couple of years ago, we ran a bold proclamation from a Coolest panelist that the Dallas-based Oak Cliff was more fun than a larger film festival in nearby Austin. Festival director and co-founder Barak Epstein and his team remain committed to fun: Last month’s edition featured a spooky, wry “cult” theme. A promotional video featured a flickery, mysterious figure inviting “children of the light” to “come to Oak Cliff” to bear witness to “the light that tells stories on the wall.” Consider us indoctrinated. “A truly wonderful regional Texas film festival,” says Tyler Taormina. “The Texas Theatre lives in my heart, as does the crowd of film lovers, filmmakers, and festival staff that congregate each year for this one. It’s a good energy, one that has stayed with me.” Oak Cliff, celebrating its 10th year, isn’t just rich with cinematic history: The Texas Theatre, just one of the festival’s venues, is where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended.



Olhar de Cinema

October 6-14 / Curitiba, Brazil

“This festival has the best programming of any I’ve attended,” says Tyler Taormina. “The theaters are packed with loyal cinephiles and everyday folks of Brazil, ready to see some of the best repertory highlights alongside the most interesting, under-the-radar, international art cinema. I’m blown away by this fest.” Curitiba is a bustling, lush, architecturally thrilling locale. And while as of this writing, the 10th edition of the festival may take place entirely online, participants are guaranteed fluid, open conversation, in-depth masterclasses, and a continuation of its proud tradition of “experiments, risks and accurate shots” that celebrate “new forms of cinematographic language” and “great thematic and aesthetic diversity,” according to the festival.

Also read: 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee in 2021

San Diego Asian Film Festival

October 28 – November 6 / San Diego

25 coolest film festivals in the world festival

San Diego Asian Film Festival

“Unlike most other Asian film festivals, we’re hungry for every format and genre — documentary, independent, experimental, studio films — so long as they capture the creative vitality of film artists across the continent and in the diaspora,” says artistic director Brian Hu. “We invite Thai rom-coms and Filipino art cinema, world premieres and new restorations, two-minute student animations and eight-hour Wang Bing documentaries. The heart of our festival, though, is the competitive Asian American selection, which has for 20+ years now been one of the premiere platforms for works by Ramona S. Diaz, Justin Lin, Patrick Wang, and others.” Adds Jenny Shi: “SDAFF embraces stories that represent both Asian and Asian American experiences. As a filmmaker who was born and raised in Asia, what has touched me the most is that SDAFF also showcases and honors classic Asian films, which has created a unique transcontinental and transcultural cinematic experience.”


Sept 17-19 / United States

StudioFest is a first-timer to our 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World feature. Photo by Scooby Miranda

We know more about this festival than any other on this list, thanks to the transparency of its Demystified video series, presented by MovieMaker. Co-founders Jess Jacklin and Charles Beale started the festival in New York in 2018 when they found that other festivals weren’t helping them do what they most wanted to do: make films. So StudioFest provides at least a $50,000 budget for filmmakers to do just that. StudioFest ended up budgeting almost double that for its first film, and overdelivering on its $50,000 commitment paid off: Souvenirs, directed by Anna Mikami and written by Matthew Sorvillo, winners of the inaugural StudioFest, was a top 10 performer on Redbox and recently sold to A+E Networks. Several in-the-works projects came out of its second edition, held in Ojai, California, in 2019. In normal times, StudioFest holds very personable, social, rustic and outdoorsy gatherings. Due to everything that happened last year, the next StudioFest will be via VR headsets. And if you want to know what else is going on with the festival that is also a production company, just watch Demystified on YouTube or Jess and Charles will be very honest about it.

Third Horizon Film Festival

June 2022 / Miami

Third Horizon Film Festival is one of the coolest film festivals in the world. Photo by Terence Price II

Focused on the “Caribbean, its diaspora and other marginalized and underrepresented spaces in the Global South,” this festival held its recent seventh edition mostly online in recognition of the unequal recovery from COVID-19. “Across the Caribbean and the Global South… our family and friends are staring down a legion of mutated strains, surging infection rates, new lockdowns, and the complicated reality of the vaccine: There’s a scandalous shortage for those who want it, while many others want nothing to do with it, their severe distrust grounded in very real trauma. … We believe, deeply, that we must harness our shock from the harrowing events of the past year and transform it into the epiphanies and practices that create the future that frees us.”

Also read: James Gunn Doesn’t Need to Shout

Shabier Kirchner describes the fest as his “all-time fave,” offering the ultimate endorsement: “I’m literally making a film right now just to submit to the festivals so I can go back.” And Gina Duncan describes Third Horizon as “a shining example of what can be done collectively to create and sustain a rich arts community.”

True/False Film Fest

March 3-6, 2022 / Columbia, Missouri


True/False is a mainstay on our Coolest Film Festivals in the World feature every year.

Widely revered as one of the best documentary festivals on earth, this perennial turner-upper on our Coolest list offers “a sense of community and belonging,” says Shi, who enjoyed “walking down the streets, sitting in a quiet cafeteria, and talking about my favorite films at the festival with my filmmaker friends.” Set in the small college town of Columbia, Missouri, the festival mixes great docs with fabulous live music, a kick-off parade, and talks that range from mesmerizing to jubilant as it presents 150 screenings each year. It offers 40 feature and 20 short nonfiction films, 12 music showcases, 20 visual art installations, and virtual reality programs. More than 100 filmmakers, 70 musicians and 45 visual artists attend annually. Columbia’s Ragtag Film Society helps teachers lead students to become media-savvy citizens, and the festival’s Rough Cut Retreat and Mentorship programs pair first-time filmmakers with veterans who can guide them in the documentary world.

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1 Comment

  1. Joel Kazuo says:

    Agreed on NOFF and Clint is the best!!!! Met so many people and you really feel embedded in the NOLA family. Can’t wait to get back there.

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