As good as the movies are at Film Fest 919, the memories you make and the people you encounter are the true highlights. Over the course of my time, not just this year, but previously at the festival, the friendships generated are ones I believe will carry well beyond the one week a year confines of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Some things are constants down there, including the best and most Oscar friendly films of the year, alongside an amazingly friendly staff (a special shoutout goes to Julia Glass and Maia Swan, both of whom are literally the best). Then, there’s what the founders call their good luck charm and mascot in screenwriter Chris Bergoch, who always attends. Two years ago, he and I tag-teamed an hour-plus long discussion after a screening of Honey Boy, which you truly had to have been there to have comprehended. This time around, he was there with his latest work, and the Q&A we did was a little bit different, but more on that below. Mostly, it was just a wonderful environment to be in, whether it was outdoors with Diane Warren, indoors at a movie, or mingling with some of the best people not just down South, but anywhere on Earth.
This year, it marked a return to theatrical screenings, as opposed to just at a Drive-In. It felt more intimate than two years ago, by design, but it also felt normal. That was among the biggest successes that founders Randi Emerman and Carol Marshall can point to, as they never made it feel like a pandemic festival. Even as larger fests struggled with that, they found the right balance and made the fourth edition of their passion project as good as any that’s come before. Let me be the first (or just the next) one to say, bring on year five!
In terms of the special events, the two highlights more or less bookended Film Fest 919. First, things began at the nearby Drive-In with a Tribute to the aforementioned Diane Warren, featuring a conversation between Warren and Vanity Fair’s Katey Rich (who also attends each year), followed by a laser light show set to her music. The crowd ate it up. Even outside of hubs like New York and Los Angeles, you can tell that there’s a yearning for her to get her first Academy Award win. Then, towards the end of the festival, I actually got involved in the festivities, helping to fete Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch. The filmmakers were given the Distinguished Screenwriters Award and following a screening of Red Rocket, I moderated the conversation with Bergoch. Chapel Hill may not be the first place you assume that a dark comedy about a washed up porn star would play, but the audience laughed at all the right moments.
Film wise, the biggest titles were the likes of C’mon C’mon, The French Dispatch, The Lost Daughter, Mass, Passing, Red Rocket, and Spencer. They joined smaller but no less worthy titles like Flee, The Novice, and The Worst Person in the World to make the lineup quite excellent. Throughout the week, audiences were remarking, both to me and others, how much they liked almost everything they saw. Having personally recommended a handful of these to patrons, that only added to the feeling of companionship that Film Fest 919 generates.
The movies aren’t the only attraction, as conversations, Q&A events, and of course parties help to lend the small town with a big festival feel. At this point, a lot of the people at 919 are returning critics and patrons, so there’s almost a reunion feel as well. You probably gathered that from above, but it truly stands out here, in a good way, too. Frankly, there isn’t another festival quite like it, so it’s a bit of a hidden gem, at least for now…
As previously announced yesterday morning, C’mon C’mon and King Richard tied for the Audience Award, with Mass not far behind. That basically tracks with how the buzz was throughout the week of screenings. They join flicks like Nomadland and Parasite in hoping to see this honor translate into major Oscar attention. Time will tell there, but when things play at Film Fest 919, it’s best not to count them out…
Here is how I would rank everything I’ve seen that played at Film Fest 919 this year:
15. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
14. The Hand of God
10. Catch the Fair One
9. A Hero
7. King Richard
6. The Novice
5. C’mon C’mon
1. Red Rocket
Stay tuned fore more on all of these films and be sure to check out Film Fest 919 next year!