When fall festival season comes around every year, four fests tend to take up the spotlight: Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and New York. But if you find Venice too far away, Toronto too big, Telluride too secluded, and New York too hectic, you might want to look to California for the ideal festival experience. Now in its 39th year, the Mill Valley Film Festival takes place just outside San Francisco in an area that offers the same quality of talent as other major film festivals, but with an intimacy that none of the big four can offer. For cinephiles, Mill Valley is a hidden gem during the hubbub of the fall season, when studios start lining up their slate for awards consideration.
Those wanting to get a glimpse at what’s to come in this year’s Oscar race would do well at Mill Valley, which profiles some of the bigger films geared for gold statues in the near future. This year, the festival will open and close with two buzzy titles: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which just picked up the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which has been slowly building accolades since its premiere at Cannes earlier this year. It’s hard to think of a better pick than La La Land to kick off this year’s festivities, as Chazelle’s bittersweet ode to classic Hollywood musicals showcases the kind of dazzling camerawork, pacing and editing he displayed in Whiplash, except this time on a much bigger (and less intense) scale. Leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, playing young, ambitious talents trying to make it in Los Angeles, play off each other perfectly, but it’s Stone who impresses the most, and her inevitable awards buzz will cement her as Hollywood’s next major star.
For those who don’t really care about the likes of Emma Stone or Loving, Mill Valley still offers up a large amount to choose from, including some major arthouse titles. Two films in this category would be Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, both of which played Cannes. Loach’s film took the coveted Palme d’Or in what turned out to be a controversial awards ceremony, but it’s an understandable decision given the political nature of its subject matter. Profiling two members of society’s lower class who fall victim to the bureaucracy of the systems designed to help them, Daniel Blake is the kind of humanist tale that will make an impact with audiences. On the other hand, Elle is the kind of naughty prestige that only Paul Verhoeven can pull off, turning a story about a rape victim (Isabelle Huppert, giving what might be the year’s best performance) into one of the funniest films of the year. Think it’s impossible to pull off? Just watch Elle and see for yourself.
Also arriving from Cannes are Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, two essential 2016 titles that seem destined to get drowned out of the conversation this year. Aquarius stars Sonia Braga as a retired music critic clinging on to her beloved apartment after a construction company intends to tear her building down. Braga is electric in the lead role, conveying a righteous fury as she stubbornly stands her ground, and Mendonça Filho directs with a vivacity that makes Aquarius riveting on a scene by scene basis. Jarmusch’s Paterson might not match the energy of Aquarius, but it’s a kind of delight that operates on a whole other level, with its portrait of a bus driver (Adam Driver) and his modest life over the span of a week. Jarmusch creates a universe of pure comfort, where people are content rather than ambitious, where character arcs and other familiar narrative qualities cease to exist. It’s a low-key masterpiece, and the kind of film you’ll wish you could live inside forever.
In all honesty, while the above mentioned films are well worth checking out, in my eyes it would be a bit of a wasteful effort to only catch them at a festival like Mill Valley. These are all, to some extent, recognizable films, ones bound to get a release of some sort within the next several months. Mill Valley also programs a large amount of small, independent titles that don’t have proper distribution or an upcoming release date, and it’s these kinds of films that are essential to making a memorable festival experience. Take Anne Émond’s Nelly, for example; it’s a loose biopic of Canadian author Nelly Arcan, and it might be the only chance for festivalgoers to catch this provocative film in theatres. Émond goes for a fragmented approach, hopping between different points of her subject’s life while switching back and forth between Arcan and the personas she creates both in her mind and in her work. There’s a delirious quality to the film, yet it coalesces into a strong portrait of a tragic figure. Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion also deals with a tragic heroine – poet Emily Dickinson – and it’s a stunner, working as a hilarious comedy and devastating portrait of depression. But if it’s something lighter you’re after, Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel’s Lost in Paris is the film to see. Taking inspiration from the likes of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton, Paris stars Gordon as a Canadian lost in Paris looking for her estranged aunt (Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva). It’s a cheery and frequently funny affair, filmed in bright colours and containing the kinds of slapstick set pieces that just don’t get made anymore. It’s the kind of small, pleasant discovery that film festivals like Mill Valley help make possible, and part of why the fest has been a success over its 39 years.