The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), presented by the California Film Institute, is back this week and with it comes a wealth of Oscar hopefuls in biopics, thoughtful dramas, heartwarming comedies, intense documentaries and everything in between.
While Mill Valley isn’t heavy on world premieres like Venice, Telluride or TIFF, the Northern California festival, one of the oldest in the U.S., is rich in programming some of the year’s best from those fests; award winners and potential Oscar contenders including a quintet of Netflix features: J.A. Bayona’s Society of the Snow (Spain’s International Feature Film submission), Todd Haynes’ May December with Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, multi-Oscar nominee Annette Bening as swimmer Diana Nyad in NYAD, Colman Domingo as unheralded (until now) Bayard Rustin in George C. Wolfe’s Rustin and Bradley Cooper’s second directorial feature, Maestro (the Closing Night film), based on the life of legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and also starring Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan.
But there’s so much more, including this year’s Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award winner American Fiction from Cord Jefferson and starring Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown; Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, which takes a different look to the Elvis and Priscilla Presley marriage and saga; Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, which placed in the top 3 for the TIFF audience honor; Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders with Jodie Comer, Austin Butler and Tom Hardy; and Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning directorial debut Promising Young Woman. Fennell is also the recipient of the MVFF Mind the Gap Filmmaker of the Year Award and will receive a special spotlight on October 10.
The festival continues celebrate its roots and shines a light on Bay Area filmmakers as it does every year, with the Holocaust drama from Richmond filmmaker Finn Taylor’s Avenue of the Giants, starring Stephen Lang as an Auschwitz survivor confronting the past he’s kept hidden for 50 years; Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker’s Carol Doda Topless at the Condor, exploring the life of the world-changing icon; the great Maureen Gosling profiling another great with The 9 Lives of Barbara Dane, about the Berkeley singer; and Oscar winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s celebration of Cuban musicians and the U.S. volunteers helping a music school thrive with Música!.
Non-English and International cinema is always a high point for MVFF and this year is no exception. The slate is packed with official Oscar submissions from several countries as well as gems not selected as entries but that you should absolutely keep your eye on and grab tickets for if you can.
Not making the Oscar but more than worth a look this year are Monster, Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Cannes-winning Rashomon-like story of the friendship between two boys, a must-see; Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera (also a Cannes winner) finds Emmy Award winner Josh O’Connor in 1980’s Tuscany (and speaking fluent Italian), master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s first film in a decade, The Boy and the Heron is another in his array of dense and dizzying fantasies and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is back after his Oscar-winning Drive My Car with Evil Does Not Exist, a bracingly moody tale of corporate greed and environmental protection that evokes the films of Kelly Reichardt. And of course, you can’t pass up Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes (controversially not chosen as France’s Oscar submission who favored The Taste of Things), the engrossing drama of a woman (Sandra Hüller) accused of killing her husband and the court saga that ensues.
International Feature Film Oscar Submissions at MVFF
Fallen Leaves – Finland
Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki reasserts himself as the master of the wry, melancholy comedy with his first film in six years, the winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s jury prize. Jussi Vatanen and Alma Pöysti star as two lonely souls living in Helsinki who find their possible love connection thwarted when he accidentally loses her number. Those enamored with Kaurismäki’s previous gems, such as _The Man Without a Past _and Le Havre, will find much to savor in this lovely portrait of downbeat individuals who haven’t given up on happy endings. The performances are precisely calibrated for maximum deadpan pleasure in a movie that contains plenty of winking nods to world-class filmmakers such as Yasujirō Ozu and Jim Jarmusch. But as always with Kaurismäki, the droll tone is offset by piercing sympathy for his characters, who battle alcoholism, working-class drudgery, and painful pasts as they try to forge a bond. As its title suggests, Fallen Leaves exudes a crisp, autumnal air — its quiet beauty as natural and effortless as the change of seasons. — Tim Grierson
Goodbye Julia – Sudan
Sudan’s first film at Cannes — and at MVFF — is a powerful drama set against its 2011 split into two countries, the story of two extraordinary women brought together by the violence of men and racist politics. Mona (Eiman Yousif) is a Muslim woman who, when driving while distracted, accidentally hits a young boy and drives off in a panic. The boy’s mother is the titular Julia (Siren Riak), a Christian woman from the south, whose family is facing religious prejudice despite temporary peace accords. In the wake of tragic events brought about by the hit-and-run, Julia goes to work for Mona, and a fragile friendship develops despite their differences in religion and social standing. Buried deceptions are at play, however, involving Julia’s husband’s disappearance and Mona’s thankless marriage. In addition to eliciting two riveting central performances, debut director Mohamed Kordofani seamlessly interweaves personal and political themes, unifying these elements in vibrant and resonant fashion. — Rod Armstrong
Housekeeping for Beginners – North Macedonia
A highly unconventional family pulls together in this bighearted third feature from Australian-Macedonian director Goran Stolevski. When Suada, a Roma mom to two daughters, a rebellious teen and a five-year-old, receives a cancer diagnosis, her partner Dita (the phenomenal Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) faces difficult choices. Her house is a haven for young men and women, ostracized in Macedonian society for being Roma and LGTBQ. Tensions around sexuality and love take a surprising turn when Dita’s gay friend, Toni, unwillingly steps into the role of the girls’ father and Dita’s supposed fiancé. Their unconventional marriage is far from made in heaven, but in this brash ode to love and resilience, Stolevski treats complicated and thorny family dynamics – set against a background of ethnic, social, gender, and sexuality exclusion – with warmth and big doses of wry humor rarely encountered on the big screen. — Ela Bittencourt
Inshallah a Boy – Jordan
After her husband Adnan’s sudden death, Nawal and her daughter are threatened with the loss of their home in this suspenseful and devastating look at a woman driven to desperate extremes by Iran’s patriarchal marital laws. With Adnan’s grave still warm, his brother claims ownership of the property since Nawal isn’t listed as co-owner and doesn’t have a male heir, so she pulls a rabbit out of her hat and claims to be pregnant to buy time. The increasingly complicated web she must construct in order to delay the process enmeshes her with the wealthy family she works for and brings her face to face with the misogyny of her country — as well as the benefits that can be gained if one has enough money. Director Amjad Al Rasheed based elements of his story on a female relative’s experience in this superlative feature debut that powerfully tackles social injustice within an unforgettable and constantly surprising narrative framework. — Rod Armstrong
Perfect Days – Japan
Kōji Yakusho mesmerizes as Hirayama, a contented middle-aged man living a structured life as a Tokyo toilet cleaner in Wim Wenders’ poetic and contemplative new film. The drama weaves together short stories that reveal how Hirayama’s deep passion for music, books, and tree photography enriches his daily routine. As the film elegantly unfolds, unexpected encounters add detail to the façade of Hirayama’s generosity and simplicity. Wenders’ delicate filmmaking captures Tokyo’s essence through carefully framed shots, enhancing the viewer’s connection with the city. Music, mainly 1960s pop, becomes a narrative thread, reflecting Hirayama’s emotional state. His moods resonate with classics from Nina Simone and Van Morrison, the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” and even Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” It’s impossible not to be engrossed by Yakusho’s captivating, subtle, and passionate performance, for which he won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes, where the film also deservedly won the Ecumenical Jury Prize. —João Federici
The Promised Land – Denmark
Mega-star Mads Mikkelsen is a real bastard? It’s true in this captivating epic from director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair, MVFF35), set amid the arid no-man’s-landscape known as Danish Jutland. It’s 1755 and the dour, driven, down-on-his-luck Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen), of dubious birth and doubtful motivation, seeks the right to establish a Jutland settlement in the name of the King. His reward: a desperately desired royal title for himself, in hopes of eradicating the ignominy of his extra-marital birth. But the arrogantly avaricious local lord, Frederik de Schinkel, claims Jutland for himself, along with all the women forcibly serving his cruel desires. When de Schinkel’s rebellious housekeeper Ann Barbara decamps to Kahlen’s compound on the heath, a dyspeptic de Schinkel exacts revenge on the Captain’s scrappy group of followers, all clinging to the promise of land, bread, and a better life. Arcel’s vision is sweepingly cinematic and Mads has never been “Madder” than in this must-see modern classic. — KD Davis
The Settlers – Chile
This ambitious debut charts the depredations visited on Indigenous people in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of the Americas. It’s 1901 in Chilean Patagonia, where a ruthless landowner contracts with a Scottish army man and a Texan mercenary to clear a path for livestock transportation, regardless of the Native peoples who also call the place home. A mixed-race guide serves as the pair’s interpreter and marksman — and the drama’s moral compass. Director Felipe Gálvez balances western tropes with modern conceits including lurid chapter headings, a palpable affinity for the story’s victims, and a seven-year flash-forward that puts matters in further context. The Settlers is carefully and expertly crafted, from Harry Allouche’s evocative score to Simone D’Arcangelo’s haunting cinematography to the film’s fearless portraits of depraved men. The story it tells may not be pretty, but the result is beautiful indeed. — Rod Armstrong
Society of the Snow – Spain
Society of the Snow is a gripping thriller, an unforgettable cinematic experience that moves and enthralls. When a Uruguayan flight carrying 45 passengers and crew, including a Catholic college rugby team, smashes into an Andes mountain, the nightmarish crash is only the beginning. Stranded in freezing temperatures more than two miles above sea level without food or shelter for 72 harrowing days, only 16 people will survive. J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, MVFF39) adapts Pablo Vierci’s book, the astonishing true story of the 1972 air disaster, first brought to the big screen in the 1993 English-language drama Alive, starring Ethan Hawke. Despite experiencing an unimaginable tragedy, the survivors transcend near impossible odds with a courageous endurance that continues to inspire as the “Miracle of the Andes.” —João Federici
The Taste of Things – France
Trần Anh Hùng won Best Director at Cannes for this sumptuous and impossibly romantic film that pays tribute to love, food, and joie de vivre. Based on a Marcel Rouff novel, The Taste of Things stars Juliette Binoche as Eugénie, a renowned 19th-century chef who partners with the gourmet Dodin (Benoît Magimel) to create gustatory pleasures. They’ve become lovers over the years, but Eugénie refuses to marry him, citing a desire to maintain her independence. That tension brings additional spice to a film inclined to linger over delicious dishes, charting a nuanced and touching relationship between strong-willed, deeply affectionate individuals with intertwined yet separate lives. Trần (The Scent of Green Papaya, Norwegian Wood) deftly presents this culinary world as a reminder of how our passions give us meaning. The cast is superb, with Binoche especially divine as a witty, elegant cook who sees in every meal the possibility for creativity and personal expression. No wonder Dodin adores Eugénie so — viewers will feel the same. — Tim Grierson
Tótem – Mexico
Lila Avilés follows up her excellent 2018 debut The Chambermaid with this similarly impressionistic tale that places a child at the center of a family in crisis. Over the course of a single day, seven-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes) musters all her will in wishing her dying father back to health, while lively preparations for his final birthday celebration go on around her. Nothing is explained as Avilés burrows deep into the beautifully textured intimacies of this large, lived-in hive of a home. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, pets, and insects come and go to a homebound soundtrack of clinking dishes, giggling children, whispered worries, sudden anger, and the padded thuds of farewell hugs. As Sol eavesdrops into the nooks and crannies of the adult world, listening for word of her father’s salvation, we eavesdrop, too, until what at first seems fragmentary accumulates into the full weight of Sol’s joy and sorrow, now also substantial within us. — Shari Kizirian
The Teachers’ Lounge – Germany
The classroom serves as a microcosm for society at large in this gripping drama from German director Ilker Çatak. Leonie Benesch is superb as Carla, a middle-school teacher who believes she can make a difference in her students’ lives. When an innocent boy faces accusations in a series of thefts, Carla decides to investigate further, leading to a split-second decision that brings her idealism crashing down. Çatak’s nuanced story examines racism and bureaucracy, exploring all the ways in which our institutional foundations fail those most in need. But Benesch’s brittlely brilliant performance twists the knife further, hinting at how even the well-intentioned can cause harm, their seemingly noble actions creating unimagined repercussions. Featuring Marvin Miller’s nerve-jangling score, Çatak’s incisive character study isn’t a thriller, per se, but it puts you through an emotional and moral wringer — not to mention delivering a reminder about the challenges and heartaches teachers face every single day. — Tim Grierson
The Zone of Interest – U.K.
An extraordinary examination of evil, The Zone of Interest finds a startling new way to depict the Holocaust, avoiding exploitation or intellectualization while portraying the tragedy through the blinkered perspective of the monsters who orchestrated it. Under the Skin filmmaker Jonathan Glazer adapts Martin Amis’ novel, chronicling a family, led by SS officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), living right outside Auschwitz, their deceptively ordinary existence on occasion mildly interrupted by atrocities in the distance. Glazer gives the film a clinical remove: Cinematographer Łukasz Żal shoots scenes with icy stillness, as if to evoke dispassionate surveillance footage, and the performances contain the same malevolent passivity. (Sandra Hüller, equally excellent in MVFF46 selection Anatomy of a Fall, is a marvel as Höss’ wife.) Highlighted by Mica Levi’s remarkable score, The Zone of Interest won the Grand Prix at Cannes; it’s a stunning experience, challenging both the strictures of the Holocaust drama and our assumptions about how cinema can (or can’t) memorialize history’s greatest crime. — Tim Grierson