by Gary Meyer
In my work for the Telluride Film Festival I’ve seen 24 of the new features showing at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. It’s a strong lineup, and I’ll be seeing many more over the next ten days. Here are some recommendations, in alphabetical order, as they appear in the program book.
The shorts programs are always worth checking out. If you don’t like one film, it’ll be over soon and another will start shortly. But there is a most unusual, Mill Valley Fest-only show you can’t miss. The 3D Sideshow will cover the history of cinema in 3D, from Melies and Harold Lloyd to innovative experimental work and a sneak preview of Disney’s newest, Feast. It plays once each weekend, and I think that people will talk about it for years.
’71 is a powerful drama about a group of young soldiers sent into the midst of escalating conflicts in Belfast. Two of the men are savagely beaten and one shot to death. Wounded Gary Hooks, in his late teens and new to the army, is forced into a journey through the backstreets that is part thriller and part eye-opening story of the Catholic vs. Protestants confusion, as undercover agents, activists and street gangs battle it out. Jack O’Connell (likely to become a star as the lead in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming Unbroken ) offers a top-notch follow-up to his knockout performance in Starred Up, while first-time director Yann Demange is a talent to follow.
Charlie’s Country reunites director/screenwriter Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes, The Tracker ) with Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (Walkabout, The Last Wave, Rabbit-Proof Fence) as Charlie, a wise and charismatic backcountry man who decides to return to his old ways as the white law comes down on blacks with little patience or respect for their traditions. At first surviving in the outback is wonderful but when the rains come he struggles and is luckily found by a friend who takes him to the hospital. Upon release, he falls in with a group who drink and smoke ganja, leading to a difficult jail sentence. An entertaining, exotic and a satisfying journey that parallels some of Gulpilil’s own life.
Dior and I is a terrific look behind the scenes when a new Artistic Director must conceive his first collection for the iconic House of Christian Dior. There are deadlines, personalities and loyalties he must deal with in this sometimes funny and always sincere tribute to all those who work together to get a new line of clothing on the models walking the runway. Will they be well received?
Adapted from a play, Diplomacy, the newest work by Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Circle of Deceit), focuses on a single night in August, 1944 when the Swedish consul in Paris convinced a German general to defy Hitler’s insistence to blow up the city. Schlöndorff is a master at making this an edge-of-your seat drama, and there are incredible performances by André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup. What if things had gone another way?
Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary tells of the lifelong friendship of the Eastern spiritual teacher and the LSD guru, who met while teaching at Harvard. These “astronauts of inner space” changed our concept of consciousness and spirituality through the use of controlled psychedelic experiments. The film is broken into four subjects—life, death, soul, and birth—while offering us insight into their friendship and the mutual inspiration it generated.
Force Majeure starts out simply enough as a family enjoys a ski vacation. While eating lunch they observe a “controlled” avalanche that threatens all the observers. Tomas appears to abandon his family at the moment of danger, and the resulting different perceptions set up a delicate mixture of Bergmanesque psychological thriller and dark satire. Certain to generate conversations post screening.
Foxcatcher finds Bennett Miller returning to the world of sports with an unexpected perspective. The film is based on the true story of the two Schulz brothers, star wrestlers who are tapped by wealthy John DuPont to lead the Americans to world and Olympic championships in wrestling. DuPont is a lonely man, living in a huge house near Valley Forge with an elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave) whom he resents. He is patriotic and fascinated by wrestling. The younger Schulz brother, Mark, sees DuPont’s interest as a chance to break away from his older brother’s shadow. But the less one knows about the true story, the stronger the film’s full impact. Steve Carrell’s DuPont is likely to earn an Oscar nomination, yet it is Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum whose understated performances shine.
Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem confounds expectation. Who’d imagine that a two-hour drama set in a court room—with three rabbinical judges, a husband and wife, and their respective legal representatives—could grab us with such compelling power? The rules in Israel give the man the upper hand in agreeing to a divorce, and this case takes over five years—just when we think we know the outcome, we are wrong. Terrific filmmaking and screenwriting by siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkbetz in their third movie about male domination in Israeli families gives Ronit a superb showcase for her always fine acting.
The Hi De Ho Show brings John Goddard back to MVFF screens with his annual selection of rare musical performances drawn from his vast video archives. His introductions are informative and funny, but it is the performances that shine as he pays tribute to the great soul artists including Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Carla Thomas, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Rascals and Otis Redding. There are two shows this year. You may have trouble staying in your seat as your body starts to follow the beat.
The Imitation Game is one of the year’s best surprises, as director Morten Tydlum draws us into the world of mathematician Alan Turing as he and his team working for British intelligence try to break the Nazi’s Enigma Code during World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch has been building quite a list of credits, but this performance is his breakthrough, and Kiera Knightley does her most mature work as his partner and muse. It is a great year for history movies based on true stories.
Magician is a fascinating new documentary about Orson Welles by Chuck Workman, whose previous works have covered Andy Warhol, the Beat Generation, the history of American film, John F. Kennedy, and American Avant-Garde cinema, not to mention Hollywood via many memorable montages on the Academy Award shows. Weaving together dozens of rare interviews with friends and and conspirators and a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage, it offers a look into the mind of this cinema genius, whose films usually eluded box office success. If you care about the movies, you need to see this one.
Mommy is 25-year-old Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature. They’ve all been provocative, and with this one—drama about an out-of-control teenager and how his mother tries to deal with him—he makes a leap into the big leagues. Some people are so unnerved they consider leaving mid-film, but all come out saying they are so glad they stayed. All the performances shine, but Anne Dorval as “mommy” is quite incredible. This film is sure to spark the right kind of controversy.
Mr. Turner is masterful Mike Leigh’s biopic about the 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner, who was loved and hated by the public, the wealthy, and other artists. He is not a likable character, except for a few moments where he displays compassion. Leigh regular Timothy Spall brings him to life magnificently. We see him whoring and generally being a nasty, selfish man, though deeply affected by his adoring father’s death. Turner is a disturbed and disturbing character, and it is easy to understand why he was not liked by many, despite their acknowledgement of his stunning paintings of light and the sea. It may take a bit to acclimate to the heavy accents, but it is worth the effort.
In Natural Sciences, a 12-year-old girl tries to escape her boarding school to learn who her father is. Eventually a sympathetic teacher breaks school rules, and they start a search that brings surprises. The leads are terrific in this tight 71-minute Argentinean feature that deserves to be a festival sleeper hit.
Racing to Zero takes us into San Francisco’s program to be a zero-waste city. In the 20 years since its inception, the city has made major progress with 80% of its garbage being recycled in various methods. Don’t be fooled by the subject matter—this is no ordinary environmental documentary. It entertains and fascinates, showing us methods of reuse that few know about. It is sort of a sustainability Ripley’s Believe it or Not. I love the intersection between art and science as creative and inspiring solutions abound.
Soul of a Banquet is Wayne Wang’s love song to the legendary owner-founder of Mandarin Restaurant, Cecilia Chiang. Growing up, I was lucky enough to eat there a few times, and Chiang’s northern style of cooking redefined Chinese food for me. You’ll enjoy the stories of this 94-year-old, who never seems to slow down. Watching her prepare food for a twelve-person banquet in her home will have audiences anxious to eat with her, or anyone. There is no more appropriate director for this project than San Francisco’s Wang, whose films so often revolve around food (The Joy Luck Club, Dim Sum, Eat a Bowl of Green Tea), and who has known and eaten with Chiang for years. And he has gathered some of the great food lovers around her, including chef Alice Waters and writer Ruth Reichl.
St. Vincent will be a wonderful treat for fans of Bill Murray and a surprise for those who didn’t think they cared. He plays a grouch you’d want to avoid and the last person on earth you’d entrust to watch your 12-year-old. But it happens, and this odd couple grow to like each other as they visit the most unlikely places. It should be maudlin and overly sentimental but it avoids both while still finding a way to feel good.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the newest animation from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli. It’s based on a folk tale about a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny young child in a forest tree. She grows rapidly in his arms and very soon is a young woman. As he and his wife raise her, they come to believe that she is a princess and should live in the city. Director and Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) has created a gorgeous visual experience that looks like watercolors, with movement flowing from brush stroke, and lines that seem to be drawn as we watch. The style changes with the mood of this serious work that deals with Kaguya’s coming to terms with the two lifestyles she must face. At 137 minutes, the movie feels long, but the overall experience is worth the time.
Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako’s third feature after Bamako and Life on Earth, is a beautifully made story of a family finding themselves in a difficult situation when their cow, named GPS, damages another man’s fishing nets, angering him enough to kill the animal. The father accidentally kills the fisherman, and this turn of events creates a narrative thread that involves us with sympathetic characters, who’d largely avoided direct conflict with religious terrorists fighting a tolerant Islam in northern Mali. Now that the jihadists have arrived, we observe the small things the community does to survive. Humor, music and soccer with an invisible ball all help them maintain. The film is especially relevant in light of the recent Nigerian kidnappings.
Two Days, One Night has the Dardennes taking a new direction, with a superstar in the lead. Marion Cotillard gives one of her best-ever performances as a woman whose illness has resulted in her solar factory boss asking her co-workers to vote on whether she should return to work or they should work a few extra hours a week (adding to their salaries) and get a 1,000 Euro bonus. She and her family set out to get this vote reversed. Most are sympathetic to Cotillard’s character, but need the bonus. Urged on by her husband and friends, she continues seeking favors, while realizing that if she wins those she must work with each day will resent her. It plays out almost like a thriller, keeping us unsure of the outcome.
Wild is one of three new movies starring Reese Witherspoon this fall, and her performance as Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail is brave, with director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) putting her through the paces. No movie-star treatment here, since he wanted her to live the grueling trek. Laura Dern is terrific as her mother, and novelist Nick Hornby delivers a perfectly balanced screenplay.
Gary Meyer fell in love with the movies at 7 years old, opening the Above-the-Ground Theatre in Napa when he was twelve, screening silent and sound classics plus his own productions. With a Bachelor’s degree in Film Production at San Francisco State University, Gary co-founded Landmark Theatres in 1975. He has consulted on projects for Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas; created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games; and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007. Now a senior curator at Telluride, Meyer also founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in 2014, with the EatDrinkFilms Festival to tour nationally in 2015.