Race. Religion. Politics. According to Mill Valley Film Festival's Director of Programming Zöe Elton, those are subjects to avoid when choosing "something breezy" to open and close a film festival. At a recent press conference to announce this year's line-up, however, she was obviously making ironic note of that supposition. As it turns out, this year's fest is bookended by films steeped in those three volatile topics.
Opening the festival's 31st edition on October 2nd will be Religulous and The Secret Life of Bees. The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center will host the latest from Borat director Larry Charles, a documentary in which Bill Maher ridicules the world's three major monotheistic religions. Over in Mill Valley, the Sequoia Theater will screen the west coast premiere of Gina Prince-Bythewood's tale of race relations in 1964 South Carolina, starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo. Larry Charles and Dakota Fanning are expected to attend their respective films on opening night.
The Sequoia's October 12th closing night film will be the U.S. premiere of Israeli director Eran Riklis' Lemon Tree. The film is his follow up to 2004's acclaimed The Syrian Bride, and stars Hiam Abbass (The Visitor) as a Palestinian widow struggling to save her family's ancestral lemon grove. Meanwhile at the Rafael Film Center, actress Alfre Woodard gets a closing night tribute in her honor. A clips reel and on-stage interview will be followed by a screening of her latest film, American Violet, in which she portrays a mother determined to prove the veracity of "innocent until proven guilty" (even for African Americans living in Texas).
Two other actresses being feted at this year's fest are Sally Hawkins and Harriet Andersson. Hawkins appears in connection with the U.S. Premiere of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, a film for which she took the Best Actress prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Andersson is best known for her work with Ingmar Bergman, including Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Cries and Whispers and 1961's Through a Glass Darkly, which will be screened at her tribute.
On Tuesday, November 18, the Mill Valley Film Festival will present A Tribute to Tony Curtis at San Francisco's Castro Theater. This post-festival event is being co-produced by impresario Marc Huestis, who has a long history of staging big-star tributes at the historic movie palace. The esteemed American actor, now 83, will be interviewed on-stage following a program of clips and a screening of Some Like it Hot. Afterward, he'll autograph copies of his new book, American Prince: A Memoir.
Two non-actors receiving tributes this year are screenwriter/director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Eric Roth. Schrader, best known for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, will appear at Mill Valley with his latest work as director, Adam Resurrected starring Jeff Goldblum. Schrader has directed some interesting films in his career, including Light Sleeper, Auto Focus and perhaps most celebrated of all, 1985's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. A new "enhanced and retouched" 35mm print of Mishima will screen a day after the tribute. Screenwriter Roth's most recent works include The Good Shepherd and Munich (with Tony Kushner), but he's best known (dubiously, perhaps) for his Oscar-winning Forrest Gump screenplay. Roth's Mill Valley tribute will feature clips from his latest, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
And what of the films that aren't being shown as part of some tribute or special night? After, all, there are over 200 films (roughly half of them features) from 50-plus countries in this year's event. Overall, I'd have to say the selection is a bit more obscure than in recent years. But still, I had no trouble picking out ten that are of great interest to me:
The Wrecking Crew—A lover of 60's pop music, I wouldn't miss this documentary for the world. The Wrecking Crew was a loose group of West Coast studio musicians who played on records by The Mamas and Papas, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, The Association, The Byrds and many others. Directed by Danny Tedesco, son of famed Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco.
Wendy and Lucy—Kelly Reichardt's follow-up to Old Joy stars Michelle Williams as an Alaska-bound drifter whose life comes apart while stranded in a small Oregon town. A small film that received some of the best reviews of this year's Cannes Film Festival.
My Marlon and Brando—This docudrama about a Turkish actress' journey to rejoin her lover in Iraqi Kurdistan won a Best New Narrative Filmmaker prize at Tribeca for its director, Huseyin Karabey.
They Killed Sister Dorothy—Winner of both the Audience and Jury prizes at this year's SXSW, this documentary is about an American nun killed by wealthy Brazilian ranchers over an Amazon sustainable development project.
Katyn—This film from Polish maestro Andrzej Wajda was one of the five nominees for last year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The film recounts one of the darkest events in Polish history, when the Soviet Union executed over 15,000 Polish military officers in the spring of 1940.
Teddy Bear—Jan Hrebejk's darkly comic Up and Down was one of my favorite films of 2005 (and one of the very few recent Czech films to get U.S. distribution). I also enjoyed 2006's Beauty in Trouble and am very pleased the festival is bringing us this, his latest. Eddie Cockrell's enthusiastic Variety review seals the deal.
Hafez—At the 2002 SF International Film Festival I was impressed by the Iranian film Delbaran—a spare, poetic tale of a young Afghani refugee working at a remote border truck stop. This is the most recent work by its director, Abolfazl Jalili, and it's about the repressed passions a young religious scholar feels for the western-educated girl he's hired to instruct.
Máncora—The plot of Peruvian director Ricardo de Montreuil's film is being compared to Y tu mamá también—two-guys-and-a-girl take a city-to-beach road trip. The city in this case is Lima, and the beach is the surfer's paradise of Máncora, 750 miles to the north. The last excellent Peruvian film I saw, Claudia Llosa's Madeinusa, was shown at Mill Valley in 2006.
Jodhaa Akbar—From the director of Lagaan comes this new Bollywood epic about the 16th century marriage of a Mughal emperor and a Hindu princess, (screen heartthrobs Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai). Festival programmer Elton described the musical numbers as being "like Busby Berkeley times 100 … with elephants!"
Burning the Future: Coal in America—Although I'm loath to watch yet another documentary about our impending ecological collapse, the trailer for this films has convinced me otherwise.
In addition to these 10 must-see films, here are a few others I'm eye-balling as possibilities: 57000 KM Between Us (Mathieu Amalric as a diaper-fetishist), Archelology of Memory: Villa Grimaldi (Bay Area musician returns to Chile for an accounting of his incarceration by Pinochet's regime), Burned Hearts (a rare narrative feature from Morocco), Cumbia Connection (alienated Mexican youth), Everything is Fine (disaffected French-Canadian youth), Fujian Blue (Michael Guillén recommends this bifurcated tale of gangsters, thugs and criminals living on the edge of China's economic miracle), Heart of Fire (a film about Eritrean child-soldiers from the director of The Story of the Weeping Camel), Hello Stranger (a North Korean immigrant grapples with the realities of living in the capitalist South), Mommy is at the Hairdresser's (it's French Canadian, set in the 50's and has a great title), Quiet Chaos (Nanni Moretti has gotten raves for his performance as a grieving father), RocknRolla (the U.S. premiere of what sounds like a return to form for Guy Ritchie), Stolen (doc about the fishy Mexican presidential election of 2006) and TYPECAST: The Art of Film Titles (a lecture/presentation on the importance of effective movie title sequences).
Cross-published on Twitch.