Miami Film Festival Celebrates the Magic and Diversity of Film

 by Jeanne-Marie Phillips

Lights, camera, action . . .  parties, master classes, workshops, lectures, roundtables, discussions, debates, happy hours and more. Welcome to the Miami Film Festival (MFF), which for ten days in April set the Magic City ablaze with the excitement of all things film, attracting some 45,000 big-screen aficionados of every stripe – as well as hundreds of producers, directors, actors, entertainment industry members and more.

The Festival is a world-class platform for international, American, and Ibero-American films with special emphasis on those with Florida roots. Now in its 41st year, it showcases the work of some of the world’s best emerging and established filmmakers and has grown into a cinematic event of the first magnitude.

A City-Wide Celebration

Screenings, parties and other events take place throughout Miami, spreading the excitement city-wide. This year, venues included the prestigious Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. Attendees were treated to one of the most extensive programs ever with some 180 feature narratives, documentaries and short films of all genres from more than 31 countries worldwide. These included Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Cuba, France, Japan, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, and more.

Festival filmmakers compete for awards totaling more than $100,000 in categories ranging from feature, documentary, Ibero-Hispanic and South Florida-themed films to shorts, student-submissions and more. While the MMF premieres many new films, others have already proven their merit by opening to critical acclaim at recent festivals in other geographic areas. Critically acclaimed films that have not yet been commercially released are also shown in non-competition categories.

Thelma Opens the Excitement

This year’s Festival opened with Thelma, directed by Josh Margolin. It premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and is set to debut in theatres shortly. The film was shown amidst pomp, pageantry and red carpets at the Adrianne Arsht Center. It features ninety-four-year-old June Squibb who is transformed into an action hero—complete with an arsenal of guns and a wickedly mobility scooter–to avenge a phishing scam that cost her significant financial loss.

She is aided, albeit reluctantly by Ben, a nursing home resident played by the late Richard Roundtree. The off-beat comedy zeros in on many of the limitations and stereotypes of old age, while presenting two gutsy heroes intent on seeking revenge and return of the stolen goods. Watch as they succeed.

The film was followed by a lively premiere party, with epicurean delights and drink from venues throughout the city. Hundreds of Festival attendees and participants filled the historic Alfred I. Dupont Building and partied until late into the night.

Ezra Caps Off the Event

The Festival closed with Bleecker Street’s Ezra, starring Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Robert De Niro, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rainn Wilson. The film focuses on Max Bernal, a stand-up comedian living with his father, while struggling to co-parent his autistic son Ezra with his ex-wife. It is a heart-warming often comedic tale of a family determined to find their way through life’s complexities with humor and compassion.

Something for Everyone

The whirlwind of films in between literally offered something for everyone. Among the themes were inclusivity and diversity and Cuban cinema. Also in the spotlight were an expanded program of shorts and a selection of films by local film makers.

A quick look at the roster of films from Miami-related film makers alone proves the Festival’s diversity. They included Resident Orca, a compelling documentary that narrates the quest to free Lolita, a whale at the Miami Seaquarium, after decades of captivity. The effort involved perseverance and unlikely alliances.

The Asylum focuses on a Little Havana high school’s basketball winning record and the major state-wide investigation sparked by a local newspaper article. Unión de Reyes (Union of Kings) explores a son confronting unknown elements from his father’s past following his heart attack. These include surprising blood ties to his Cuban heritage. Happy Clothes is a candid glimpse into the creative process and the extraordinary life of Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning costume designer Patricia Field. Her unique vision has helped to shape fashion and popular culture for nearly six decades.

Unique Experiences

The Festival also offered a range of unique experiences:

MFF’s Marquee screenings included interesting post-screening Q&As with directors that provide an opportunity to understand the creative vision shaping the production. 32 Sounds is an immersive exploration of sound in which attendees are given headphones and take part in a unique sensory journey exploring the phenomenon of sound.

Dinner and a show involved an elegant meal in Coconut Grove, along with a free screening of Suze, a film about a mother left to help heal the hurt after her daughter abandons her boyfriend for another town. Movie Night on the Beach in Bal Harbour Village featured a free screening of the indie hit Waitress to mark Pi Day.

Since its inception major stars and filmmakers graced the Festival’s red carpets including Sofia Loren, Antonio Banderas, Anne Hathaway, Nicolas Cage, Diego Luna, Danny Glover, Shirley MacLaine, Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, and Andy Garcia. This year was no exception, adding to the excitement.

In all, the festival brought to the big screen ten world premieres, ten North American premieres, five U.S. Premieres, 11 East Coast premieres, and 42 Florida Premieres.

And the Winner Is . . .

 Winner of the coveted Made in Miami Award in the feature film category and its $25,000 prize was Mountains, which focused on the gentrification of Little Haiti.

Winner of the Festival’s coveted Marimbas Award was Los Frikis, a haunting film set in Cuba during the 1990s. The $20,000 Marimbas prize is awarded for a new narrative feature film that best exemplifies the richness and resonance for cinema’s future.

In The Summers was named winner of the $10,000 Jordan Ressler First Feature Award, sponsored by the Florida family of the late Jordan Ressler, an aspiring screenwriter who passed away in a tragic accident at the age of 23.

The Shadow of the Sun won the Audience Feature Film Award, which is determined by a vote of Festival attendees who view the film.

Whether or not the many stunning cinematic efforts appearing on the Festival’s big screens won an award, together they created a big celebration of the art of film making and a memorable experience for film-goers—many who return year after year for the highly anticipated event.