Virginia Film Festival 2023: Maestro, American Fiction, Origin, The Holdovers, and More!

By Dylan McKercher

As the 36th Virginia Film Festival (VAFF) comes to a close, I’d like to reflect on the excellent crop of films I’ve been able to see during my time there. This is my 5th year attending as a film lover and my 2nd as a press member, so I’ve come to expect a mix of Oscar hopefuls and buzzy international titles. In the past few years, the fest has showcased films such as 2023’s Best Adapted Screenplay winner, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, 2022’s recipient for Best Director, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, 2021’s Best Picture winner, Nomadland, and 3 excellent Best International Feature nominees; EO, Flee, and Parasite. But perhaps my favorite aspect of VAFF is seeing star-studded lineups of special guests who earnestly answer questions about their featured films. There’s something about watching a film with those involved in its creation that just makes the experience so much more impactful.

As expected, this year’s VAFF lineup is jam-packed with Oscar darlings, hot topic international titles, and an A-list guest lineup. It’s any true film lover’s heaven, so I could not be happier to dive into the 13 films I had the pleasure of experiencing!

Programmers Narrative Award & Breakthrough Director Award Winner: American Fiction

This was one of the films I was most looking forward to as it had previously won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. American Fiction rose above my high expectations and is far and away the funniest movie I saw at VAFF. It’s masterfully written and directed by Cord Jefferson, who I think thoroughly deserved his Breakthrough Director win at VAFF. I adored Jefferson’s satirical comedy that tackles race in a hilarious yet upfront way. The film's ensemble, headlined by the talented Jeffrey Wright, knocks it out of the park. Stealing the show for me was Sterling K. Brown, who plays Wright’s character’s brother. The always charismatic Brown gets to deliver some of the film's funniest lines and oozes energy throughout this festival favorite of mine. After the screening, I was blessed with the opportunity to see Jefferson discuss in a Q&A how he went about adapting the novel and turning it into one of my favorite screenplays of the year. 

VAFF Audience Award for Narrative Feature Winner: Origin 

Origin is a deeply complex and thought-provoking feature. Origin’s director Ava DuVernay was in attendance to receive the Visionary Award, where she discussed the process of crafting such an important movie outside of the studio system. I think Origin masterfully portrays the story that it wants to tell, managing to be both informative and entertaining throughout. To read my full thoughts on this discussion-sparking film, check out my full review here.

Opening Night Film: Maestro

The opening night film this year was Bradley Cooper’s followup to his Oscar-nominated and box office smash A Star is Born. Maestro is a film that dives into the world-renowned conductor Leonard Bernstein’s personal life, familiar affairs, and musical works. Regrettably, I was let down with the Netflix original. While it is a masterfully well-crafted film with dazzling cinematography, amazing makeup work, and stellar performances from both of its leads, the film felt like it was just missing the spark that much of Bernstein's music and style is filled with. Speaking of the incredible work done by the makeup team, lead Makeup Effect artist on Maestro Kazu Hiro partook in a Q&A while receiving the festival’s Craft Award, where he dived into his own career, the process of crafting the prosthetics in Maestro, and more. If you want to know my full thoughts about Netflix’s Oscar hopeful, read my full review

Day 2 Film: Rustin

In addition to American Fiction, on the second day of VAFF, I saw fellow Netflix title Rustin. This film tells the underreported story of Bayard Rustin, who was both a civil rights leader and a gay man in a time when being black and gay meant double the discrimination, even from those who identify similarly. Overall, I thought the movie followed the typical biopic formula to a T but managed to nonetheless be engaging. Colman Domingo turns in one of the best performances of the fest as the titular character. I wish the end of the film really sold how large, impactful, and grand the March on Washington was, but I still felt like I left the movie learning a lot about Rustin and all of the obstacles he had to endure to lead this historic event. 

Day 3 Films: They Shot the Piano Teacher & Sleep

Day three commenced with a pair of films: They Shot the Piano Teacher and Sleep. I thought They Shot the Piano Teacher was a mixed bag. While the film had some colorful eye-popping animation, a discomforting Jeff Goldblum voiceover, a messy pace, and an uneventful payoff left me disappointed. 

On the other hand, Sleep is probably my surprise of the festival. The Korean horror film kept me on the edge of my seat, anxious, and never knowing where we were heading next. Sleep is headlined by two great leading performances, creative direction, and immersive sound design.

Day 4 Films: Perfect Days, Terrestrial Verses, Four Daughters, & The Holdovers

Day four of the festival began with a trio of Cannes premieres. The first of the bunch I saw was Japan’s International Feature submission Perfect Days, a film that I found simply superb. Wim Winders exquisitely captures the beauties in everyday life that can be found if you just look. These can include a glance from a stranger, the beauties of nature, or even a game of tic-tac-toe. Our lead Kōji Yakusho effectively communicates his feelings of happiness and disappointment while having such little dialogue. Perfect Days also does an amazing job of capturing how quickly the perfection of your life can crumble due to one adjustment to your preplanned schedule. Overall, the film is paced perfectly, effectively tells its story, and has wonderful needle drops. Don’t miss this terrific film when it hits public release. 

Next on my schedule was Terrestrial Verses, which is more of a collection of vignettes than an actual film. Terrestrial Verses tackles the everyday struggle of citizens in Iran in a creative way. The filmmakers stick with one stationary shot in each individual story to capture the injustices being put in place by the government. Some of these segments worked for me. Some didn’t. 

Afterwards, I waited in the standby line to see the innovative foreign documentary Four Daughters, which I found remarkably effective. It combines aspects of traditional documentary filmmaking with actors reenacting pivotal moments from this family's life. The authentically shot scenes help you bond closer with each family member, while the reenacted sequences add emotional weight and sell the story. While the film runs a little long, it culminates with an impactful and important reveal in the final few minutes that heightens the emotions to a whole new level.

Day four came to a close with another Oscar hopeful in The Holdovers, starring Paul Giamatti. Alexander Payne directs this crowd pleasing dramedy. This screening included a Q&A with one of the film’s producers who recounted to us how Payne and Giamatti’s reunion came to be. I’m glad they decided to work together again, since The Holdovers truly shines thanks to its acting. Giamatti is great as usual, delivering zing after zing, but I found our highlights to be newcomer Dominic Sessa and the Tony-nominated Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Both impress with their ability to blend comedy with drama throughout this blast from the past. 

Final Day Films: The Taste of Things & May December

Finally, it was the last day of the festival. This day was my personal favorite, since I was able to see The Taste of Things, France’s International Feature submission, May December, Todd Haynes’s Netflix-acquired film, and American Symphony. The Taste of Things captures the innocent magic of the culinary world and is enhanced by scrumptious cinematography that mesmerizes the audience with extreme close ups, long takes, and tracking shots of our cooks baking delicious dishes. Mix in two terrific lead acting performances and you have a deserved shoo-in for an International Feature nomination. 

Speaking of terrific performances. May December had three of them. Natalie Portman has mastered her craft as she plays an actress named Elizabeth attempting to embody Julianne Moore’s Gracie. She portrays Elizabeth perfectly, keeping you constantly guessing at her true colors and intentions. Meanwhile, Julianne Moore is intensely magnetic as Gracie, a woman you can’t empathize with but are fascinated by nonetheless. Portman and Moore would be the clear MVPs in most other films. However, the true standout of May December is Charles Melton. While he is more reserved in the first act, he eventually astounds in multiple captivating scenes throughout the film, bringing much-needed heart to a fairly cynical film. Behind the camera, Todd Haynes’s creative directorial vision, Samy Burch’s witty writing, and excellent pacing kept me engaged and on the edge of my seat.

Closing Night Film & Directorial Achievement Award Winner: American Symphony

I ended my festival experience with Closing Night Film and Directorial Achievement Award Winner American Symphony. Matthew Heineman returns to the directing chair to showcase another impactful story. However, instead of covering a life-threatening event on a grand scale, American Symphony focuses on a life-threatening disease affecting someone close to renowned music artist Jon Batiste. The documentary does a brilliant job at taking a peek behind the curtain to observe the immensely talented Jon Batiste’s personal life. It brilliantly showcases how someone as seemingly on top of the world as Jon Batiste, who had just won 4 Grammys (including Album of the Year), could be struggling with devastating events behind the scenes. After the Q&A, Batiste concluded the fest with a bang, gifting us with an electric performance singing, dancing, playing instruments. 

Overall, I found this year's lineup at VAFF to be incredibly consistent, as I enjoyed almost every curated film I was able to see. My favorites, though, had to be American Fiction, Sleep, and American Symphony. I am thrilled that I was able to go to VAFF once again this year, as being able to hear from creatives who craft these films, ask them questions, and even meet them are wonderful opportunities I treasure deeply. I'll never forget asking Jefferson and DuVernay questions or shaking Batiste's hand. If you're ever able to go to VAFF, it's an experience I highly recommend. I can't wait for next year!