There are hundreds of film festivals around the world each year. But amongst the hundreds of international, national and local festivals – some aimed at audiences, others aimed at the film industry, some specific to a national cinema or style of film, others more general – there are a few key festivals that any avid film lover should follow. This is where the most anticipated films screen and where the most prestigious awards are given. With Cannes a recent memory, Venice just ended, Toronto underway, and less than a month before the London Film Festival begins, we have put together an overview of some of the best festivals around the world.
Cannes Film Festival
For many, there is Cannes and then everything else. It began in the late 1930s and is the perfect combination of sun, celebrity and the best of world cinema. It has been a major attraction for the finest filmmakers since the mid-1950s. Known to be one of the most prestigious film festivals, it takes place every May, sports the most idyllic location on the French Riviera, and attracts the beau monde of the film world. The festival’s top prize is the Palme d’Or, the Golden Palm, arguably the most sought after film prize. You might get more attention if you won an Oscar – and certainly the likelihood of more funding for future projects – but nothing quite attracts the prestige of this prize.
Most recent winner: Titan (Julie Ducournau, May 2021)
Venice International Film Festival
Coming in a very close second is the oldest film festival in the world. Venice Film Festival was created in 1932 under the auspices of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. But like Cannes, it found its footing in the 1950s. And like its Riviera sibling, it unfolds in one of the most beautiful locations. Keeping slightly away from the tourist trap of St Mark’s piazza, the festival takes place on the Lido. And once again, it attracts all the glamour that any festival can muster. It also follows the Cannes model of a main competition with more esoteric sidebar programmes that allow a wide and diverse range of films to screen. The top prize is the Golden Lion (most prizes at film festivals are either animals or vegetation).
Most recent winner: Happening (Audrey Diwan, September 2021)
Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale)
For anyone familiar with the German capital, it’s rarely what’s on the surface that counts, but the party happening beneath. Berlin may not possess the allure of the Riviera or a city on the water, but its treasures lie in the vast programme that unfolds during a – generally – freezing February. Founded in 1951, in the early 2000s it moved its base to Potsdamer Platz, which better reflected how the once-split city has been reunited and become a major cultural force. The top prize is the Golden Bear, a suitable choice for one of the chilliest festivals of the year.
Most recent winner: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, February 2021)
Sundance Film Festival
Giving Berlin a run for its money weather-wise, the United States’ indie darling was for much of the 1990s and 2000s the most essential film festival in the country. It takes place in Park City, Utah, every January. A mountain resort, Park City is set in beautiful surroundings, but the glamour here is hidden underneath layers of woolly jumpers and windbreakers. It was created under the auspices of Hollywood film star Robert Redford. In the 1980s it expanded, changed its name to Sundance (a reference to one of Redford’s most iconic roles) and gradually built its reputation as the home of the nascent US indie film. Jarmusch, Soderbergh, Tarantino etc. The list is endless. More recent years have seen its position challenged. The top award is the Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize.
Most recent winner: CODA (Sian Heder, January 2021)
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
Founded in 1976, Toronto Film Festival is one of the largest audience film festivals in the world. It unfolds in the lakeside Canadian city every September and in recent years has built a reputation as the launchpad for the Oscar awards season. More than a few films that proved a hit with audiences have gone on to achieve Oscar success. Playing so close to Venice, it’s not unusual for films to play in both festivals. And being a primarily audience-driven festival, there’s a party vibe to the proceedings. (At the 2013 edition, following a screening of 12 Years a Slave, two of the film’s stars, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, joined in on a limbo competition at a post-screening party.) The audience award is the top prize to look out for.
Most recent winner: subsequent Best Picture Oscar winner Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, September 2020).
Busan International Film Festival
Another September festival is Busan. Arguably the most important international festival of Asian film, it was created in 1996 and unfolds in the Haeundae District of the South Korean port city. The line-up is international (the first edition’s opening premiere was Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies), but the main focus for many visitors is the Asian programme – catching up with the finest in that region’s cinema. The increased prominence of Asian – and particularly South Korean – cinema in recent years will likely also increase interest in this festival and others across the region, such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Busan’s key prize is the New Currents award for the first or second film by Asian filmmakers.
Most recent winners (joint in 2020): A Balance (Harumoto Yujiro) and Three (Ruslan Pak).
Now celebrating its 52nd year, the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou unfolds every other March. (Although this year it will be held in October.) It was created, as former festival director Michel Ouédraogo noted, ‘in a context in which the African states had recently acquired their independence and they wanted to express their sovereignty and their identity’. And it is an essential barometer of the currents flowing through the continent’s thriving cinematic landscape. The most prestigious prize is the Étalon de Yennenga (Stallion of Yennenga), named for the legendary founder of the Mossi Empire.
Most recent winner (26th edition): The Mercy of the Jungle (Joel Karekezi, 2018).
Telluride Film Festival
Arguably the most eccentric of the leading festivals, Telluride takes place during the Labour Day weekend (the first Monday in September) high in the mountains of Colorado. The programme is only publicised close to the festival opening so that audiences come to it without expectations of what’s playing. It’s also not an awards festival but features mostly US premieres. And of course, it sports a stunning location. Each year, the festival pays tribute to leading lights in cinema.
Most recent tributes went to Riz Ahmed, Peter Dinklage and Jane Campion.
San Sebastián Film Festival
If you prefer your coastal resorts a little more Spanish than French and your festivals more low-key, then this September film fest is for you. Created in 1953, it’s one of the top festivals in the world but doesn’t quite get the publicity of Cannes, Venice or Berlin. But with such a stunning host city and a plethora of great films, along with the festival prize the Golden Shell, it remains a draw for major talent.
Most recent winner: Beginning (Déa Kulumbegashvili, September 2020).
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF)
This Czech festival, created in 1946 and unfolding under a mostly present sun every July, must take the prize for the most stunning location. It’s a collection of beautiful and colourful buildings set within a verdant forest in a narrow valley through which a river runs. This alone guarantees the film festival great prestige, but it has also boasted a consistently strong programme of films, a number of which compete for the Crystal Globe.
Most recent winner: Strahinja (Stefan Arsenijević, July 2021).
Tribeca Film Festival
Founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff in 2002, in direct response to the attacks of 11 September 2021, this Spring festival was aimed at rebuilding morale amongst downtown New Yorkers, as well as a show of cultural resilience. It has increasingly become a draw for international filmmakers and since 2016 has its own awards categories, headed by the Best US Narrative feature film.
Most recent winner: The Half of It (Alice Wu, 2020).
London Film Festival
The UK’s largest film festival (but not its oldest – that accolade goes to Edinburgh) is a major audience film festival and another major indicator of films likely to play a major role in the awards season. It unfolds every October, allowing judges to pick from the best of the year’s major festivals and a wide array of home-grown talent. It offers several awards, including Best Film.
Most recent winner: Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, October 2020).
SXSW Film Festival
What began as a major music festival in the Texan capital of Austin in 1987, by 1994 also included a film component. It began small, but its ambitions soon grew. By the mid-2000s, South by Southwest Film Festival was attracting as strong a line-up of US indie talent as Sundance. It’s now a major player in the US film festival scene and a draw for both filmmakers and the industry in general. Moreover, who wouldn’t want to attend a Spring film festival where you can also catch up with some of the best live music acts? Multiple awards are presented at SXSW each year for shorts, documentaries, film design and more.
Most recent winners included: The Fallout (Megan Park, 2021) and Lily Topples The World (Jeremy Workman, 2021)
Locarno Film Festival
Unfolding in this beautiful Swiss town at the foot of the Alps and on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore, this festival has been in existence since 1946. Unfolding every August, it has recently built its reputation for its blend of mainstream fare and edgier titles (alongside Rotterdam Film Festival’s equally esoteric Golden Tiger competition), the latter of which are reflected in the winners of the festival’s top prize, the Golden Leopard.
Most recent winner: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Edwin, August 2021)
Pordenone Silent Film Festival
For those preferring an old school take on cinema, you could do no better than to take a trip to the Italian town of Pordenone for the Silent Film Festival. It takes place every October and offers audiences the opportunity to rediscover classics from the pre-sound era. It was established in 1982 and along with its like-minded sibling Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, which is dedicated to the history of cinema and championing restored archive titles, Pordenone is an essential event in the preservation of cinema’s rich past. Every year the Jean Mitry Award is awarded to recognise an outstanding contribution to the reclamation and appreciation of silent cinema.
Most recent winners: Vera Gyürey and J.B. Kaufman.