The Good, the So-So, and the Reprehensible: How I helped program the Mill Valley Film Festival

by Lincoln Spector

Ever wonder how festivals select the best new, obscure, independent films?

From late May until mid-July, I got a glimpse of at least part of the selection process. I was asked to pre-screen films for the Mill Valley Film Festival. I considered this an honor, and jumped at the opportunity.

MVFF Rafael marquee.jpg

All in all, I watched 17 films–two or three a week. I knew nothing about the films assigned to me except their titles and length. I streamed the films over the Internet. And there were many other people screening the hundreds of features entered. In the past festival pre-screeners had stacks of VHS tapes–good for taping a TV show over bad films –and then DVDs–useful as coasters or mobiles–but essentially landfill since a small percentage would be worth watching again.

The good news–and it was very good news–was that I didn’t have to watch every film through to the end. I was required to watch only the first third or the first 30 minutes, whichever was longer. Only five of the 17 films engaged me enough for me to see them through.

After I’d seen a movie–or given up on it–I filled out a questionnaire. I had to write a brief plot synopsis and a potentially longer piece on my “Overall Impressions.” I also had to rate five aspects of each film:

  • Production value quality
  • Originality of vision
  • Interesting theme or subject
  • Bay Area connection or relevancy
  • Overall grade

Not many of the films had Bay Area connections. Two were set in San Francisco. Another was obviously shot in some liberal and cultural corner of the United States, and it might have been a part of the Bay Area I’m not really familiar with. The other 14 were clearly from somewhere else.

But not that far away. The Festival assigned me only two films that weren’t from the USA. And one of them, the Canadian It’s Not My Fault and I Don’t Care Anyway, was in English. The only subtitled film I saw was the Russian Anomie. I liked both films very much and watched them both through to the end.

The experience taught me just how many awful independent films are out there. I stopped watching eight of the 17 films–almost half–as soon as they hit the 30-minute or one-third mark. The very first film I judged was a serial killer vs. police detective thriller with more clichés than thrills. I saw the surprise twist early; it’s been done before with considerably more wit. The only joy I got out of that one was turning it off.

Other bad films dealt with gays in the military, vasectomies, and young people talking about sex and religion. These are all worthwhile topics, and I hope good movies get made about them. I’m not naming the films I didn’t finish; I don’t think that’s fair to the filmmakers and there are undoubtedly other films on the same subjects that were submitted.

But I’m happy to name the five films worth watching through to the end:

It’s Not My Fault and I Don’t Care Anyway: A couple of cops try to piece together a kidnapping where the victim’s father is a complete jerk, and one of the kidnappers is a gentle giant intent not to hurt anyone.

Be Not Afraid: Angels come to Earth to fix a crooked businessman and his dysfunctional family. The humor keeps it from getting mawkish.

Anomie: This Russian drama followed two teenage girls emotionally cut off from just about everything, in a society almost as disconnected as they are.

Pushing Dead: A dramatic comedy about a man who has been HIV-positive for a very long time. Soon after I saw this one, it played at Frameline. I discuss it in slightly more detail here.

The Midnighters: An old safecracker comes out of a very long stint in prison, and is dragged back into a life of crime. A clichéd plot well-done.

Scenes from The Midnighters here

Not one of these five films made it into the Festival, which is kind of discouraging. On the other hand, none of the 12 films I couldn’t finish made it either, so perhaps my work did some good.

I have been able to see a large number of films at press screenings and you can read my reviews here.

Lincoln Spector is a life-long cinephile and an award-winning journalist who writes about entlincolnspectorertainment, culture, and technology.  He’s also a frequent contributor to TechHive and Windows Secrets. His articles have appeared in  The New York Times, The Washington Post, Small Business Computing, Home Office Computing, Oakland City Magazine, Time MagazineTechnologizer, and InfoWorld.

His local film blog, Bayflicks, contains a weekly newsletter covering speciality screenings throughout the Bay Area  We suggest that you sign up to receive his informative tips on movies to see —an invaluable service for film lovers.

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