At the press conference announcing the 33rd Mill Valley Film Festival (MFFF) line-up, Founder/Executive Director Mark Fishkin referred to a "programming sensibility" that has evolved at MVFF over the course of three decades. That sensibility has become an extremely successful formula—one that inspired indieWIRE to name it one of the world's 50 leading film festivals. There's little arguing with success, and as evidenced by the 143 films and programs in this year's selection, MVFF33 will be adhering to the tried and true.
The bedrock of the festival's success is its position as THE post-Venice / Toronto / Telluride launching pad for autumn prestige films expected to figure prominently during Awards Season. If you want to see tomorrow's big movies today, as well as ogle the stars that come with them, MVFF is the Bay Area's place to be as amenable celebs make the trek to Marin County. Among this year's attendees will be Annette Bening, currently riding a 10-year career high with The Kids Are All Right. She won't be plugging a film, but will instead be feted with a clips, conversation and Q&A tribute. Also getting the MVFF tribute treatment this year is Edward Norton. He'll be there with Stone, playing a convicted arsonist who uses his wife (Milla Jovovich) to manipulate an early prison release from an about-to-retire parole officer (Robert De Niro). Bay Area native Sam Rockwell will be at the fest on Opening Night. He's accompanying Conviction, in which he plays a convict whose sister (Hilary Swank) is hellbent on proving his innocence. Last but not least, we'll get a gander at fellow Bay Area boy James Franco, who's getting raves for his portrayal of extreme mountain-climber Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire follow-up, 127 Hours.
If famous directors are more your thing, MVFF33 features several prominent ones live and in person. In 2006 the fest did a Spotlight on Alejandro González Iñarritu with Babel. That Spotlight is turned back on in 2010 as the noted Mexican director returns with Biutiful, for which Javier Bardem won a Best Actor prize at Cannes. Meanwhile, artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel occupies MVFF33's Centerpiece slot with his latest work, Miral. This drama set in the middle-East is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal (also expected to attend) and stars Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, The Visitor) and Slumdog Millionaire heroine Freida Pinto. Closing out MVFF33 on October 17 will be The Debt, to be attended by its director, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). The Debt stars Helen Mirren as an Israeli Mossad agent being forced out of retirement.
Among the other upcoming fall releases appearing at Mill Valley we have—yes, Helen Mirren again—this time starring as Prospera in Julie Taymor's (Frida, Across the Universe) sure-to-be strange adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Sharing the Opening Night duties with the aforementioned Conviction is Tom Hooper's The King's Speech. Fresh from its Audience Award win at Toronto, the film stars Colin Firth as a stammering King George VI who's aided by an unorthodox speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush. For those who can't wait for the October 29 release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the third filmed installment of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" will be shown once at the festival on October 13. Marin-ite Sean Penn is represented at MVFF33 by Doug Liman's Fair Game, in which he plays the husband of outed undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). Finally, in what is sure to be a huge crowd pleaser, Sally Hawkins leads a strike of women auto-factory workers in Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham. (Personally, the thought of watching the actress who played Happy Go Lucky's obnoxious optimist Poppy, channeling Norma Rae in a film by the guy who directed Calendar Girls is the very stuff of nightmares.)
Another area in which MFFF stakes its reputation is the Valley of the Docs section. I probably watch over 50 documentary features each year and I'm always impressed how many of the best come from MVFF. There are exactly two dozen in this year's line-up, and here's a handful that are of interest to me. At the top of the list is The Two Horses of Genghis Khan, another Mongolian docu-fiction hybrid from the director of The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog. I have high hopes for Queen of the Sun, a doc about the frightening phenomenon of honeybee CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), which has got to be better than the pointless film Colony that screened at this year' SF International Film Festival. Every film enthusiast should want to see Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, a study of the enormous talent who shot The Red Shoes and The African Queen (and who only passed away last year). Docs about the counterculture are a MVFF mainstay, and this year I'm eyeing Ed Hardy 'Tattoo the World' and Space, Land and Time: Underground Adventures with Ant Farm. Most Valuable Players sounds like fun, as it takes a peek at the Freddy Awards (the Tonys of local high school musical productions). Finally, at the press conference Fishkin highly recommended Stefan Jarl's Submission, in which the acclaimed Swedish documentarian has his blood analyzed and discovers it contains several hundred types of industrial chemicals.
The festival frequently pairs a music documentary with a live performance event. Following the October 15 screening of Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone—a Laurence Fishburne-narrated doc about the influential L.A. based ska-punk band—Fishbone itself will perform live at The Woods Music Hall in Mill Valley. (The previous evening, Everyday Sunshine opens SF DocFest and Fishbone will play that fest's Opening Night Bash at the DNA Lounge).
The biggest part of MVFF is always the World Cinema section, which clocks in with 40 films this year. As usual, the Mill Valley programmers have marched to their own drummer in assembling 2010's international line-up. So if you're hoping to catch the more acclaimed/discussed films from this year's major film festivals, MVFF might disappoint—perhaps this year more than in the past. I'm pretty obsessive about tracking these things and at first glance I drew a blank on all but a handful of titles. Apart from some films I mentioned earlier, only three rang a bell. Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid is a slick re-imagining of Kim Ki-young's 1960 cult shocker, in which a man's extramarital affair has horrific repercussions for his family. (The SF International Asian American Film Fest screened the original version last spring.) In an admitted attempt to entice a younger demographic to MVFF, they've programmed French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats, a follow-up to last year's wildly acclaimed I Killed My Mother. Dolan once again directs himself, this time as a guy competing with his female best friend for the attentions of a dim Adonis. Then in Sam Taylor-wood's Nowhere Boy, Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) serves up a portrait of the teen-aged John Lennon. October 9 will be Lennon's 70th birthday and to celebrate (albeit one day early) MVFF will have a live music event featuring vintage Fab Four video clips and a performance by cover band Rubber Souldiers. Nowhere Boy opens in theaters on October 15.
Closer scrutiny of the World Cinema section revealed some familiar names. MVFF-regular Jan Hrebejk is currently the Czech Republic's most prominent director, and his latest film Kawasaki's Rose is about a revered political dissident with a shameful secret. The film was just named that country's 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission. A new film from director/political activist Raoul Peck (Lumumba) is always welcome. His satirical Moloch Tropical follows the final 24 hours of a Haitian autocrat's presidency. Peck should know from whence he speaks, having once served as Haiti's Minister of Culture. Veteran French director Alain Corneau (who died one month ago) is in MVFF33 with Love Crime, a tale of corporate intrigue starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludvine Sagnier. Also from France we have none other than Gerard Dépardieu having a go at "The Three Musketeers" writer Alexandre Dumas, in Safy Nebbou's Dumas. Another veteran director in the line-up is Japan's Yôji Yamada, best known for his Tora-San comedies. I adored his recent samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor), but scathing reviews have put me off his latest, About Her Brother.
There are more intriguing possibilities in World Cinema. Feo Aladag's When We Leave won the top prize at Tribeca and was just named Germany's 2010 Oscar submission. It stars Sibel Kekilli (Fatih Akin's Head On) as a mother fleeing an abusive husband in Istanbul. Another German-language film, Switzerland's Julia's Disappearance, features the estimable Bruno Ganz. These two movies will respectively serve as Centerpiece and Closing Night films during October's revamped Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro Theater. From the SF-based Global Film Initiative's 2010 Global Lens series, MVFF has programmed Adrift from Vietnam and Becloud from Mexico. The entire 10-film 2010 GFI series will play the Rafael Film Center following the festival, from October 18 to 28. From Argentina I'm reading good things about Puzzle, which stars The Headless Woman's Maria Onetto. Set in 1963, Italy's Cosmonauta is about a teen-aged girl's obsession with the Soviet space program. It received two small prizes at last year's Venice Film Festival. Desert Flower is the true story of Somali supermodel Waris Dirie and recreates her "transformation from starving runaway to fashion icon to human rights activist and U.N. Special Ambassador dedicated to the fight against Female Genital Mutilation." Set in the Transylvanian countryside, Katalin Varga follows a woman's quest to avenge a rape that occurred in her past. Then in Black Field, a 17th century Turkish janissary joins forces with a Greek nun who possesses a "little something extra" (hint, hint—the film is co-presented by Frameline). Finally, who can resist a title like The Most Important Thing in Life is Not Being Dead?
MVFF33 also has several American indies of note. Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture won the jury award for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW, and what would MVFF be without a new film from prolific local director Rob Nilsson (Sand)? In addition to 127 Hours, James Franco stars in Jay Anania's existentialist neo-noir William Vincent. The October 17 screening of William Vincent begins a half hour before Franco's Spotlight tribute at the Rafael, so it's not unthinkable to hope he'll drop by to do a personal intro. Elsewhere in MVFF33 you'll find the 5@5 Shorts Programs (five programs of five shorts each screening weekdays at 5:00), a Children's FilmFest (now in its 17th year), special panels and lastly, a 30th anniversary screening of The Empire Strikes Back. It can all be found on the festival's website, along with many more narrative features and documentaries I wasn't able to mention here.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.