The seams began showing in 2018 when Brian Owens, the beloved artistic director of the Nashville Film Festival traded Music City for the colder terrain of Calgary’s moviegoing community. In the Scene’s annual film poll that year, participants openly worried about the future of an event that, under Owens’ tenure, had become the premiere film festival of the Southeast, as well attended as Sundance and nipping at the heels of destination events for filmmakers and industry insiders like the Austin Film Festival.
When NaFF 2.0 debuted in October 2019 in conjunction with the festival’s 50th anniversary, it had all the hallmarks of the fest’s banner years. But amid screenings canceled due to projector issues, lackluster film intros from unprepared staff, and a local film slate dominated by the hometown cliques Owens always impressively navigated, the whole enterprise seemed like a pale imitation.
NaFF endured Covid well enough, never betraying whether its less robust slate and shorter span were the result of a global pandemic or new management. Its decision to shift from one central location at Regal Hollywood 27 to nearly a dozen venues across the city during its partial in-person return in 2021 miffed many of its most loyal attendees. Its fervent adoption of programming leaning into Music City platitudes seemed to cater more toward the tourists while its hyperfocus on shallow polemical screeds left any Nashvillians not still nursing Trump Derangement Syndrome better off with their Firesticks.
By last year’s iteration, the mojo seemed long gone thanks to a festival lineup that was the most anemic in two decades (remember all those year-end best lists sporting Spirit Halloween: The Movie and the Memphis-shot Syrian immigrant saga turned real-life legal drama Jacir?) In the meantime, other Southern competitors like Birmingham’s Sidewalk and the SCAD Savannah Film Festival dethroned “It City’s” signature event on Moviemaker magazine lists and industry trade news articles where it had long been a staple. Then came the subtle jab by the Scene’s Joe Nolan last month that East Nashville’s ragtag Defy was now “the best film festival in the city,” a comment that would have been heretical for the publication just a few short years ago.
Despite the flurry of lowkey, local shade, this year’s Nashville Film Festival lineup is a marked improvement from its offerings over the past half-decade. After four years on the job, director of programming Lauren Thelen has put together a stellar lineup that shows her hard-earned knowledge of diverse local tastes and ability to bring together the fall’s most anticipated films with lesser-known titles audiences may never have the chance to see again without a Google deep dive.
The festival may not have fully backed away from its decision to hold events at more than ten far-flung venues from the Franklin Theatre to Vanderbilt, but most of the action this year is taking place at the Belcourt and Regal Green Hills 16–the home of the festival during its most formidable years.
Seven days of movies, panels, parties, and virtual options kick off tonight with the documentary Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive at the Belcourt and what promises to be a classy opening night rager at Anzie Blue. We’ve sifted through the wealth of programming choices to bring readers the best the fest has to offer. For a complete schedule of in-person and virtual cinema options, visit the festival’s website.
The “Tennessee Films - Place” block has its share of middling local product, but “A Backlight Production” is a can’t-miss film about a Franklin theater troupe for adults with disabilities (4 p.m. @ Rothschild Black Box Theater, Vanderbilt University and available through the festival’s virtual cinema beginning Monday).
For those seeking to quickly kill their good vibes, a preview screening of Christos Nikou’s dystopian sci-fi comedy Fingernails about a woman (Jessie Buckley) who works at an institute that determines couples’ compatibility with dire consequences should do the trick (6: 30 p.m. @ Regal Green Hills).
Horror fans can stick around Green Hills for the “Tennessee Shorts - Genre” program at 9 p.m. to see The Pamphleteer favorite Jay Curtis Miller’s firecracker of a horror movie “MK Ultra Violence.”
Those who’ve had their fill of viscera can head back over to Vandy’s Black Box at the same time to catch an early look at the porn deep-fake doc Another Body that melds digital images and first-person accounts for an ingenious meditation on reality and the failure of the justice system.
Start off the morning at Regal Green Hills with the witty documentary Time Bomb Y2K that probes nostalgia and mass hysteria at 11 a.m. before jumping over to Vanderbilt’s Black Box for a block of episodic content featuring the wildly inventive, Nashville-produced PBS show Reconnecting Roots at 1:30 p.m.
Return to Green Hills for the rest of the evening to laugh at some polyamorous Portland hipsters in Cora Bora at 4:30 p.m. Grab a quick dinner before a special presentation of Oscar hopeful Eileen, a 60s-set crime drama featuring Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie at 7 p.m. End the night with the 9:15 p.m. screening of the indie possession horror flick The Puppetman that features a demonic pied piper wreaking havoc.
The place to be all day is Regal Green Hills where the gorgeous documentary Natalia about a novitiate in the Byzantine Catholic Church is the perfect movie to see at 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday.
Arthouse darling Alice Rohrwacher’s latest, La Chimera—a magical realist fantasy about an archeologist teaming with the same graverobbers to find a door to the underworld—promises to be one of the year’s best and screens at 4:30 p.m.
A sensible person would tap out at this point, but the rest of us will be at the 9:30 p.m. screening of The Sacrifice Game after a lengthy dinner to see some boarding school kids on Christmas break fend off uninvited visitors in this 70s horror throwback.
It’s worth leaving work early to fight Green Hills traffic and see Minnie Pearl: Facing the Laughter at 4:30 p.m. so we can keep the memory of one of the Opry’s finest alive.
The evening at Green Hills continues at 7 p.m. with the latest star turn from millennial anti-ingenue Rachel Sennott in I Used to Be Funny, a black comedy about a failed comic with PTSD who weighs whether or not to join the search for a girl she nannied.
Cap the day off with the 9:30 p.m. Graveyard Shift screening of Spanish horror flick When Evil Lurks about two brothers who find a vagabond birthing the Prince of Darkness in the woods.
The festivities shift to The Belcourt at 12:30 p.m. with the Cannes-honored French culinary tale A Taste of Things about a guarded chef (Benoît Magimel) whose gastronomical pretensions prevent his cook (Juliette Binoche) from pursuing feelings for him.
The perils of love continue at 3:30 p.m. with the gut-punching Lithuanian film Slow about an ASL interpreter and a dancer navigating their budding relationship. The newest crowdpleaser from Once and Begin Again director John Carney, Flora and Son, has earned raves for its witty focus on a mother helping her rebellious son find his passion with the help of an over-the-hill L.A. musician. It screens at 6 p.m.
If watching a devout Spanish grandma who has never orgasmed balance her faith and desire after getting a tingle from an internet search is your thing, you could do worse than Mamacruz at 8:30 p.m.
The final day of the festival begins at the Belcourt with the 1 p.m. regional premiere of Fallen Leaves, an askew romance about a couple on the ass-end of the welfare state by Finnish film legend Aki Kaurismäki.
Rather than seeing the insufferable social justice documentarian Raoul Peck opine on wrongful imprisonment, the North Carolina justice system, and civil disobedience in the hackneyed Silver Dollar Road, we suggest walking down to the union-busting Barista Parlor’s Hillsboro location to refuel.
Programmers made the admirable decision to close the festival with a 6 p.m. screening of the buzzy awards darling Foe, a domestic drama set in an A.I.-ravaged world that stars Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal. Those with any energy left should stop by the closing night party at the EXIT/IN just to make sure Nashville’s soul has remained intact after new ownership as we start the long countdown to NaFF 2024.