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If you’re a self-confessed film lover and keen traveller and want to experience some of the best film festivals in the world, I’ve got the ultimate list of film festivals for you! Attending film festivals is one of the best ways to watch international cinema while exploring new places and meeting like-minded people.
Since 2012, I’ve attended tonnes of film festivals and would recommend them to any film fan and travel lover. Film Festivals are so much more than catching a flight, buying a ticket and sitting on your arse for two hours while watching a big screen.
I’ve rubbed shoulders with Elle Fanning at Cannes, watched a Gay Men’s Choir open a documentary at IDFA and sat on the floor of a sold-out multiplex in Berlin. Film Festivals can be incredibly memorable and mind-opening travel experiences.
So, if you’re looking for inspiration on which major film festival to attend next, you’re in the right place!
What is a Film Festival?
Quite simply, a film festival is an organised event of multiple film screenings in one concentrated area. Usually, several cinemas (or at least cinema screens) are involved, but the smallest film festivals can operate on just one screen.
Their duration can range from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. There is often an overarching theme such as genres, shorts, documentaries, etc. But the most prestigious film festivals are often just very exclusive and selective. They’re usually recent films but not always. Filmmakers generally apply to screen their films at different festivals, and there are sometimes awards.
Aside from the film screenings, several events are organised as part of the film festival. These include networking events, workshops and Q&As with filmmakers and talent. But anything can happen! A flash mob singing Janis Joplin surprised everyone at the opening screening of a film festival I attended. And it was AWESOME!
Best Film Festivals in the World for Cinema Lovers to Attend
I’ve curated the ultimate film festival list for fellow film fans and travel lovers to share the love. And I’ve included the best documentary film festivals, best short film festivals, independent film festivals and experimental film festivals.
These are some of the best film festivals in the world and should inspire you to attend one or two (I hope!).
Best Film Festivals in Europe
Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale)
Dates: 10 Days in February Founded: 6th June 1951
Read next: A First Timer’s Guide to the Berlin Film Festival
The biggest of all the film festivals in Germany, Berlin International Film Festival (or Berlinale as it’s locally known) is also the biggest publically-attended film festival worldwide. Unlike the other European “Big Three” film festivals, which are Cannes and Venice, Berlinale is wide open to Johnny General Public.
Cinemas are situated all over the sprawling city of Berlin. The programme covers a vast range of categories that spotlight new, experimental and world cinema. There is an awards ceremony judged by an international panel of film personnel where the winner walks away with a “Golden Bear.” 10/10, would recommend this film festival to escape Berlin’s icy cold winters.
BFI London Film Festival
Dates: 11 Days in October Founded: 16th October 1957
Read next: BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 2016 Highlights
The most famous, major film festival in the UK has to be the BFI London Film Festival. The British Film Institute is a charity and non-governmental organisation that promotes and preserves film and TV in the UK. It’s both a public and professional film festival, with over 300 films screened every year including one special “surprise” screening which has become a key feature.
There are also different branches of the BFI London Film Festival including BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival held every March, BFI Future Film Festival and BFI & Radio Times Television Festival.
Other Film Festivals in England: Leeds International Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest and Hebden Bridge Film Festival.
Cannes Film Festival
Dates: 12 Days in May Founded: 20th September 1946
Cannes isn’t just one of the most prestigious film festivals, it’s one of the top film festivals in the world. Possibly the top film festival. Cannes Film Festival is primarily an industry event with a jam-packed schedule of red carpet galas, press conferences, high-stakes meetings and so forth. There is a hugely anticipated awards show for all of the in-competition films. The winning film takes home the Palme d’Or award.
“But, Rebecca!” You cry, “Cannes sounds pretty exclusive. And this is supposed to be a list of film festivals that regular cinema lovers can attend. What the heck, man?” I hear you, pal. I actually attended Cannes myself back in 2017, and there are several very easy ways for non-film industry people to attend. I’ve shared my wisdom in multiple blog posts (below) to help you navigate the Cannes Film Festival bureaucracy.
Other Film Festivals in France: Deauville American Film Festival, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and Annecy International Animation Film Festival.
The Ultimate Cannes Film Festival Guide: Everything First Timer’s Need to Know
How to Apply for Cannes Film Festival As a Regular Cinephile
Cinephile Vs 3 Days in Cannes Accreditation: Which Cannes Film Festival Pass is Right For You?
How to Watch Films at Cannes Film Festival With a Cinephile Badge
How to Watch Films at Cannes Film Festival Without a Badge
Edinburgh International Film Festival
Dates: 11 Days in June Founded: 24th August 1947
Read next: EIFF 2019 Reviews: Every Film I Watched at the Edinburgh International Film Festival
In my humble opinion, one of the best film festivals in Europe to attend as a cinephile or fan of cinema is the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It might not be one of the major film festivals, but it’s the friendliest, most relaxed and they throw one heck of a film festival with a community-led feel.
The festival hosts phenomenal Q&As with top industry talent though it’s relatively easy to get tickets to whichever screening you want. Edinburgh Film Festival cares about diversity and it’s one of the oldest continually-running film festivals in the world!
Other Film Festivals in Scotland: Glasgow Film Festival.
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)
Dates: 11 Days in November Founded: 25th November 1988
Read more: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2016 Mini-Reviews
Though it’s easy to watch more documentaries at home thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix, documentaries aren’t generally released in theatres. That’s why documentary film festivals are so important! Two of the top film festivals for this branch of filmmaking are International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (or IDFA) in the Netherlands and CPH: DOX held in Copenhagen, Denmark.
IDFA is based in Amsterdam’s premier arts venue, the EYE Film Museum and Cinema which is a cracking space. Though several cinemas throughout the city are part of the film festival. Tickets for every screening (usually over 300) are easy to come by and it has a very international, welcoming atmosphere.
Other Film Festivals in the Netherlands: International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Dates: 8 Days in July Founded: 1st August 1946
Central and Eastern Europe’s most revered film festival, many film fans have been sleeping on Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechia. It’s hosted in a gorgeous, historic spa town and has a slightly more relaxed vibe than the more buttoned-up industry film festivals. Much of the film festival is screened in parks with audience members lying on the grass or lounging in deck chairs. One of the best film festivals to attend if you’re on a budget.
Locarno International Film Festival
Dates: 10 Days in August Founded: 23rd August 1946
One of the great things about attending film festivals around the world is visiting cities you never would have otherwise! Locarno in Switzerland is the perfect example of this. Locarno International Film Festival is one of the more experimental film festivals offering lots of quirky, arthouse screenings.
San Sebastían International Film Festival
Dates: 8 Days in September Founded: 21st September 1953
San Sebastían International Film Festival is one of the major film festivals outside of the Big 3 European film festivals that I’m dying to visit the most. It’s definitely the most prestigious film festival in Spain. Plus it’s in San Sebastían! A gorgeous city in Basque Country on Spain’s rugged northern coastline for crying out loud. The festival screens around 200-250 films and their main award is the Silver Shell. Some celeb-spotting is on the cards and they always have one programme dedicated to Spanish films which I think every film festival should adopt.
Other Film Festivals in Spain: Sitges Film Festival and Malága Film Festival.
Sarajevo Film Festival
Dates: 7 Days in August Founded: 25th October 1995
Sarajevo is a UNESCO City of Film, which I was surprised to learn at first. Why on earth is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina a prominent cinema destination?! But after learning more about the Sarajevo Film Festival, I get it. There’s been a massive cultural boom in this part of Europe since the early 1990s and this film festival is part of that. Screening hundreds of films from big-budget dramas, documentaries and open-air screenings, Sarajevo is ideal if you want to team watching movies with a European city break.
Venice Film Festival
Dates: 10 Days in September Founded: 6th August 1932
I’ve already mentioned it, but the Venice Film Festival is one of the most famous film festivals in the world. It’s one of the Big 3 film festivals along with Berlinale and Cannes. Venice is a prestigious film festival mainly for industry professionals but, like Cannes, there are loopholes to get accreditation. Especially if you’re a student! Venice screens top Hollywood and European films and they host an awards ceremony for competing movies where the best film of the festival receives the Golden Lion award.
Best Film Festivals in the USA
Sundance Film Festival
Dates: 11 Days in January Founded: 6th September 1978
After falling in love with the landscape, Robert Redford opened the Sundance Institute in the early 1960s to foster talent in independent and emerging filmmakers. Over a decade later, the Sundance Film Festival opened in Park City, Utah. It’s one of the “Big 5” film festivals including the three in Europe and the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.
Sundance benefits from being the first major film festival of the calendar year. All the best independent films seem to debut at this film festival. And a lot of independent filmmakers benefit from screening their film at Sundance. Though the sub-zero temperatures aren’t that welcoming, many types of passes are available to non-industry film lovers.
Associated Film Festivals: Raindance Film Festival and Slamdance Film Festival.
South by Southwest Conference & Festivals (SXSW)
Dates: 9 Days in March Founded: 12th March 1987
SXSW Conference & Festivals practically takes over the entire city of Austin, Texas every March. It’s not just a film festival, but a multifaceted creative festival. SXSW’s programme features artists, speakers, podcasters, musicians as well as filmmakers. Much like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the whole city gets involved! It’s an industry event, yes, but SXSW mainly caters to the masses. Which is why it’s one of the best film festivals in the world! So much to do and get involved in, you could never be bored.
Other Film Festivals in Texas: Austin Film Festival and Fantastic Fest.
Tribeca Film Festival
Dates: 12 Days in April/May Founded: 8th May 2002
It’s one of the newest film festivals on this list because Robert De Niro and his pals created Tribeca Film Festival as a direct response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City. They wanted to shift the focus on this neighbourhood in lower Manhattan from something awful to more positive subjects like creativity and learning. And it’s become a really big deal in these 20 short years! Before the Tribeca Film Festival, NYC didn’t really have a prestigious film festival.
In the last two decades, Tribeca has incorporated film, VR, music and online media into its programme. If you’re planning to visit the Big Apple at any point, definitely book your trip to coincide with the film festival and enjoy some crazy VR, immersive sh*t.
Other Film Festivals in New York City: New York Film Festival and Urbanworld Film Festival.
Telluride Film Festival
Dates: 4 Days in August Founded: 30th August 1974
Telluride Film Festival in Colorado is one of the most unique film festivals, in that it’s organised like a music festival. At many film festivals, you have to grapple with a huge, sprawling calendar of 100+ films showing at dozens of cinemas. You need to work out if you can travel between cinemas between film showings and book all your tickets separately.
Telluride keeps things simple by offering two levels of cinephile pass. Each passes includes access to a wide variety of films and programmes for a few hundred dollars, which is a little bit like how a music festival works. And many of their open-air screenings are free! Telluride is a great film festival for students and those on a budget.
Other Film Festivals in Colorado: Aspen Shortsfest, one of the best short film festivals in the USA.
Palm Springs International Film Festival
Dates: 11 Days in January Founded: 10 January 1990
Palm Springs in California might seem like a weird city to host a prestigious film festival to an outsider (like me!) but it actually has a huge film-loving community. Palm Springs International Film Society founded the Palm Springs International Film Festival 30 years ago to bring tourists to this part of California in winter as well as summer. They screen approximately 200 films every festival and even have a prominent short film festival, too.
Other Film Festivals in California: San Francisco International Film Festival and Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
TCM Classic Film Festival
Dates: 4 Days in April Founded: 22nd April 2010
This is very bizarre, but I can’t actually access the TCM Classic Film Festival‘s website here in the UK! But I wanted to include the TCM festival because I know so many film bloggers that love it. It must be quite a popular film festival in Los Angeles amongst certain circles.
TCM stands for Turner Classic Movies, I’m sure you either watch the channel or have skipped through it. This is a relatively low-key, weekend-only film festival in LA that concentrates on classic movies. If a classic film festival is your cup of tea then you really couldn’t ask for any better festival than TCM!
Other Film Festivals in LA: AFI Fest and Outfest.
Atlanta Film Festival
Dates: 9 Days in April Founded: 14th May 1977
Sometimes, it seems like California and New York hog all the best movie events. So it’s nice when other US cities nab some of the glory! Atlanta, Georgia is a hugely popular filming locations hotspot right now and the Atlanta Film Festival is excellent, too. Atlanta is focused on cultivating diverse voices both on and behind the screen and creating a community feel. They always have a programme for family-friendly films, experimental films and even screen drive-in movies. If you live in the Southeast of the USA you’ve got to make the effort to attend.
Chicago International Film Festival
Dates: 10 Days in October Founded: 9th November 1965
Likewise, if you live in the Midwest, then the Chicago International Film Festival in Illinois should make your list of the best film festivals in the world to attend! It’s, unsurprisingly, one of the best film festivals in Chicago. This film festival has been operating for years as a way to screen non-Hollywood movies in the city. Chicago is committed to reserving a chunk of it’s programming to Illinois-produced films and they host events in the city year-round for film fans.
Nantucket Film Festival
Dates: 9 Days in June Founded: 19th June 1996
The island of Nantucket in Massachusetts hosts the Nantucket Film Festival every summer. This film festival is a bit different from others because it has a screenwriting focus. So if you’re a keen screenwriter or writer in general, this just might be the best film festival in the world for you to attend. They host screenwriting competitions and have a mentorship and residency programme for screenwriters. Nantucket is just an incredibly beautiful island, too.
Dates: 7 Days in March Founded: 18th September 2014
Finally, a queer film festival on this list! I say “finally” because there are tonnes of them, but qFLIX: Philadelphia in Pennsylvania might just be the biggest and most well known. It’s definitely one of the top film festivals in Philadephia, if not the top. The film festival started almost by accident, and even though it’s only 5+ years old, it’s thriving. You can watch films that tell prominent LGBTQ+ stories, are produced by queer filmmakers with lots of Q&As and they host truly inspiring guest speakers, too. You’re gonna have FUN at this film festival.
Seattle International Film Festival
Dates: 11 Days in April Founded: 14th May 1976
I’m consciously attempting to find the best film festivals in the USA that span the entire country. Fortunately, that’s not difficult because there are lots of amazing American film festivals that welcome cinema lovers as well as industry professionals! The Seattle International Film Festival in Washington state is another good one. They are also a film festival that awards films playing in competition with, erm, the Golden Space Needle awards. Wow, they really thought out of the box on that one.
Aside from the film festival, the Seattle team hosts a plethora of film programmes year-round e.g. French cinema, Italian cinema, Film-Noir selections, etc. They have plenty of tickets and pass options available for cinephiles.
True/False Film Fest
Dates: 4 Days in March Founded: 13th February 2004
Apparently, the city of Columbia in Missouri is a college town and True/False Film Fest is very much a grassroots, independent documentary film festival. It’s not as “polished” as your Tribeca and Palm Springs festivals, but I know some film fans dig the more down-to-earth film events. So this one is for you! A not-for-profit company runs True/False, and they also screen documentary shorts, host art exhibitions and musicians. It’s only 4-days long but those are Jam. Packed. Days.
Best Film Festivals Elsewhere
Toronto International Film Festival
Dates: 11 Days in September Founded: 18th October 1976
I’ve been harping on about the “Big 3” European film festivals and the “Big 5” worldwide film festivals, well now I can shut up. Because the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada is the last of the Big 5 film festivals on this list. There are tonnes of great film festivals in Canada but TIFF is undoubtedly the most prestigious. There are awards, there are Q&As with the biggest filmmakers in the world, there are red carpets… It’s got everything!
I imagine the film festival is a lot like Berlinale with a sugar rush. Lots of film choice, lots of events, lots going on but with even more buzz and celebrities. Urgh, I can’t to finally attend TIFF.
Other Film Festivals in Canada: Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival and Calgary International Film Festival.
Guadalajara International Film Festival
Dates: 9 Days in March Founded: 10th March 1986
Fancy teaming a Mexican vacation with some film screenings? One of the top film festivals in Mexico (or, Latin America in general) has got to be Guadalajara International Film Festival. Naturally, the film festival proudly promotes and programmes a lot of Mexican and Latin cinema. They host a lot of talks, training workshops, films, art exhibitions and musical acts. I’m almost certain it’s a Spanish-language led film festival. So if you’re a hispanophile you should definitely attend this film festival!
Melbourne International Film Festival
Dates: 19 Days in August Founded: 25th January 1952
It’s a shame more international film fans don’t attend the Melbourne International Film Festival. I’m sure that’s just down to its location down under because it’s the best film festival in Melbourne and the best film festival in Australia. Almost 70 years old, Melbourne has shifted focus in recent years to acknowledge it’s colonial past and the contribution aboriginal people bring to Australian culture, both on and off-screen.
The film festival screens high-quality cinema with lots of media hype. And naturally, you can expect to see the best filmmakers from Australia and around the world in attendance. But it’s still a really inclusive event and wide open to the general public and cinephiles.
Other Film Festivals in Australasia: New Zealand International Film Festival.
International Film Festival of India
Dates: 9 Days in November Founded: 24th January 1952
Do you live in or near India? Or maybe you fancy taking a trip there? The International Film Festival of India, located in Goa, is one of the best film festivals in India and the wider sub-continent. The who’s who of Indian cinema graces the presence of this film festival: Anil Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, no less. Most of the film festival’s programming showcases Indian film but there are some international films, too. This probably isn’t one of the best film festivals in the world to attend if you’re a travel or film festival newbie.
Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO)
Dates: 8 Days in February (every other year) Founded: 1st February 1969
Again, possibly not the best first film festival to attend if you’ve never travelled abroad to a film festival before! But I just had to feature Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou on this list, a film festival based in Burkina Faso. There are so many film festivals in Africa, but this is the most prominent. FESPACO focuses solely on African cinema so I imagine there’s a cornucopia of languages and cultures on display at this film festival.
Singapore International Film Festival
Dates: 11 Days in November Founded: 20th February 1987
The rest of this list of best film festivals in the world focuses solely on East Asian film festivals. And if you want to attend a film festival in Singapore, then look no further than the Singapore International Film Festival. Yeah. I’m not out to trick you. The titles of these film festivals are pretty self-explanatory.
It’s one of the most prestigious Asian film festivals. They are mindful about fostering young Southeast Asian filmmakers and film critics. The film festival’s programming includes short films, an awards ceremony and the best cinema that Asia has to offer.
Busan International Film Festival
Dates: 10 Days in October Founded: 13th September 1996
I know I say this a lot, but it’s only because I’m listing the best film festivals in the world, truly. And the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea is a very significant film festival in Asia. As you would expect, this film festival focuses on Korean and East Asian cinema. However, they have a huge international programme too. There are gala presentations, short films, documentary films, a whole spectrum! Busan is a massive film festival. And Korean cinema is having a *day* right now thanks to a little film called Parasite (2019) so you should jump on the hype train.
Shanghai International Film Festival
Dates: 10 Days in June Founded: 7th October 1993
Shanghai International Film Festival is one of the top film festivals in China. And I’m sure you know China is a huge film market so Shanghai is a big deal! Their award is the Golden Goblet and wow, it’s only through writing this post have I realised just how many film festivals run their own awards programme. SIFF (as Shanghai is locally known) orchestrates the restoration of classic films which it screens at the film festival, as well as HUNDREDS of Asian and International films all across the city.
Hong Kong International Film Festival
Dates: 15 Days in March Founded: 27th June 1977
HKIFF, or the Hong Kong International Film Festival, takes pride in being a charitable, not-for-profit film festival. It screens a wide number of classic and modern films and is very accessible for film fans. In 2019, HKIFF screened 230 films from 63 countries. Which is incredible. Guest accreditation is available for cinema lovers and they have a whole website dedicated to cinema lovers in Hong Kong.
Tokyo International Film Festival
Dates: 9 Days in October Founded: 31st May 1985
The home of Studio Ghibli and Akira Kurosawa, the Tokyo International Film Festival in Japan is the biggest and most prestigious film festival in Asia. Which is why it’s last, but certainly not least, on this list of the best film festivals in the world. Tickets for the film festival are widely available for cinema fans in Japan and the festival is spread out across many cinemas in the city. And if you have any idea how huge Tokyo is, you know that’s a lot! There are just so many events, screenings and things to do at the Tokyo Film Festival.
And those are some of the best film festivals in the world! Have you been to any of the top film festivals on this film festival list? Would you like to? Let me know in the comments below!
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