“Spotlight,” an ensemble drama about the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, won the audience award at this year’s Middleburg Film Festival, organizers announced on Monday. The film, starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and Rachel McAdams, was one of several awards-season contenders that appeared at the festival, which featured an exceptionally strong program this year.
Founded by Sheila Johnson three years ago — after Robert Redford told her he thought the town would be a great place for a film festival — Middleburg got off to an immediately strong start in 2013, with executive director Susan Koch programming such buzzy 2012 Oscar contenders as “Nebraska” and “Philomena.” In search of films that are both provocative and entertaining, Koch and programming director Connie White ply the film festival circuit from Sundance through Toronto: This year, they brought back an impressive haul of standout titles that included not only “Spotlight” but such audience favorites as “Carol,” “Brooklyn,” “Anomalisa” and “Son of Saul.”
Clearly in touch with Middleburg’s well-heeled audience (festival passes cost anywhere from $100 to $2,500, and individual tickets cost $15), Koch and her staff have hit on a winning formula that has come to define Middleburg: a well-balanced program of smart, well-executed films, some unique one-off events, parties making the most of the area’s wineries and artisanal food culture, and an overarching mood that is both lively and laid-back, sophisticated and refreshingly friendly and unpretentious. Although films are shown at a school and sports museum in the town of Middleburg, most of the proceedings occur at Johnson’s sprawling Salamander Resort and Spa, where audience members attend panels in the baronial library, catch screenings in one of the hotel’s ballrooms or grab a drink and chat by one of several perfectly crackling fires. (Attendance has steadily gone up: Koch estimates that 3,500 people came to Middleburg this year, compared to 3,000 last year and 2,500 in 2013; The Washington Post is a founding media sponsor of the festival.)
Each year, Middleburg pays tribute to a cinematographer and a composer. This year’s honorees were Dante Spinotti and composer and frequent Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell, whose soaring compositions for such films as “Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “Rob Roy” and “Twilight” were performed by members of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra. The directors Lee Daniels and Catherine Hardwicke could be spotted between conversations about their work, and there were one or two recognizable stars on hand, including model Beverly Johnson, actress and producer Bo Derek and Meg Ryan, who presented the world premiere of her directorial debut, a World War II drama, “Ithaca.”
Shot in Virginia over 23 days, “Ithaca” received a politely supportive response from the Middleburg filmgoers, who bestowed their award for best nonfiction film on “Harry and Snowman,” about a man and his rescued plow horse. They saved some of their most enthusiastic whoops for Sunday morning, when Sheila Johnson introduced the screening of “Suffragette,” which stars Carey Mulligan as a British laundry worker who becomes an activist for women’s voting rights. “We are powerful!” Johnson said, leading the packed ballroom in a standing cheer before the lights went down. Having turned a little-festival-that-could into a well-regarded stop on the fall circuit in only three years, the lady with the microphone certainly is.