April 13, 2024
Some 150 films, some with Oscar buzz, will be screened during the Oct. 5-15 festival.

Let’s be honest. The 46th annual Mill Valley Film Festival won’t be the celebrity magnet it was before COVID-19 and the actor’s strike hit Hollywood.

Doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that MVFF’s lineup is packed with 148 buzzworthy indie films, some of which are likely to be in play when awards season arrives. And while still-striking actors are unable to show up and promote their movies, some A-List directors — from Sofia Coppola (“Priscilla”) to rising star Cord Jefferson (“American Fiction”) — will be coming to town.

The fest kicks off Oct. 5 with the B&W boxing drama “Day of the Fight” and wraps up Oct. 15 with Bradley Cooper’s hailed Leonard Bernstein biopic, “Maestro.”

In between lies a cinematic buffet table overflowing with awards contenders, international Oscar submissions, documentaries, Bay Area-set features, shorts and a clutch of films centered around the classroom.

There’s a lot to take in. So we’ve come up with a handy MVFF guide to 17 compelling films.

Let’s dive in.

“Avenue of the Giants”: Richmond filmmaker Finn Taylor’s heartfelt Holocaust-themed drama finds two tormented people forming an unlikely bond over the secrets that are eating away at their souls. For 74-year-old toy-shop owner Herbert Heller (Stephen Lang of “Avatar: The Way of Water), it’s being an Auschwitz survivor. For guilt-ridden teen Abbey (Elsie Fisher), it’s trying to move on from a trauma. “Avenue” alternates between present-day Mill Valley and WWII-era Auschwitz. And while it doesn’t shirk from the atrocities of concentration camps, it’s never explicit. The intention here is to inspire, and Taylor’s fifth feature — filmed partly in downtown Mill Valley and based on a true story — accomplishes that admirably. Screenings: 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael; 2:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at Cinearts Sequoia, Mill Valley; available to stream Oct. 16-22.

“Priscilla”: One of the best things about Sofia Coppola’s detail-rich version of Priscilla Presley’s autobiography “Elvis and Me” is how effectively it puts the audience into the shoes of a wide-eyed, teen-aged girl whose Tiger Beat fantasies come to life when she meets a dreamy rock idol. But, as we all know, there are no happy endings here. Coppola’s latest is one of her finest, with Cailee Spaeny embodying the wonderment of a smitten young girl and Jacob Elordi adding his imprint to the troubled, at times volatile, Presley. The soundtrack, production design and costumes, certainly the hairstyles, are impeccable. It’s the fest’s Centerpiece selection and earned Coppola — who will be attending — the MVFF directing award. Screening: Noon and 7 p.m. Oct. 11, Cinearts Sequoia.

“The Bikeriders”: Danny Lyons’ 1968 photographic musings on his biker club experiences inform Jeff Nichols’ nostalgic view of ‘60s American masculinity, witnessed through the experiences of the fictional Chicago Vandals, a wild bunch that bonds, brawls and tosses back beers. Providing a clear-eyed perspective to the macho exploits is no-nonsense Kathy (Jodie Comer, phenomenal), who falls in love with taciturn pretty-boy biker Benny (Austin Butler) — he of a hair-trigger temper. Tom Hardy gives a searing performance as the Vandals’ ringleader with Nichols regular Michael Shannon riding along too. Screenings: 7:15 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Rafael, includes Q&A with Nichols; 11 a.m. Oct. 14, the Sequoia.

“Fast Charlie”: Hankering for a deep-fried Southern neo-noir? Then drop in on Phillip Noyce’s well-seasoned if blood-splattered world premiere that stars Pierce Brosnan as Charlie Swift, a put-upon hitman whose latest job hits a snag and sets off a mob turf war. If quippy exchanges such as this — Q: “What do you want?” A: “You! Not breathing” — make you giggle, don’t miss Noyce’s jaunty thriller, which features the late James Caan in a small role. Screenings: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Smith Rafael; 2 p.m. Oct. 9, Sequoia.

“The 9 Lives of Barbara Dane”: Oakland filmmaker Maureen Gosling’s aptly titled documentary celebrates the acclaimed Oakland jazz/blues/folk singer, musician, producer and devoted activist, who stood up for Cuba and protested the Vietnam War alongside Jane Fonda. Gosling’s world premiere provides an engaging overview of the 96-year-old’s career, her politics and her impact on the music scene, particularly in the Bay Area. Screenings: 5 p.m. Oct. 10, Sequoia, followed by 7 p.m. concert at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley (separate admission); 3:15 p.m. Oct. 14, Lark Theater, Larkspur; also available to stream Oct. 16-22.

“The Promised Land”: Nikolaj Arcel’s violent Danish epic serves as a timeless parable on the dangers of being too focused on elevating one’s station in life. The great Mads Mikkelsen reteams with director Arcel (“A Royal Affair”) to portray Captain Ludvig Kahlen, an 18th-century man of action trying to transform unforgiving Jutland heath into fertile and profitable terrain so he can be granted a royal title. “The Promised Land” is rooted in truth and has the dramatic heft of a classic novel. It sports one hissable villain, too. Screenings: 3:30 p.m. Oct. 12, Sequoia; noon Oct. 14, Lark Theater.

“Mustache”: Thirteen-year-old San Jose teen Ilyas (Atharva Verma), a Pakistani American, always feels like he’s on the outside looking in. But once the awkward, mustachioed student moves from an Islamic private school to a public one, he gets more in tune with rule-breaking and become his own person. Imran J. Khan’s ‘90s-set SXSW Film Festival Audience Award winner is a charmer — thanks in part to Verma’s likable turn. “Mustache” also features Alicia Silverstone and Hasan Minhaj in supporting roles. Screenings: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 and 7 p.m. Oct. 7, the Rafael.

 

“The Settlers”: At the turn of the 20th century on Tierra del Fuego, three men — a Texas braggart (Benjamin Westfall), an out-of-his-league Scottish officer (Mark Stanley) and a wary mixed-race tracker (Camilo Arancibia) — embark on a journey at the behest of a corrupt landowner to pinpoint the best route for transporting cattle. That synopsis sounds like this is nothing more than a John Ford/Sergio Leone homage, but Chile’s Oscar submission for best international film corrals bigger ideals, with director/co-screenwriter Felipe Galvez Haberle’s debut exposing colonization’s inherent nastiness.  Screenings: 7 p.m. Oct. 6 and 3:30 p.m. Oct. 11, the Sequoia.

“Mountains”: The destructive force of gentrification in a Haitian community near Miami threatens to price out of existence a culture and its way of life. Monica Sorelle’s debut sensitively views the disheartening changes afoot through the eyes of a fictional Haitian family — demolition worker dad (Atibon Nazaire), seamstress mom (Sheila Anozier) and wannabe stand-up comedian son (Chris Renois). Sorelle’s gentle beauty of a film is no downer, reflecting a resilient culture that refuses to be bulldozed over to make way for luxury homes. Screenings: 8 p.m. Oct. 7, the Rafael; 5 p.m. Oct. 13, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

“Fancy Dance”: The year of American Indian actor Lily Gladstone — she stars in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which is earning a lot of awards chatter — continues  with this Sundance hit from debuting director Erica Tremblay, a filmmaker on the rise. Gladstone gives an intense performance as Jax, a frustrated member of the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma who’s  searching for her missing sister while tending to her niece (Isabel Deroy-Olson). The two get into trouble with the law in Tremblay’s muscled narrative, a heady mix of genres. Screenings: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13, the Sequoia, a Director’s Night presentation at which Tremblay will appear; also 7 p.m. Oct. 14, BAMPFA.

“I Am Hope”: Oakland middle school students participating in a mindfulness, meditation and yoga program are feeling the positive effects. That’s the upshot of this enlightening hour-long production from Oakland’s ShakaJamal, a filmmaker and yoga/mindfulness practitioner himself extolling the benefits of creating a practice at an early age. Screenings: 1 p.m. Oct. 7, the Sequoia; 4:30 p.m. Oct. 13, the Rafael (includes a 6 p.m. education workshop with ShakaJamal, author/filmmaker/commentator W. Kamau Bell and educator/activist Ericka Huggins); available to stream Oct. 16-22.

“Carol Doda Topless at the Condor”: Bay Area directors Marlo McKenzie (San Rafael) and Jonathan Parker’s (Kentfield) lively doc relates in colorful fashion the cultural impact of the buxomy Doda, a Bay Area performer who shocked the nation when she took off her top and later her bottom. Details about her childhood and marriage remain cloaked in as much mystery as the 1983 death of bouncer James Ferrozzo on the Condor nightclub piano, but gossipy bits — including Frank Sinatra taking a shine to her — are sprinkled in. Co-produced by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, “Doda” comes most alive when depicting the bustling ‘60s-’70s S.F. nightlife scene. Screenings: 8:45 p.m. Oct. 10, the Roxie; 7 p.m. Oct. 14, the Rafael.

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite”: Oscar-nominated documentarian Nicole Newnham (co-director of “Crip Camp”) might net another nom for this deep dive that ponders why America has forgotten Hite’s groundbreaking contributions surveying ‘70s and early ‘80s sexual lives and satisfactions. As a person, Hite defied being pigeonholed, and that shines through here. Newnham’s seamless documentary leans heavily on diary entries — read by Dakota Johnson — archival videos and interviews to bring a complex person to multi-dimensional life. Screenings: 8 p.m. Oct. 7, the Sequoia; 1 p.m. Oct. 8, BAMPFA.

“Evil Does Not Exist”: The tranquility of remote cabin living in Japan gets disrupted, even altered, when a crew arrives to scout the region for its glamping site. Following up on his Oscar-winning “Drive My Car,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi — one of our best filmmakers — crafts a seemingly gentle but layered Raymond Carver-like polemic featuring a father and a young daughter, and a reckoning over a simmering “evil” that exists not only in the outside world, but within ourselves. The ending packs a what-just-happened punch. Screenings: 8 p.m. Oct. 10, the Sequoia; 11 a.m. Oct. 12, the Rafael.

“Nyad”: Annette Bening and Jodie Foster deliver two of their best performances — and that’s saying a lot — in the directorial feature debut from the Oscar-winning filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who made us squirm with their “Free Solo.” Julia Cox’s script shakes off the cobwebs of the rote sports biopic by concentrating primarily on Diana Nyad’s goal — to swim, in her 60s, from Cuba to Florida. Vasarhelyi and Chin deploy their patented nail-biting skill, but it’s the exchanges between Nyad (Bening) and her coach/friend Bonnie Stoll (Foster) that makes “Nyad” a winner. Screenings: 6:15 p.m. Oct. 13, the Sequoia, with Vasarheyli and Bonnie Stoll expected to attend; 7 p.m. Oct. 15, the Lark.

“The Taste of Things”: Trần Anh Hùng crafts, with the delicate care of a Michelin-starred chef, this elegant epicurean romance that is all but designed to make mouths water and encourage viewers to pursue their passions to the fullest. Juliette Binoche is entrancing as 19th-century French chef Eugenie, a culinary wonder who creates gastronomical inspirations with the support of bon vivant Dodin (Benoit Magimel), who’s devoted to her. The Cannes winner is France’s pick for international feature at the Oscars, and what a feast it makes for all of your senses. Do eat beforehand. Screenings: 6 p.m. Oct. 11, the Rafael; 3 p.m. Oct. 12, BAMPFA.

“Radical”: Christopher Zalla’s dramatization illustrates how the unorthodox teaching methods employed by real-life middle-school educator Sergio Juarez Correa (“Coda’s” Eugenio Derbez) helped inspire students to excel in their rough and tough Mexico border town. Sure, this thoughtfully crafted drama follows in a tradition of teacher movies that deliver a positive message, but it’s a heart-warmer and a heartbreaker. Screenings: 11:15 a.m. Oct. 8, Rafael, with Derbez scheduled to attend; 6:20 p.m. Oct. 9, the Roxie; available to stream Oct. 16-22.

Contact Randy Myers at [email protected].

MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL

When: Oct. 5-15

Where: Assorted theaters in Mill Valley, San Rafael, Larkspur, Berkeley and San Francisco

Tickets: Most screenings $8-$16.50; shorts programs $8-10; select films will be available stream Oct. 16-22 $6-$8); mvff.com

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