Top 10 inspiring Biopics to see this holiday season… or any time of the year

Christmas is always a special time for me. It’s not just another holiday, as there is someone’s birth I am celebrating for His gift to humanity. So as we celebrate the birth of our Lord, it’d be most appropriate to focus on the theme of inspiration. The word itself came from the Latin word inspīrāre which means ‘to breathe upon or breathe life into.

inspire (ɪnˈspaɪə)
— vb
to exert a stimulating or beneficial effect upon (a person); animate or invigorate

Certain films have a power to inspire us, especially those that are based on a real person. Of course Hollywood often takes creative license with the films, but so long as the essence of the story is there, it can still very much inspire us. Note that I’m limiting the list to films from 1980s and up just to help narrow things down.

So without further ado, here are 10 biopics I have seen so far that I find the most inspiring (in alphabetical order):

Amazing Grace (2006)

The idealist William Wilberforce maneuvers his way through Parliament, endeavoring to end the British transatlantic slave trade.

I saw this a while ago and I wish more people had seen this. This movie’s release coincided with the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the first anti-slave trade bill, ending 400 years of slave trading. The main protagonist, William Wilberforce is a faithful British member of Parliament. Ioan Gruffud is excellent in the title role, conveying the emotional and physical struggles battling illness and one setback after another in the two decades he fought to end slave trading in England.

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Along the way, he’s encouraged by his mentor John Newton (portrayed marvelously by Albert Finney), the author of the beloved hymn of the movie’s title, a repentant former slave trader. He’s also helped by his allies, PM William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), a scholarly former slave Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), as well as his loving and influential wife, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). Though it’s heavy on the history and political aspect, but the redemptive values aren’t lost in the process. It’s one of those rare Hollywood films with a deep passion for goodness and virtue that’s entertaining as well as inspiring. The performances of mostly-British talents, which also includes Ciaran Hinds and Rufus Sewell, are top notch, but ultimately it’s the profound message and inspiring story that makes this a winning feature.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Two British track athletes, one a determined Jew and the other a devout Christian, compete in the 1924 Olympics.

It’s one of those sports biopics that is so much more than the sports itself. Both Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell are both gifted Olympic-worthy sprinters, but what set them apart is the motivation behind each athlete. Abrahams has something to prove to himself and those around him, and Liddell runs for the glory of God. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

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The rivalry between the two isn’t so much about who’s better or more righteous, as both stood for what they believed in. Each of them is motivated by their own personal values and convictions, nary of any political agenda nor hostility, that alone is inspiring. The physical and spiritual conflicts presented here made for a rich human drama with plenty of teachable moments. For one, there is a good message about one’s preoccupation of winning at any cost that ultimately lead to empty victories. Hugh Hudson‘s brilliant direction, David Watkin‘s exquisite cinematography and Vangelis’ powerful score made this film a classic, one that can be passed down from one generation to the next as it’s the kind of timeless stories people of all ages can appreciate.

Conviction (2010)

A working mother puts herself through law school in an effort to represent her brother, who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and has exhausted his chances to appeal his conviction through public defenders.

Just like Amazing Grace, this is another overlooked small-budget-with-big-story that I highly recommend. Featuring two excellent performances by Hillary Swank and Sam Rockwell as Betty Anne and Kenny Waters, I was inspired by Betty Anne’s undeniable love and loyalty for her brother, which leads to her unrelenting quest to get upturn his conviction, even getting a law degree whilst struggling to support her own family.

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It’s quite heart-wrenching to see the struggles Betty Anne had to go through, helped only by her sympathetic lawyer friend Abra (Minnie Driver). Coping with one setback after another, yet she kept on hoping and trying even when Kenny himself seemed to have given up. It’s a compelling drama about the power of love that triumphs even in the most difficult circumstances.

Finding Neverland (2004)

The story of J.M. Barrie’s friendship with a family who inspired him to create Peter Pan.

It’s one of those heart-warming stories of unlikely friendships that is beautifully presented on screen. Johnny Depp at his most charming yet understated role and Kate Winslet is lovely as always as the frail Sylvia, but it’s Freddie Highmore who’s quite the scene-stealer.

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I was really won over by how life-transforming this friendship was for everyone involved, especially between Mr. Barrie and Sylvia’s youngest son Peter. All the performances are lovely, including supporting turns from Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman. This film celebrates the gift of imagination and creativity and its emotional healing power.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

The true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda.

One of the hardest films to sit through yet has the best lesson to take away from. Paul was an ordinary man who’d never make himself out to be a hero. Yet the indescribable atrocities around him compelled him not to simply stand in the sidelines. This film shows the worst of humanity, how the world failed the people of Rwanda, but out of all that wickedness and evil, there is always a glimmer of light peeking through. It reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,” and that’s exactly what Paul did, which proves that even one person could change the world.

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Don Cheadle delivered a remarkably powerful and moving performance and Sophie Okonedo is quite remarkable as Paul’s wife. In a brief role, Joaquin Phoenix as a photojournalist delivered a line that is perhaps the most convicting of all, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say Oh, my God, that’s horrible. And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.” We definitely are guilty of that, whether we want to admit it or not. Paul Rusesabagina shows us what it means to actually care and not simply shrug things of and say that it’s other people’s problems.

The Insider (1999)

A research chemist comes under personal and professional attack when he decides to appear in a “60 Minutes” expose on Big Tobacco.

Sometimes an ordinary person can be a hero when it’s willing to risk it all for the good of the public. Jeffrey Wigand is a research chemist who makes a good living working for a tobacco company, but yet he risks losing it all, even his own family, when he became a whistle blower exposing the fatal danger of smoking.

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It’s a gripping story that’s full of suspense without a single shootout or car chases. The real beauty is in the script and performances, esp. by Russell Crowe as Wigand and Al Pacino as investigative journalist Lowell Bergman. At the core of the story is a riveting David vs. Goliath story that carries the themes about honesty, loyalty, integrity, as well as what it means to selflessly put others first.

The Intouchables (2011)

After he becomes a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident, an aristocrat hires a young man from the projects to be his caretaker.

Phillipe and Idris couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of background and social status. Yet the two strike an unlikely friendship that spark a journey to self-healing when they least expect it. What I love most about this film is the honest dialog between the two characters and how Idris never see the paraplegic Phillipe as a ‘lesser’ person because of his condition.

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It’s a sincere and incredibly poignant depiction of human relationship that celebrates the human spirit. Though their circumstances perhaps don’t change much in the end, their friendship certainly is life-affirming.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

A chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

With the South African leader being laid to rest earlier this month, this film’s timing is unbelievably timely. Yet I believe the story of personal courage and benevolence shall stand the test of time. This is not the first film about Mandela I saw, nor would it be the last, but his life story never fails to move and inspire me.

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This film shows the personal toll it took on Mandela for the sake of equality and human rights. “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die” he declared, and as the film title says, it sure was a long and difficult walk, having to endure 27 years behind bars in Robben Island. He lost his freedom but also his family, not being able to see his wife and kids which ultimately cost his marriage to Winnie. So many things about Mandela are inspiring, but perhaps most of all, is his ability to forgive those who put him in jail. It’s the ultimate manifestation of love,  the love for his people and his nation, that enables him to put aside his own pride and personal vendetta. Now that folks, makes Mandela better than any Hollywood superhero.

Schindler’s List (1993)

In Poland during World War II, Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazis.

The contrast of how the Nazis value human life and how Schindler sees it towards the end of the film is tremendously striking. “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more…” Schindler weeps in one of the many, many heart-wrenching scenes of the film. He comes to value how precious each human life is, and that monetary success no longer means anything to him when there are human sufferings all around him.

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Few films strikes deep to the core of your soul like this one, and John Williams’ exquisite score has a transcendental quality that haunts you for a long time. The quintessential ‘inspiring movie,’ Schindler’s List is considered a masterpiece for a reason. Perhaps the best and most personal work by Steven Spielberg, it’s interesting to note that he didn’t think he could do the story justice.

Veronica Guerin (2003)

The story of Irish journalist who exposed some of Dublin’s most powerful crime barons in 1996 and later gunned down by assassins hired by the same criminal drug lords she exposed.

One of the first Cate Blanchett films I saw and I was so deeply moved by it. The Australian actress is absolutely convincing with her Irish accent and truly disappeared into the role of the Irish journalist.

Her single-minded pursuit which endangers her life and her family can be considered reckless, but one can’t help but admire that incredible courage. On top of that, her lack of apathy towards the evil around her is to be commended, as most people would just turn the other way. Guerin’s husband pleaded for her to drop the case yet she refused to succumb to the criminals’ threats that prove to be fatal.

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It’s painful to see that time and time again, it takes a tragedy for lawmakers and the power that be to finally wake up and fight the crime they should’ve been fighting for from the start. There are memorable supporting turns from Irish actors Ciarán Hinds, as well as then-unknown Colin Farrell in a cameo role. Director Joel Schumacher is known mostly for his bad films like Batman & Robin, yet his smaller gems like this one sadly got overlooked.


Wishing you all a blessed Christmas!

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Surely there are more inspiring biopics beyond what’s on this list. What are some of your favorites?

TCFF Awards & Top Five Film Picks from TCFF Bloggers

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Happy Halloween everyone! Pardon the late post for this folks, due to my traveling schedule to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding in NYC, naturally I had to put the blog on hiatus. But I’m back now, so here’s the summary of the 10-day film fest that ended with awards announcement during the Festival’s Closing Night Gala in St. Louis Park, MN.

Eight films were singled out for awards late Saturday night. Leading the pack was the critically acclaimed August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, which walked away with the festival’s coveted Best Feature Film award.

The indie horror hit Delivery, which enjoyed its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, won the festival’s inaugural “Indie Vision Award.” Twin Cities audiences championed Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba, with the TCFF Audience Award (feature), and the Mason Makram short The First Date with the TCFF Audience Award (short).

The awards ceremony marked the culmination of the 10-day festival, which screened more than 75 titles – a mix of independent premieres and Hollywood sneak peeks – at the Showplace ICON Theatres. In addition to the annual October festival, the Minnesota-based non-profit organizes year-round programming, as well as industry networking events and educational opportunities. Learn more at twincitiesfilmfest.org.

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The complete list of 2013 winners:

Best Feature Film: August: Osage County (dir. John Wells)

Best Documentary: Antarctica: A Year On Ice (dir. Anthony Powell)

Best Short Film: Hot and Bothered (dir. Jake Greene)

Audience Award (Feature): Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (dir. Justin Chadwick)

Audience Award (Short): The First Date (dir. Mason Makram)

Indie Vision Award: Delivery (dir. Brian Netto)

TCFF Breakthrough Achievement Award: Emily Fradenburgh, actress, Nothing Without You (dir. Xackery Irving)

Congrats to all the winners! Now, naturally everyone’s going to have a different list of favorites, so I asked two of TCFF blog volunteers to list their own top five picks. Here they are:

Sarah’s Picks:

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  1. August: Osage County. Meryl Streep as the venom-spewing, drug-addicted matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma clan. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Nebraska. I’m a fan of Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”) so I thoroughly enjoyed this funny yet poignant glimpse into a father-son relationship.
  3. Trust, Greed, Bullets and Bourbon. This movie is what film fests are all about. I found myself pleasantly surprised by this independent tale of a heist gone wrong. And I got to meet the director in person as well, what’s cooler than that?
  4. Remote Area Medical. Filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman managed to bring one of the hot button issues of our time into focus as a human story that allows the viewer to reach their own conclusion without sensationalism.
  5. Hot and Bothered. This one is just for fun- in 12 minutes, filmmakers Natalie Irby and Jake Green develop a plot that you wouldn’t mind watching again to catch the subtle nuances and enjoy the double entendres.

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Adam’s Picks:

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  1. The Gold Sparrow. This played in block one of the Best Of Minnesota Shorts. A spectacular animated film from Daniel Steesen, with only having music for its soundtrack, it is able to tell an intriguing story about a woman who steals the color of this animated world. It has an amazing score that is fast paced and keeps up with the vibrant colors used in the color stealing scenes.
  2. Honeymoon Suite. This film played before the feature presentation of “We Are What We Are.” This film tells the story of a difficult hotel guest who stays at a hotel once a month for a problem he can’t deal with at home. Originally planned as an extended commercial for a Chinese hotel that claims to be able to handle any type of hotel guest, it is able to take on a life of its own, and is a delight to enjoy.
  3. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. This film is a new bar on how biopics should be made. This movie aimed to be very ambitious in how detailed and extensive it is in telling the story of Nelson Mandela and it is able to accomplish it and show the good and bad of how Nelson Mandela has lived his life. Idris Elba turns in a top notch performance becoming Nelson Mandela during the course of this film. Audience will be amazed at how deep Elba goes to pull off this role.
  4. Antarctica: A Year On Ice. A Fascinating documentary about the men and women who work on the research bases in Antarctica. Director Anthony Powell had to build and test equipment he made on his own to capture long extensive footage and time lapses in Antarctica as most camera equipment already available can’t survive the harsh environment. A beautifully shot film and engaging documentary that gives insight to the people who are work in Antarctica.
  5. How I Live Now. This movie tells the story of an American teenage girl who is visiting her cousins in England when all of a sudden World War 3 starts. The movie stars Saoirse Ronan who turns a spectacular performance of a girl who has to grow and mature whil the world around her drastically changes. The physical and mental journey Ronan’s character endures in this movie is one rarely seen. The movie has some dark elements but is still a delight to watch as the film allows you to feel the same emotions as the main character has, the characters and stories are fleshed out so well in this film.

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Ruth’s Picks

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Now, for my picks, I only include feature and documentary films, as I’ve listed my favorite short films in this post, which includes the TCFF winner Hot and Bothered, as well as the sci-fi-themed short A Better Life. Check out my interview with both filmmakers Jake Greene and Conor Holt. I missed a few films that I had planned on seeing as I was sidelined with a cold, but out of what I was able to see, here are my favorites in alphabetical order:

  1. August: Osage County
    With a cast like this one, naturally one has quite a high expectations but thankfully it delivers. Well to be exact, they deliver! Meryl Streep does it again, proving she is the acting legend of our generation and beyond playing a decidedly- unlikable role. The rest of the cast of this extremely-dysfunctional family does wonders as well, though as a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, I have to admit his scenes are my favorites. He’s memorable even in his brief scenes, plus he sings beautifully too! Even though it’s tricky to adapt a play into film, I think the story actually translates pretty well thanks to John Wells’ direction. If you think your family is a mess, you probably would feel a heck of a lot better about it once you see this film.
    ,,,
  2. The Armstrong Lie
    One of the best documentaries I’ve seen, it’s so well-made, beautifully-shot and features an unprecedented access to its subject matter. The Lance Armstrong doping scandal resulted in perhaps THE biggest fall-from-grace of any celebrity athlete in the world. Yet, the doc is not done in a way to paint Armstrong as evil, I think it’s a pretty balanced account of the debacle as it starts out as a project about his come-back to Tour de France. In the end, it’s not so much about the doping but the abuse of power in covering ‘a lie that has become unbelievable’ that brought him down.
  3. Gladiators: The Uncertain Future of American Football (view my full review)
    Considering I’m not even a football fan, it’s a testament to how good this documentary is that I list it as my favorites. It’s eye-opening but also quite entertaining. In 90-min, it’s jam-packed with historical backgrounds, stats, and first-account interviews with various players, medical professionals, as well as some family members of the people suffering from the brain injury CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). An essential viewing for sports fan, but definitely worth watching even if you’re not.
  4. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
    There has been quite a lot of films involving Mandela, in fact I think I’ve seen three of them in the past five years. But this is perhaps the most comprehensive as it’s based on his own biography of the same name. I LOVE Idris Elba so he’s the main draw, but even so, I was a bit skeptical of his casting at first. But I think Elba did a fantastic job immersing himself into the South African hero, as what matters in the end is not the ‘look’ of the actor but his ability to embody the essence of the character. I also love the relationship between Nelson and his second wife Winnie (played wonderfully by Naomie Harris) and the two have a strong chemistry. At 146 min, the film’s editing could’ve been tightened a bit but Elba’s compelling performance has the gravitas to command your attention, every step of the way.
  5. Nebraska
    I knew this one would boast great performances but I was still surprised how much I enjoyed this film. Alexander Payne has a gift in creating a whimsical family drama, balancing comedy and poignancy in this father & son road trip film. Bruce Dern deserves all the kudos he’s been receiving for his performance (including his Cannes’ Best Actor win) as he holds the screen even without saying a word. SNL alum Will Forte is quite a revelation in a serious role, though it’s June Quibb as Dern’s wife is the real scene-stealer with her outrageous remarks. The film is also boast a marvelous black & white cinematography of Midwestern America.
    ….

Honorable Mention:
SearchForSimonI just had to include The Search for Simon, a British sci-fi comedy, directed by Martin Gooch who’s also the lead actor in the film. It’s a enjoyable little film that’s hilarious and quirky without being mean-spirited. It’s also doesn’t have a lot of crude language that’s typical of British comedies, and Mr. Gooch is so immensely likable! I hope this will be available to rent soon, I highly recommend it if you enjoy British humor. Check out the specially-made video from Martin Gooch if you haven’t already. Trust me, it’s a hoot!

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That’s it from TCFF 2013! Hope you enjoy our coverage this year.
It’s always been fun to be a part of the film festivities!

Join us next year on October 16, 2014!


Thoughts on any of our picks? Which one(s) of these have you seen?

Twin Cities Film Fest: Preview of 2013 Lineup

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Twin Cities Film Fest (TCFF) is excited to offer a sneak peak at several films coming to their 2013 lineup, including some of the most anticipated films of the year. TCFF is less than two months away, it will will run from October 17 – October 26.

Jatin Setia, executive director of the Twin Cities Film Fest, said this year’s slate of studio premieres represents the most promising, star-studded lineup in TCFF history: “The buzz we’re already hearing, from people wanting tickets to the new Meryl Streep-Julia Roberts premiere, to the new Alexander Payne film – which is sure to be a Best Picture contender – is deafening. And to then see subjects like Nelson Mandela and Simon Cowell in our lineup – for any serious movie lover, this is the true beginning of the Oscar race.”

While specific dates and showtimes are not yet public, TCFF is excited to showcase the following films:

NEBRASKA

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After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail, a cantankerous father (Bruce Dern) thinks he’s struck it rich, and wrangles his son (Will Forte) into taking a road trip to claim the fortune. Shot in black and white across four states, Nebraska tells the stories of family life in the heartland of America. NEBRASKA is written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, which last film The Descendants won Best Adapted Screenplay.

Dern won Best Actor award at Cannes in this comedy drama, and in this interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Dern “…considered Alexander Payne to be a “genius” and why he “wouldn’t dare” to deviate from Payne’s script because “he’s too good.” Check out the first trailer:

ONE CHANCE

James Corden as Paul Potts
James Corden as Paul Potts

From the director of The Devil Wears Prada, ONE CHANCE is a comedy based on the remarkable and inspirational true story of Paul Potts, a shy, bullied shop assistant by day and an amateur opera singer by night. Paul became an instant YouTube phenomenon after being chosen by Simon Cowell for ‘Britain’s Got Talent.’

Fresh from celebrating his Tony Award-winning Broadway run in One Man, Two Guvnors, BAFTA winner James Corden (The History Boys) stars as Paul Potts and is supported by an acclaimed ensemble cast that includes Julie Walters (Mamma Mia!, Calendar Girls, Billy Elliot), Colm Meaney (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa ), Jemima Rooper (Kinky Boots, Lost in Austen) and Alexandra Roach (The Iron Lady). Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs) and written by Justin Zackham (The Bucket List).

No trailer yet but here’s that Britain’s Got Talent clip from a couple of years ago of the real Paul Potts. Make sure you have some Kleenex handy:


TCFF’s Silver, Gold and Platinum Passes are now available!

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GET THEM EARLY
(while supplies last)


MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM

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The film is based on South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison before becoming President and working to rebuild the country’s once segregated society. Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Prometheus) stars as Nelson Mandela, Naomie Harris (Skyfall) stars as Winnie Mandela, with Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) directing.

I LOVE this cast! I’m a huge fan of Elba, who I think would make a fine Bond (if the producers are brave enough for a Black Bond) and Naomi was a sassy Bond girl in Skyfall so what a perfect pairing! I’ve seen about three Nelson Mandela films so far, with actors of various built and height portraying the titular world leader. I must say that Elba seems too big physically (not to mention hunky!) to play Mandela, but hey, it sounds like a meaty role for the talented actor, so I’m definitely looking forward to this!

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

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This is one of those movies I’d watch just for the cast. I mean, just look at the names in that poster! This film is based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name made its Broadway debut in December 2007. It continued with a successful international run and was the winner of five Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Play.

It tells the dark, hilarious and deeply touching story of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose lives have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is directed by John Wells (The Company Men) and features an all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard and Misty Upham.


This is one of my most-anticipated Fall movies so I’m thrilled TCFF’s got it! There’s already Oscar buzz on Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the Best Supporting Actress category. Now, I’m particularly curious about Cumberbatch’s role in this, who along with McGregor are the only two Brits in this star-studded cast. Their roles are probably pretty small though.


In early September, TCFF will announce its full 10-day slate, compiled from more than 300 viewed contenders and submissions. Tickets will go on-sale at twincitiesfilmfest.org beginning October 1, 2013.


What do you think of this early lineup folks? Any one of these on your must-see list?