The Best Under-the-Radar Film Festivals in America

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This weekend, your film editor was invited to cover the tenth annual Tallgrass Film Festival; it’s an invitation I was inclined to accept, since it’s held in my hometown. But the fabulous time that I had there got me thinking about film festival culture — there are, after all, literally hundreds of film festivals held in America now, several a week, but casual observers and even true-believer film fans only hear about a handful of them. Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, NYFF, Telluride, and other “name brand” festivals boast big premieres, red carpets, and marquee names. The smaller, under-the-radar fests may not have all of that attention-grabbing stuff, but they’ve got as much (if not more) love for the cinema. So we asked some of our Flavorpill folks across the country to recommend some of their favorite film fests; check out their must-sees after the jump.

Tallgrass Film Festival (Wichita, KS)

When the Tallgrass Film Festival started back in 2003, it was a modest affair: a few films, a handful of venues, a small fest in a medium market. This year’s edition (the festival’s tenth) made a much bigger splash, with nearly 50 features and 140 shorts screening in theaters big and small. The line-up included several domestic premieres — including two wonderful, movie-crazy documentaries, Pablo (profiling title artist Pablo Ferro) and Year of the Living Dead (a look at the context and influence of Night of the Living Dead) — but it also allowed Midwesterners to get a look at several festival and art house favorites (Compliance, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Beauty is Embarrassing, Detropia) that would have never seen a movie screen in their market otherwise. And I can tell you, as someone who spent years hungering to see the indies everyone was talking and writing about, that this is valuable indeed.

Zero Film Festival (Multiple locations)

The website for this multi-locale fest hits the nail on the head: “In the age where the majority of festivals are Hollywood marketing campaigns, and even ‘indie’ and ‘underground’ festivals screen financed films, we exist to offer something different.” Their mission statement proudly proclaims Zero “the first and only festival EXCLUSIVE to self financed filmmakers and the authentically independent films they create.” The not-for-profit organization is based in New York, but they’ve hosted festival events in Los Angeles, London, Toronto, and (this weekend), Peru.

Festival of [In]Appropriation (Los Angeles, CA)

Flavorpill LA’s managing editor Tanja M. Laden is a big booster of this clever event, which she describes as “a found-footage film festival presented by the LA Filmforum that delivers a number of contemporary found-footage video assemblages that make use of existing material in order to create new moving images. (ie, Zach from Saved by the Bell gets a blowjob.)” Sounds like a blast to us. (The multi-talented Tanja’s entry is above.)

Woodstock Film Festival (Woodstock, NY and surrounding areas)

Flavorpill’s venue partner manager Patrick C. Letterii is a fan of Woodstock’s “great line-ups without the madness of some of the bigger fests.” This year, their slate included Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, Amy Heckerling’s Vamps, and, as the centerpiece selection, Ben Lewin’s The Sessions; they also presented their Maverick Award to the great Jonathan Demme. And there’s another plus, according to Patrick: “It’s in the Catskills in the fall, which is beautiful.”

Bicycle Film Festival (Multiple locations)

Art editor Marina Galperina and group managing editor Leah Taylor both heartily endorse the Bicycle Film Festival, a global, multi-city “platform to celebrate the bicycle through music, art, and, of course, film.” This year has seen festivals in New York, London, Moscow, Istanbul, Vienna, Brisbane, Heerlen, Helsinki, Milano, Richmond, and St. Petersburg, with events upcoming in Sydney, Chicago, Hong Kong, Madrid, and Mexico City.

Artivist Film Festival (Hollywood, CA)

Tanja also recommends the upcoming (November 1-4) Artivist Film Festival, which is even more high-minded than most; the only film festival in the world affiliated with the United Nations Department of Public Information, it promotes and celebrates films that raise awareness of human rights and advocacy issues. And then they go one step further with their “From Awareness to Action” program, which connects audiences to NGO partners that can make real change happen.

Maryland Film Festival (Baltimore, MD)

Patrick never misses this Baltimore fest, centered at the Charles Theatre, which he assures us is “the coolest cinema in Baltimore.” Their slate, he says, “tends to skew a little mumblecore, but still some cool films, and John Waters always does an awesomely bizarre screening.” Sounds about right.

SEEFest: South-East European Film Festival (Los Angeles, CA)

Another pick from Tanja, this one bringing some rarely-seen foreign fare to LA. In fact, it’s the only festival in the USA to showcase films from the Balkans and surrounding countries, with shorts, documentaries, and narratives from the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Greece.

Traverse City Film Festival (Traverse City, MI)

The biggest name at the Traverse City fest is the one behind the scenes: Michigan native Michael Moore, who founded the festival back in 2005 and serves as President of the Board of Directors. Though only a few years old, TCFF has already established itself as a showcase for foreign film, American independents, and (of course) docs, while its centerpiece venue, the beautiful State Theatre (which we chose as one of the country’s best movie theaters), also operates year-round as a venue for indies and classics.

TromaDance Film Festival (Asbury Park, NJ)

Leave to schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman, founder and auteur of Troma Films (The Toxic Avenger, Poultrygeist, Tromeo & Juliet) to democratize the increasingly plutocratic film festival circuit. Tromadance started as one of the many simultaneously-run alternatives to Sundance (alongside Slamdance, Slumdance, and others) before moving to New Jersey; according to their website: “Unlike every other film festival, TromaDance does not charge filmmakers to submit their films. Entrance to all screenings is free and open to the public. Also, there are no VIP reservations or preferential treatment regarding films, panels, or parties of any kind given. The organizers of TromaDance believe films are meant to be seen, especially when it comes to new filmmakers. Art — in all its forms — is for the people!” Hear, hear!

Those are some of our favorite under-the-radar film fests — share yours in the comments!