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‘Ezra’ and ‘Wicked Little Letters’ Among Standouts at the 27th Sonoma International Film Festival — Exclusive

The 27th Sonoma International Film Festival (March 20-24), as always, leaned into wine and food with the sold-out opening night U.S. premiere of Thomas Napper’s “Widow Clicquot” (Vertical Entertainment), starring Haley Bennett as the woman who saves the legendary winemaker’s legacy. The wine country film festival drew its highest audience attendance to date with a robust film slate programmed by artistic director Carl Spence (working with Executive Director Ginny Krieger), in his second year, including upcoming specialty fare like Luc Besson’s “DogMan” (Briarcliff Entertainment) starring Caleb Landry Jones in an incendiary performance, and Sony Pictures Classics’ raucous comedy “Wicked Little Letters,” starring Olivia Colman, along with a smattering of yummy wine and food events.

The five-day festival curated by Spence along with senior programmers Amanda Salazar and Ken Jacobson, showcased more than 100 films. Twenty-five countries were represented in this year’s lineup of 43 narrative features, 16 documentary features, and 49 short films. “This year, there’s more goodwill and word of mouth about how it was last year,” said Spence. “And so we expanded that.”

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The turnaway crowd at the packed Sebastiani Theatre ate up foreign-financed “Ezra” (May 31, Bleecker St.), the funny and moving Tony Goldwyn drama about a family (Robert DeNiro, Bobby Cannavale, and Rose Byrne) trying to do their best for a lively autistic kid (rookie William A. Fitzgerald). Finding the charismatic non-pro was a “miracle,” said producer Jon Kilik at the Q & A.

The movie was the second runner-up for the audience award, which this year went to Spanish director Patricia Font’s “The Teacher Who Promised the Sea,” which scored five Goya nominations in 2024 and seeks U.S. distribution. First runner-up was Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thomson’s poignant Sundance family drama “Ghostlight” (IFC Films).

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Spence pulled in such industry heavyweights for his dramatic and documentary juries as Julie Huntsinger (Telluride Film Festival), Eugene Hernandez (Sundance Film Festival), Rosa Bosch (Begin Again Films), Jason Hellerstein (Sideshow), Jannette Napoli (ITVS), Rebecca Fisher (Magnolia Pictures), and Rob Williams (Participant), as well as journalists Thelma Adams, Tyler Coates, and Matthew Carey.

Bosch moderated a candid, often hilarious, and enlightening panel about the future of film, which included me, Hernandez, Hellerstein, Cinetic Media’s Brian Brooks, Marcus Hu (Co-President, Strand Releasing), and marketing veteran Dennis O’Connor. The upshot: the future of a healthy film industry includes using Lettrboxd, celebrating classic films, revitalizing movie theaters by making them alluring places to hang out, and hoping studios, streamers, and producers turn out more modestly priced original movies instead of cookie-cutter gargantuan formula fare.

Sundance was the topic of discussion as Hernandez was peppered with queries about the departure of the Institute CEO Joana Vincente. Also in attendance at the fest was Sundance director emeritus John Cooper and one of his successors, Tabitha Jackson, who has also left the festival. They mounted a live podcast “The Film That Blew My Mind” with John Cameron Mitchell who dug into why he loves Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” and also served as DJ at this year’s Gay Party.

The dramatic, documentary, and shorts juries chose the jury prize winners, while the audience, both local and visitors from surrounding counties as well as the Bay area, voted for the audience awards.

Beau Bridges accepted the SIFF Lifetime Achievement Award and participated in an on-stage conversation with the Los Angeles Times film critic Katie Walsh, followed by a 35th Anniversary screening of “The Fabulous Baker Boys.”

Award-winning chef Susan Feniger accepted the SIFF Culinary Excellence Award at a scrumptious three course dinner and screening featuring the Bay Area Premiere of her partner Liz Lachman’s “Susan Feniger. Forked,” curated by Feniger.

The jury prizes are listed below:

Grand Jury Award | Best Narrative Feature: “Goodbye Julia” (Mohamed Kordofani | Sudan)

Grand Jury Award | Best Documentary Feature: “Invisible Nation” (Vanessa Hope | USA)

Special Mention: “Hesitation Wound” (Selman Nacar | Turkey)

Grand Jury Award | Best Short Films:

Best Live Action Short | “ILY, Bye” (Taylor James | USA)

Best Documentary Short | “A Part Of You Made Me Whole Again” (Destyn Fuller-Hope and Andrew Wonder | USA)

Best Animated Short | “Bug Diner” (Phoebe Heart | USA

The Stolman Audience Award for Best Feature | “The Teacher Who Promised the Sea”

A3 Audience Award | “Call Me Dancer”

McNeely Award for Best Short | “Save The Cat”

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