AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES: The 42nd Mill Valley Film Festival

By Meredith Brody

Bay Area cinephiles rejoice! Your first crack at the marquee titles you’ve been hearing about for months, since Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, Venice, and Toronto, is nigh – they’re coming to a film festival near you!

The Mill Valley Film Festival, taking place in a number of theaters in Mill Valley, San Rafael, Larkspur, and Berkeley, runs from October 3rd to October 13th.

I was lucky enough to see some of its films on the festival circuit this year in Berlin, Ashland, Oregon (at the delightful Ashland Independent Film Festival), the International Film Festival Panama, Telluride, and Toronto – but despite the globe-trotting in pursuit of big screen thrills, there’s plenty that I missed awaiting me, too. The most one can see at a festival ranges from three to perhaps six films a day – never enough when you have to choose among well over a hundred tempting titles. Being a film buff is never easy, especially these days. I used to say that I traveled thousands of miles to see movies properly projected on a big screen with kindred spirits. Nowadays, in addition, with so many projects produced by streaming sites such as the ubiquitous Netflix and the only-slightly-less-ambitious Amazon (both of which I subscribe to), I see festivals as rescuing me from seeing movies reduced to a fraction of their power. Convenience, but at a (double-meaning) price.

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(Click film titles to open a new window taking you to full details, showtimes and  ticket purchase)

For instance, hard choices. I haven’t seen the MVFF’s opening night movie, unspooling Thursday October 3rd at both the Rafael and the Sequoia: JUST MERCY, billed as a “modern-day TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD,” starring Jamie Foxx as a black man accused of killing a white women in 1988, defended by Michael B. Jordan, with a strong supporting cast including Brie Larson (who starred in SHORT TERM 12, directed by JUST MERCY’s director Destin Daniel Cretton), Tim Blake Nelson, and Rob Morgan.

Nor have I seen THE KING, programmed opposite it, playing at the Larkspur Landing (only once), but not billed as the opening night film. It’s an adaptation of a number of Shakespeare history plays, with a mouthwatering cast including Timothee Chalamet as Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France, Joel Edgerton (who wrote the script along with director David Michod) as John Falstaff, and Ben Mendelsohn as King Henry IV.  (For readers of People: This is the movie where Timothee Chalamet met Lily-Rose Depp, comely daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. Pictures of them kissing on a yacht soon emerged. And thus a million clicks were born.)

But I have seen and can recommend dozens of movies, starting the very next day, Friday October 4th, with two big and very different films screening opposite each other at the Sequoia: PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (7:30 pm; repeated Wednesday October 9th at the Raphael) and KNIVES OUT (8 pm; repeated Wednesday October 9th at 11:30 am at the Sequoia). PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE is a quintessential foreign arthouse movie, an elegantly filmed period piece in French about a woman painter and her aristocratic female subject falling for each other, which won both the screenplay prize and the Queer Palme in Cannes (the first time it had been awarded to a woman).

KNIVES OUT is a big-budget, big-star big-fun murder-committed-in-a-mansion-a-la-Agatha-Christie romp, something of a surprise coming from director Rian (STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI) Johnson – though he has proved his love of genre movies with BRICK and LOOPER. Too many stars to list them all, but let’s just whet the appetite with Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, and Daniel Craig sporting a delicious thick Southern drawl.

Being well stuck in to the 16-hour COUNTRY MUSIC doc from Ken Burns, I’m tempted to expand upon one of its heroes and see THE GIFT: THE JOURNEY OF JOHNNY CASH (playing at 5 pm Friday October 4th at the Sequoia and 9 pm Sunday October 6th at the Lark).

Another intriguing doc scheduled on that Friday, THE KINGMAKER (playing at 8:45 pm Friday October 4th  at the Lark, repeated Sunday October 5th at the PFA), reveals that Imelda Marcos is still alive and kicking (and showing off her kicks), directed by Lauren (GENERATION WEALTH) Greenfield, who gently leads the tone-deaf Marcos down the garden path.

Saturday October 5th begins bright and kinda early at the Rafael with an 11 am showing of SYNONYMES, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin (repeated 8:30 pm Sunday October 6th at the Sequoia), a somewhat opaque parable by Nadav (THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER) Lapid about an Israeli lad who arrives in Paris ready to abandon his heritage and his language (and his clothes) in order to assimilate in his new culture.

At 5 pm in the same venue you can see Ken Loach’s SORRY WE MISSED YOU (repeated at 9 pm on Wednesday October 9th at the Sequoia), a predictably insightful look at a Newcastle working-class family trying to survive the gig economy – with the wife eking out a living as a traveling home-care giver and the husband finding out how being a contractor for a package delivery firm in today’s gig economy differs from being an employee.

At 8 pm at the Rafael, the Mill Valley Film Festival can rescue us from the small screen. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, Eddie Murphy’s comeback vehicle about Rudy Ray Moore, the comic who made self-aware blaxploitation films in the 80s, is scheduled to play on Netflix starting October 25th (after a brief theatrical window beginning on October 4th). But what kind of fun is that? And what are the chances that you’ll get a full enthusiastic house if you do haul yourself out of the house and go see it in a theater? I often find myself in a movie theater with six other people, most of whom feel no compunction about checking their phones – either occasionally or frequently. When I took my beloved nephew to the movies, I would say to him “Look at the lower left-hand corner of the screen and imagine how much real estate your TV would take up. THOUSANDS of TVs could fit on this screen! That’s why we go OUT to the movies!”

I love the savvy, seductive documentaries of Matt Tyrnauer, both high — CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY — and low –SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLWOOD, which is why I’m longing to see his new effort, the timely, alas, WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?, playing at 4:45 pm at the Sequoia on Saturday October 5th (and repeated at noon on Tuesday October 8th at the Sequoia). Cohn, the self-hating gay Lizard King, went from Senator McCarthy in the red-baiting 50s to Donald Trump in the flashy 80s. Memorably incarnated by Al Pacino in HBO’s adaptation of ANGELS IN AMERICA, the chance to see the real Cohn in a thoughtful overview of his life is irresistible.

If you choose to stick around in the Sequoia, you have a choice between the high-minded biopic HARRIET, based on the life of freed slave Harriet Tubman and starring Cynthia Erivo, at 7 pm (repeated Wednesday October 9th at 2:30 pm at the Sequoia);

Or THE LIGHTHOUSE, a minimalist two-hander period piece shot in black-and-white starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe at 7:30 pm – its lone screening at MVFF.

I haven’t seen either. I’m leaning towards THE LIGHTHOUSE.

Two movies I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed are playing at the Rafael on Sunday October 6th: the wacky JOJO RABBIT at 4:30 pm (repeated at 3:15 pm on Thursday October 10th at the Rafael), a brightly-colored, wacky look at life with Hitler (played by director Taika Waitit) who appears to a young boy who is an inadequate recruit for the Hitler Youth. Too soon? (This Jewess enjoyed herself tiptop.)

And PAIN AND GLORY, at 8:15 pm (repeated 2:30 pm Tuesday October 8th at the Sequoia), a great autobiographical film by Pedro Almodovar starring Antonio Banderas, that broke my heart with its revelations about Almodovar’s childhood – his mother incarnated by Penelope Cruz – and the literal physical pain alluded to in its title.

Isabelle Huppert is an actress I’ll go see in anything, so the noon screening of Ira Sach’s FRANKIE at the Lark (repeated 6 pm Thursday, October  10th at the Sequoia) is a must-see: La Huppert, incarnating a film and TV star, assembling her family and friends – including Jeremy Renier, Brendon Gleeson, Pascal Greggory, and Marisa Tomei — at a Portuguese resort to apprise them of her imminent demise and wrap all her relationships up with a bow. What could go wrong?

I am tempted by CLEMENCY, showing at the Sequoia at 5 pm (repeated at 4 pm on Monday October 7th  at the Rafael), which won the Grand Prize at Sundance, because I am a sucker for Alfre Woodard, here incarnating a prison warden who presides over the execution of Death Row inmates. This is part of a Tribute to the actress.

But I am also tempted to re-see VARDA BY AGNES, playing at 6 pm at the Lark (repeated at 3:15 pm on Saturday, October 12th at the PFA), which I loved when I happened to see it at its world premiere in Berlin, with the frail but lucid Agnes Varda receiving a lifetime achievement award that was not premature – she died six weeks later, but she was making appearances with the film almost up to the end. It’s a self-made hagiography that Varda said was designed to replace her at the kind of lectures and personal appearances that she continued to make into her 90th and final year.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes this year, PARASITE, by eclectic Korean auteur Bong (SNOWPIERCER) Joon-Ho  tackles economic equality in Korea by having a family of poor but clever swindlers infiltrate the modernist mansion of rich and clueless plutocrats, where they find more than meets the eye. It’s playing at 7:30 pm in the Sequoia (repeated at 3:15 pm on Tuesday October 8th at the Rafael).

I’ll be over at the Rafael, at THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF EURIDICE GUSMAO, playing at 8:30 pm (repeated on Monday October 7 at 8:45 pm at the Century Larkspur), an intriguing period piece about two ambitious sisters in 1950s Rio de Janeiro, which won the Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes and is Brazil’s official entrant for the Academy Awards.

On Monday October 7th you can see the glorious Kristen Stewart incarnate the talented but doomed Jean Seberg in SEBERG, playing at two of the theaters in the Rafael at 7 pm (repeated 3:30 pm Tuesday October 8th at the Sequoia). This stylishly mounted (the clothes! The sets!) biopic reveals the torturous life of a young woman plucked from the middle west by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc, who acted in Godard’s BREATHLESS and married famed French writer Romain Gary, and whose leftist political activities land her in a world of hurt. With a clip show highlighting Stewart’s impeccable work, as well as a conversation onstage.

I might find myself at another Brazilian film, BACARAU, at 8 pm at the Sequoia (repeated at 9 pm Tuesday October 8th at the Century Larkspur), described as “a feverish mixture of thriller, science fiction, western, and political satire,” starring, among others, Sonia Braga and Udo Kier.

On Tuesday October 8th, the irresistible draw for me is Michael Apted’s latest installment in the 7 UP series, 63 UP, at 6:30 pm at the Sequoia in its lone screening at the festival. At seven-year intervals, he’s been interviewing people chosen as members of England’s upper and lower classes, initially chosen to examine its educational system, but by now touching on all aspects of life. This is #9 in the series, and by now I know (almost) all the participants as if they were friends. Apted himself is 78 – only 15 years older than his subjects. Fingers crossed for 70 Up (when he’ll be 85)!

But I’m torn by ANOTHER even-more irresistible draw (hard choices again): my first chance to see Martin Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN since its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on opening night, September 27th. THE IRISHMAN reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, in an epic tale about the mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Paul Schrader has been calling it a masterpiece on Facebook, and if it’s good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.

(Plus it’s a Netflix production.)

Devotees of what passes for avant-garde cinema can see Pablo (JACKIE) Larrain’s EMA at 8:30 pm at the Lark (repeated at 11:15 am Wednesday October 9th at the Rafael) – about a modern dance company led by Gael Garcia Bernal that includes his lover, dancer Mariana Di Girolamo. The dance sequences can be both stunning and pretentious, but the plot, revolving around an unsuccessful adoption by the couple, tends to be just pretentious.

Whew!  For more MVFF42 (October 9th through 13th, loaded with plums), see Part II, coming soon!

Download the Program Book

Follow the Festival on Social Media
Twitter: @MVFilmFest
Instagram: @millvalleyfilmfest

proxyMeredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes an occasional column to EatDrinkFilms called “Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Some of her EDF pieces are found here.

One could describe Meredith as “hooked on cinema” as she attends four to five films a day at many bay area and international festivals each year.  Somebody has to do it.

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