Emma Stone provided a touch of glitz and glamour at this year’s Middleburg Film Festival when she dropped by Saturday night with the bubbly Hollywood musical “La La Land.” But audiences were just as impressed with two real-life stars in their midst over the four-day festival. Saroo Brierley, who became separated from his family in India as a 5-year-old boy and grew up in Australia, was greeted like a rock star when he appeared after the opening-night film “Lion,” which dramatizes his search for his birth mother by way of Google Earth. A few days later, a superbly self-possessed Mongolian teenager named Aisholpan Nurgaiv proved just as popular when she answered questions after the documentary “The Eagle Huntress,” in which she can be seen training a golden eagle to take flight at her command.
Both “Lion” and “The Eagle Huntress” won audience awards at Middleburg, which wrapped up Sunday. That audiences are just as taken with real-life people as movie stars sums up what has become so distinctive about a festival that, in four swift years, has managed to garner cachet, enthusiasm and loyalty that other festivals spend decades developing.
As much fun as it is to rub elbows with filmmakers and celebrities (the actors Bruce Dern, Allan Leech and Meg Ryan have visited in the past; Bo Derek and Beverly Johnson are beloved regulars), and as edifying as it is to talk Washington and Hollywood politics with the likes of Eric H. Holder Jr., David Gergen and Motion Picture Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, it’s the movies themselves that always earn the most chatter.
This year featured an exceptionally strong lineup of 28 films, including such likely awards contenders as “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight,” “Paterson,” “Loving” and “Jackie,” a dreamlike portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy that left local filmgoers — several of whom knew her when she lived nearby — both impressed and somewhat unsettled. Every year, Middleburg honors a film composer with a live performance of his or her film music; this year, Henry Jackman (“The Birth of a Nation”) was recognized, and production designer Jeannine Oppewall participated in a conversation about her work creating visual environments for “L.A. Confidential,” “Catch Me If You Can” and the upcoming, long-awaited Warren Beatty movie “Rules Don’t Apply,” in which Beatty plays Howard Hughes. “It’s such a thorough melding of the personalities and characters and story that I find it astounding,” she said of Beatty’s performance. “I look at him and think, is that Howard or is that Warren?”
Although it’s possible to buy single tickets to screenings for $10 to $15, Middleburg caters to a decidedly upscale crowd that can afford a $2,000 “weekend for two” package (including a night at a local bed-and-breakfast and tickets to screenings, parties and special events) or the pricey Sunday brunch at the Salamander Resort and Spa. From the screening venues at the nearby Sporting Library and Hill School to the panels held in the resort’s baronial library, Middleburg is an all-encompassing reflection of the impeccable taste, shrewd insight and indomitable will of the festival’s founder, Sheila Johnson.
When Johnson founded Middleburg in 2012, she made sure to schedule it in October — surely with an eye toward drawing tourists to the Salamander (then brand new) at peak foliage and wine-tasting season. But her decision also put Middleburg squarely in the middle of the run-up to the Oscars, when so many smart, well-made films are released to capitalize on awards publicity.
Together with executive director Susan Koch and programmer Connie White, Johnson seized on that fortuitous timing — and sought out such formidable corporate sponsors as Coca-Cola and FedEx — to create a small, local festival that punches far above its weight, both in terms of the quality of the films on offer and its atmosphere of relaxed sophistication. (Although hard figures were unavailable, Johnson estimated that about 4,000 people would attend the festival this year.) Much like Telluride, Middleburg is quickly becoming an eagerly awaited opportunity to watch buzzy movies and talk shop in an environment that’s both high-powered and friendly, luxurious and laid back (dogs are warmly welcomed).
Indeed, Middleburg has become so successful so quickly that it’s difficult to imagine where it might be headed in coming years. Johnson might have provided a clue Saturday when she announced that she and Derek will co-produce “W.A.S.P.,” a World War II-era drama about female service pilots. Her festival now firmly established as a wellrespected mecca for film lovers and filmmakers alike, Johnson seems poised to expand its role as a place where deals are made.