The Mill Valley Film Festival has acquired a reputation in recent years as a post-Toronto/Telluride way station for Oscar bait, and with good reason. Eventual Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne was feted at the 2014 festival, and five of the last eight Oscar-winning performances came from films that played Mill Valley. That bodes well for this year’s celebrity invitees, including Brie Larson (Room), Sarah Silverman (I Smile Back) and Carey Mulligan (Suffragette), but it doesn’t tell the full story of the festival.
A significant chunk of the roughly hundred-plus features, documentaries and shorts scheduled to play in and around Mill Valley and San Rafael from October 8 through 18 will never see a proper commercial release. That’s why I looked past films with solid 2015 release dates and/or legitimate awards aspirations when compiling this psyched-to-see list, movies like Room, Suffragette, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Todd Haynes’s Carol, Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, Michael Keaton in Spotlight, Saorise Ronan in Brooklyn, Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett in Truth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in MacBeth, Redmayne in The Danish Girl, and Michael Caine in Youth.
Even deep cuts like Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s martial arts meditation The Assassin and the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut already have Bay Area release dates. That still left a bevy of diverse and exciting films to choose from, and as we’ll see, many of the festival’s international offerings harbor awards aspirations of their own.
Academy rules allow every country’s film industry to select one feature for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration, and this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival slate includes at least eight of those pre-nominees. Radu Jude’s Aferim! is Romania’s Oscar hopeful, a historical drama with elements of dark comedy and westerns. Jude was a young gun in the heyday of the Romanian New Wave (he was Assistant Director on The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), and Aferim! is poised as his coming-out party.
This one’s a cheat, as I’ve already seen both the intense domestic drama Dheepan and the bittersweet 45 Years, but they’re both worth watching. After a surprise Palme d’Or win last summer at Cannes, it became trendy to trash Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, but it’s a visceral and compelling (if ultimately hollow and overwrought) experience. Andrew Haigh’s wistfully intelligent 45 Years is even better; Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling give world-class performances as a married couple exhuming long-buried secrets on the eve of their 45th anniversary.
Jocelyn Moorhouse made a stunning directorial debut in 1991 with Proof, helping to catapult Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving to international fame, but never made another film after unsuccessfully foraying into Hollywood with How to Make an American Quilt and A Thousand Acres. The “revenge comedy drama” The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet and Judy Davis, is Moorhouse’s first film in nearly two decades.
Filmed in Amazonian languages as well as Spanish, German, Portuguese and Catalan, this black-and-white weird-out from Ciro Guerra was selected as Colombia’s entry into the Oscar sweepstakes. The movie follows parallel stories of an Amazonian shaman and a European scientist (Jan Bijvoet, star of Borgman and The Broken Circle Breakdown) searching the jungle for a plant with untold healing powers.
The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow
The festival is light on animation this year, so it’s up to the North American premiere of this bizarre-looking Korean feature to carry the flag. Here’s what we know: the legendary wizard Merlin is played by a roll of enchanted toilet paper. Sold!
Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove
I’m gun-shy on MVFF rock docs after last year’s frivolous Rodrigo y Gabriela documentary For Those About to Rock, but it’s hard to resist a film about the under-worshipped Texas rock deity Doug Sahm. Let’s just hope that first-timer Joe Nick Patoski’s film offers more substance and less self-inflation than a lot of recent rock docs.
Many cinephiles on the ground in Cannes believed that Hungarian writer-director László Nemes’ debut feature Son of Saul should have taken home the Palme d’Or. A gut-wrenching drama about an Auschwitz prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people, Son of Saul could be this year’s crossover foreign sensation.
This is the third film from Jafar Panahi since the Iranian government imposed a 20-year ban on making movies … if this ban keeps up long enough, Panahi could be tapped to reboot Spider-Man. Not to be confused with the 1970s sitcom or the Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah action comedy, Taxi is a documentary-like trip through the streets of Tehran, starring Panahi as a cab driver.
And because it’s a film festival for crying out loud, here are five more to see:
Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories
Dang Di Phan delivers this moody slice-of-life about disaffected teens torn between a hedonistic life in neon-lit Saigon and a quiet, pastoral existence on the Vietnamese riverbeds.
No director Pablo Lorraín returns with this film about disgraced priests and nuns living in seclusion on the Chilean coast; the film was selected as Chile’s Oscar representative.
Even though Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature takes place in Turkey, France submitted the film for Oscar consideration, bypassing the Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan.
The Oscar submission from Iceland, Grímur Hákonarson’s family drama Rams won the top prize this year in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes.
A quirkier offering from Iceland, Dagar Kári’s Virgin Mountain proves that comedies about overgrown virgins aren’t just for Judd Apatow anymore.To see trailers for the films listed above and more, here’s the Mill Valley Film Festival Trailer Gallery. Enjoy!Daniel Barnes is a film critic for the Sacramento News and Review and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. Along with Darcey Self-Barnes, he’s been writing about craft beer for Eat Drink Films in the column (and blog) His & Hers Beer Notes.