High Points: The Buzz from the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival

by Pam Grady

What do Sir Ian McKellen and stop-motion puppets have in common? They are both high points in the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival. McKellen is being feted on Sunday, Oct. 11, with a special tribute that includes a clip reel and onstage conversation, and given McKellen’s career, encompassing film, theater, and television and running the gamut from Shakespeare to X-Men and the Lord of the Rings series, that ought to be a scintillating evening. IanMcKellenEven better might be the lunchtime event the next day when McKellen will reminisce about “Women I’ve Filmed With,” an hour of anecdotes, which whether decorous or dishy, should be nothing less than fascinating. As for the puppets, they are the stars of a late addition to MVFF, Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s first film since Synecdoche, NY, co-directed by Duke Johnson, a sharp depiction of depression and transient romance featuring the voices of David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh. This stop-motion animated feature is moving and funny. It is Kaufman in top form.

Still from Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa. Courtesy: Paramount Pictures/Mill Valley Film Festival.

Still from Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. Courtesy: Paramount Pictures/Mill Valley Film Festival.

This year’s MVFF pays homage to ‘60s rock and pop with The Hi De Ho Show, in which John Goddard, owner of Mill Valley late legendary Village Music record store, will VJ from his own collection with an emphasis on West Coast bands and trends. Also on the program is Sir Doug and the Original Cosmic Groove, Joe Nick Patoski’s documentary about the late Texan whose Sir Douglas Quintet’s hits included “Mendocino” and “She’s About a Mover,” and who spent time on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sahm’s son Shawn will pay tribute to his dad along with The Mother Truckers at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater following the Sunday, Oct. 11, screening.

Macbeth

Michael Fassbender in Julian Karzel’s Macbeth. (Courtesy: The Weinstein Company/Mill Valley Film Festival.)

Steve Jobs opens in the Bay Area soon and already there is a lot of buzz in the air about Michael Fassbender’s performance as the late Apple co-founder, but that is not the only Fassbender performance people will be talking about this fall, and MVFF has the other one. Opposite Marion Cotillard in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth, Fassbender inhabits the murderous, troubled soul of the power-mad Scottish nobleman. Funny that both Steve Jobs and Macbeth are men of such overwhelming ambition—on the other hand, given Fassbender’s choice of roles, he himself excels in that department.

BrooklynPosterSpeaking of buzz, MVFF is not lacking when it comes to highlighting possible awards season best actress nominees: She may be only 21, but Saoirse Ronan, already nominated once (at 14 for her role in Atonement) could well nab a Best Actress Oscar nod for her sublime work in Brooklyn as an Irish immigrant in 1950s New York torn between the embrace of her adopted homeland and obligations back in the old country. Sarah Silverman shoves her comic persona in the background to portray a wife and mother whose life is spiraling out of control in I Smile Back. Brie Larson is pitch-perfect as a woman trying to raise her young son in the direst of circumstances in Lenny Abrahamson’s tense adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room. While much of the focus on MVFF opening-night selection The Danish Girl has been on Eddie Redmayne’s transformation into transgender artist Lili Elbe, Alicia Vikander is every bit his equal (and garnering some of the best notices of her career) as Elbe’s wife and fellow artist Gerda Wegener. Todd Haynes’s first feature in nearly a decade is a 1950s period showcase for stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as, respectively, a married mother and a shop girl who fall in love in the director’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol.

Emily VanCamp in Marya Cohn's The Girl in the Book. Courtesy: Mill Valley Film Festival.

Emily VanCamp in Marya Cohn’s The Girl in the Book. Courtesy: Mill Valley Film Festival.

Of course, not every great performance receives overwhelming buzz. Some fly under the radar, and such is the case with Emily VanCamp in Marya Cohn’s The Girl in the Book. The one-time teenage star of Everwood who went on to star in Brothers and Sisters and more recently as Emily Thorne, the woman with the daddy complex run violently amok in the nighttime soap Revenge, seizes the spotlight in writer/director Cohn’s first feature. VanCamp fully inhabits the skin of a troubled young woman forced to confront her demons when the novelist (Michael Nykvist) who took advantage of her when she was a teenager comes back into her life.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth. Credit: Fox Searchlight/Mill Valley Film Festival.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth. Credit: Fox Searchlight/Mill Valley Film Festival.

Italian maestros Nanni Moretti (Dear Diary) and Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) both have films at MVFF concerned with artists in crisis. Moretti’s My Mother stars Margherita Buy, but despite the gender switch, it is autobiographical as she plays a filmmaker dealing both with her mother’s impending death and her latest production, a job made more difficult not just by her personal turmoil but by the antics of her American star. John Turturro is hilarious as the actor, a man with an ego that far exceeds both his intellect and his acting talent. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are the stars of Sorrentino’s English-language Youth, old friends residing in a Swiss alpine spa. Caine would seem to be the less vital of the two, a retired composer adamant that his professional career is over, while Keitel is a film director surrounded by a bevy of young screenwriters determined to get his next project off the ground. Appearances can be deceiving, a point well made by costar Paul Dano as a young American actor who scandalizes the residents one morning with an outlandish outfit—the costume for his latest film. Rounding out the cast is Jane Fonda in a delicious cameo as a movie star who has some words for her old friend Keitel.

There is more, much more to the Mill Valley Film Festival. Pick up the miniguide or souvenir program or study the program online. There is lots to see, but if you are feeling overwhelmed at all the choices, these suggestions are a place to start.

There is more, much more to the Mill Valley Film Festival. Pick up the miniguide or souvenir program or study the program online. There is lots to see, but if you are feeling overwhelmed at all the choices, these suggestions are a place to start.

Horizontal RulePamGradyPam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

Read Daniel Barnes’ overview of the Mill Valley Film Festival for more tips here.

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