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Catch Oscar-bound movies at Chapel Hill’s Film Fest 919

Jonathan Majors arrives at the second annual Academy Museum gala
Chris Pizzello/Invision
via AP
Jonathan Majors stars in the film "Devotion" about a Korean War-era Navy pilot. It is directed by J.D. Dillard and kicks off the fifth annual 919 Film Fest in Chapel Hill.

Months before movies go on to earn Academy Award nominations, folks can usually see them at Film Fest 919 in Chapel Hill.

In 2018, its inaugural year, the festival screened Green Book, which went on to win Best Picture. In 2019, the same was true, as Film Fest 919 showed Parasite. And in 2020 too, Nomadland hit the big screen in Chapel Hill before the Chloé Zhao-directed feature garnered three wins at the Oscars. Last year, it was still the first place many North Carolinians got to see award-winning films, such as King Richard. With just four years under its belt, the festival boasts 32 Oscar nominations amongst the films it has shown.

Simply put: If you want to see movies before they’re decorated with awards, you can see them at Film Fest 919.

“They’re all amazing films, and we’re showing them long before they come out theatrically, which kind of lends itself to our catchphrase: ‘Catch the films before they catch on.’ This is the beginning of their journey to the Oscars,” Carol Marshall, the festival’s co-founder, told WUNC. “The films we have [this year] are definitely front-runners.”

The fifth edition of the festival begins Wednesday at the Silverspot Cinema in University Place mall with a screening of Devotion — an action drama starring Jonathan Majors (Da 5 Bloods) and Glen Powell (Top Gun: Maverick) which is based on the true story of two U.S. Navy fighter pilots during the Korean War.

It’s the third directorial effort from J.D. Dillard, who will be in-attendance on Wednesday to receive the festival’s Horizon Award, which is, according to the festival's website, “presented to an outstanding filmmaker whose work not only demonstrates excellence in their craft” but also “signals a stunning breakthrough in their own artistry and body of work.”

One of the producers of the film is Rachel Smith, a 2006 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate.

Devotion isn’t set to be released widely until Nov. 23.

“[Dillard] has a very personal story and connection to the film, and it’s just so emotional and exciting,” Marshall said. “It’s like Top Gun but it’s a true story. It’s really wonderfully done.”

Randi Emerman, a fellow co-founder of the festival, said Devotion should leave viewers with “a good teary eye.”

The festival wraps up with a pair of showings of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery on Sunday evening at Silverspot. It’s the sequel to Rian Johnson’s 2019 whodunnit which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Glass Onion will have a limited theatrical release from Nov. 23-29 and will then hit Netflix on Dec. 23. It once again stars Daniel Craig, and also features Janelle Monáe and Kathryn Hahn.

In all, Film Fest 919 will feature 21 movies from Wednesday to Sunday with screenings at Silverspot and the Lumina Theater on Market Street in Chapel Hill. The offerings range from star-filled dramas like Armageddon Time to documentaries like Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues to international features like Close from Belgium.

Another documentary appearing at the festival, Good Night Oppy, was directed by Duke graduate Ryan White. That film — about a Mars rover that survived for 15 years on the red planet — will show at 5:30 p.m. at Silverspot on Thursday. It’s White’s 10th film.

“[With] all of these films, you want to continue the conversation about what you just saw,” Emerman said. “And that's what makes this festival so important and exciting and beautiful.”

Film Fest 919 began in 2018 when Marshall and Emerman were looking to expand their work in the film space after working together at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. They’ve known each other for more than three decades, and they wanted an event during the fall that could bring together films that aspired to have award campaigns.

At the time, Emerman was working with Silverspot, and they knew of Chapel Hill because of the arts programs at the nearby colleges, as well as the reputations garnered by the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, and the growing film industry in Wilmington.

“We felt like it was the perfect place,” Emerman said. “This festival in this market is so unique. It’s usually what you see at larger festivals — this kind of a program — not in this area.”

During the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Emerman and Marshall had to alter the festival just a bit. They both believe in the power of the big screen and didn’t want to do any virtual programming, so they turned Film Fest 919 into a drive-in event in 2020 in Carraway Village. Last year, the drive-in showed some films while Silverspot picked up others.

“I think people really appreciated the ability to get out and watch these movies safely, so it worked really well,” Marshall said. “And the studios enjoyed it because they wanted their films to be seen on the big screen too, as opposed to a television.”

“Or even worse,” Emerman added, “a computer.”

This year is a full return to the traditional moviegoing experience.

Tickets are still available for every film. Moviegoers can walk up and purchase tickets, or they can be bought online.

“We want to make sure we get a good crowd for all these movies,” Marshall said. “They're all worthy of being seen.”

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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