Big Stars Headed to Sonoma for Film Fest’s 25th Anniversary

The Sonoma International Film Festival has a full slate of live screenings and culinary events.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Sonoma International Film Festival once again has a full slate of live screenings and culinary events.

The Sonoma International Film Festival, known for screening independent and international films that are hard to find elsewhere, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a bang starting Wednesday, March 23.

For the first time since 2019, the festival has a full slate of live screenings, appearances by A-list actors, culinary events and post-film parties featuring live dance bands such as Afrolicious.

“For our 25th anniversary, we’re trying to step it up and make it as spectacular as we can,” said Kevin McNeely, the festival’s artistic director.

More than 120 films, including 79 premiers and shorts, will screen March 23 to 27. See our list of don’t miss films here.

What distinguishes the festival, he said, is that it goes beyond film to celebrate food, wine and music.

Most programs wrap up between 8 and 9 p.m. so festival-goers can enjoy a late dinner or the evening parties.

And the theaters, such as the Sebastiani, are top shelf.

“The screens are big, the sound is big,” McNeely said. “We make sure when these filmmakers come that their films look great on the screen.”

The festival features films, such as Kestrin Pantera’s “Pretty Problems,” that are smart, fun, accessible and in many cases set in the North Bay. And it avoids inscrutable art pieces that confound viewers, McNeely said.

“We don’t want people coming out of films scratching their heads.”

Held at eight venues within walking distance of Sonoma Plaza, the festival scored the new Sandra Bullock film, “The Lost City,” for opening night on Wednesday, March 23.

Bullock stars as a reclusive romance author who gets kidnapped while researching an exotic locale. Channing Tatum plays a book-cover model who seeks to rescue the missing writer.

“The Lost City” also stars Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame. Directors Aaron Nee and Adam Nee (they’re brothers) will be on hand to speak about the film.

McNeely is thrilled that actor Jacqueline Bisset will attend the March 25 screening of “Loren & Rose,” a story of deepening connection between a promising young filmmaker and a legendary actress looking to revive her career.

Bisset will receive the festival’s Cinematic Excellence Award in recognition of her body of work, which has included “Bullitt” and “Day for Night.”

“Loren & Rose” takes place during a three-course meal as the conversation leaps from the love of art to making sense of grief.

“If you liked ‘My Dinner With Andre,’ you’re going to love this film,” McNeely said. “The interchange between Jacqueline Bisset and this young kid is fantastic and really gives her a platform to show what a wonderfully gifted actress she is.”

All filmmakers are offered lodging and invited to stay for the entire festival so they can watch their colleagues’ films and connect with festival attendees, he said.

These touchs speak to what makes the festival so beloved by filmmakers, actors and those who attend: Gratitude and community infuse every event.

Even well-known actors such as Karen Allen (“Animal House,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), whose 2019 film “Colewell” screened at the festival, mingle with the public and are highly approachable.

Allen, who also has worked as a director, will speak to Sonoma Valley High School film students at a screening of their films at the Sebastiani Theatre, at 9 a. m. on Wednesday, March 23.

The students, enrolled in the media arts program, produce films that reveal what’s on their minds and what’s important to them, McNeely said.

“The place is standing room only, and they get to see their films on the big silver screen at the Sebastiani Theatre,” he said, noting that the screening is open to the public.

Many of the students go to top film programs at USC, UCLA and other universities. Some have started their own production company; they have a film at the festival this year called “Sonomawood,” which focuses on the Sonoma film festival.

As for Allen, who grew up rural Illinois, film was “a very exotic faraway world.” As a child, she didn’t imagine she’d be an actor, she said.

But movies have provided her with “an incredible life, working with extraordinary people and traveling to places I might never have visited.”

She appreciates the opportunity to share with students that you don’t have to be an actor or director to have a career in film. There are cinematographers, film editors, production designers, sound editors, set decorators and many other jobs.

“My favorite question ever was when a little girl raised her hand in the middle of the theater. She said, ‘My question is, how did you act with the music playing so loud?’”

As in many fields, Allen said, you have to “start at the bottom and work your way up.”

Allen has an affection for Sonoma County that began some 40 years ago when she starred in “Shoot the Moon” with Diane Keaton and Albert Finney.

“Even though I was in Sonoma only for maybe three weeks when we shot ‘Shoot the Moon,’ it had a profound impact on me,” Allen said. “I just loved it.”

Looking back on the festival’s history, McNeely recalled that 25 years ago, “a group of us wanted to have a good excuse to have a big party on Saturday night and show a lot of mediocre films.”

Today, the festival gets more than 800 submissions from filmmakers in 30-plus countries, attracts top actors and directors and screens superb films, many which don’t get distribution or shown on Netflix.

“Unless you go to the film festival,” McNeely said, “you’ll never have a chance to see them.”

Michael Shapiro’s writes about music and film for The Press Democrat and other publications. Reach him through