Formerly known as Silverdocs, this festival sponsored by the American Film Institute puts socially conscious documentaries in front of policymakers who might even do something about the subjects. After-parties, which have drawn the likes of Spike Lee and Al Gore, don’t actually require a hipster beard or a PhD for admission; the only must-haves are the festival’s app and a good pair of walking shoes for venue-hopping. Insider perk: Become a film screener (or volunteer) and attend for free.
When: June 17 through 21.
Where: Six screens in Penn Quarter, three at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring.
Bragging rights: Taxi to the Dark Side, Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man.
For some cineastes, this fest dedicated to short films of every ilk, documentary and fictional, is the best of its kind on the East Coast. You’ll hobnob with Oscar-winning directors, though you may not recognize most. On the upside, if you hate a film, chances are it’ll be over in 20 minutes.
When: September 10 through 20.
Where: Theaters from Landmark E Street to Angelika at Mosaic.
Bragging rights: Early showing of 2010 Oscar winner for best live-action short, God of Love.
Founded by local pastor and film buff Brad Russell, the ambitious Washington West has quickly built a following with feel-good docs and features that keep film and faith apart and live up to its motto, “Story can change the world.” Russell’s unpreachy do-gooderism—box-office proceeds go to charity—brings out names like Ed Asner and Bruce Almighty director Tom Shadyac.
When: October 21 through 27.
Where: Bow Tie Cinemas and CenterStage in Reston, Angelika Film Center, George Mason University, Loudoun County’s Gum Spring Library, Wolf Trap.
Bragging rights: 2014 Sundance directing-award winner Fishing Without Nets and Revenge of the Green Dragons, produced by Martin Scorsese.
This fast-growing festival, started in 2013 by BET cofounder Sheila C. Johnson, pulls in everyone from pols like Senator Tim Kaine to the local ice-cream parlor owner to see Oscar-buzzy films. It helps to have a taste for foreign movies—and for wine: One venue is a local vineyard.
When: October 22 through 25.
Where: Based at the sprawling Salamander Resort (where Johnson is CEO) in Hunt Country, with screens scattered around Middleburg’s quaint downtown.
Bragging rights: Eventual Oscar nominees The Imitation Game and Nebraska (with costar Bruce Dern in attendance) got early screenings over the past two years.
With 80 percent of viewings free to the public in some of DC’s most prestigious buildings, this festival brings in hordes. Robert Redford and Richard Attenborough are among the high-profile Earth-huggers who’ve showed in past years.
Where: Various embassies, National Geographic Society, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and others; 55 screens in all.
When: Late March 2016.
Bragging rights: With Food, Inc. and Gasland, helped make food policy and fracking environmental issues.
The area’s longest-running film festival has had to be resuscitated of late, and this year’s edition was presented as “leaner and meaner,” with fewer venues and some stars Skyped in instead of flown in. But the films seem to be reliably fun.
Where: Landmark E Street and AMC Mazza Gallerie, with special events at the Goethe-Institut and the French Embassy.
When: Mid-April 2016.
Bragging rights: Historically draws stars with the most glitter.
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.