‘American Fiction’ wins top prize at Middleburg Film Festival: Are the Oscars next?

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Cord Jefferson’s comedy, “American Fiction,” has won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2023 Middleburg Film Festival. Since winning the same prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film has been steadily rising in our combined Best Picture odds, where it’s currently in ninth place as a predicted nominee. Jefferson also received the award for Special Achievement in Filmmaking for his debut feature.

The top documentary prize went to Vanessa Hope‘s “Invisible Nation,” which follows the election and subsequent administration of Taiwan’s first female president, Dr. Tsai Ing-wen. The top award for international filmmaking went to the J.A. Bayona film “Society of the Snow,” about the 29 survivors Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed in the Andes in 1972, and the extreme measures they had to take to stay alive while they were trapped.

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SEE ‘American Fiction’ trailer: Jeffrey Wright stars in Cord Jefferson’s acclaimed directorial debut [Watch]

The festival, which celebrated its 11th anniversary this year, is based in the exurbs of Washington, D.C. Almost all of the past recipients that have claimed the top audience award have gone on to be big factors in the Oscar race. Specifically, seven of the past 10 winners of this prize have gone on to score nominations for Best Picture: “Philomena” (2013), “The Imitation Game” (2014), “Spotlight” (2015), “Lion” (2016), “Green Book” (2018), “Minari” (2020) and “Belfast” (2021). “Spotlight” and “Green Book” would ultimately go on to win Best Picture. “Mudbound” (2017), “The Two Popes” (2019) and last year’s winner, “Devotion,” were the only ones that did not make it into the Best Picture lineup.

“American Fiction” stars Jeffrey Wright as a writer who can’t seem to get his work published anywhere and is frustrated by the current state of “Black” literature. When he jokingly writes a manuscript under a pen name that purposefully relies on the most offensive tropes, publishers start a bidding war to get the book into stores as soon as possible. The film also stars Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Skyler Wright. Other films looking to be players in this year’s Oscar derby that screened at Middleburg included “All of us Strangers,” “Anatomy of a Fall,” “The Holdovers,” “Maestro,” “May December,” “Priscilla,” “Rustin,” “Saltburn” and “The Zone of Interest.”

Over the last 11 years, the Middleburg Film Festival has solidly established itself as one of the most important stops for movies that are looking to be a part of the Oscar conversation. To date, 91 of the films that have screened here have gone on to amass a whopping 309 Oscar nominations, including 33 for Best Picture. Last year saw five of the films that played there go on to score Best Picture nominations: “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “TÁR,” “Triangle of Sadness” and “Women Talking.”

SEE Jeffrey Wright (‘American Fiction’) rises in Oscar odds after film’s big win at TIFF

Out of those 300-plus Oscar nominations, the films at Middleburg have won 55 Oscars altogether. Last year produced seven of those wins: “The Whale” (Actor and Makeup and Hairstyling), “All Quiet on the Western Front” (International Feature, Original Score, Cinematography and Production Design) and “Women Talking” (Adapted Screenplay).

Prior to that, films that played at the festival would go on to claim four Oscars in 2021, six in 2020, eight in 2019 and 2018, seven in 2017 and 12 in 2016. In total, five Best Picture winners have been shown here: “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” “Green Book,” “Parasite” and “Nomadland.”

Among the other people in attendance and receiving honors at this year’s festival included Alexander Payne (Director Spotlight), Emerald Fennell (Agnès Varda Trailblazing Film Artist Award), Michael Giacchino (Distinguished Composer), Todd Haynes (Visionary Director), Celine Song (Breakthrough Filmmaker), George C. Wolfe (Impact Award), Kris Bowers (Sheila Johnson Vanguard) and Matthew Heineman (Documentary Spotlight).

The festival was first started in 2013 by Sheila Johnson, the CEO of Salamander Hospitality and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, and filmmaker Susan Koch in order to showcase the small Northern Virginia town that is east of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley that’s home to around 750 people. The town is located in the southwest region of Loudoun County, a commuter region with one of the highest median incomes in the United States that’s still experiencing huge growth in its population. The combination of the region’s beautiful country backdrop along with being only an hour away from the power center of the country have helped the festival establish its identity in such a quick period of time.

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