Once again this year, the Mill Valley Film Festival got off to a splashy, star-heavy start, with west coast premieres of Arrival and La La Land attended by their respective stars Amy Adams and Emma Stone. My august colleagues in the San Francisco Film Critics Circle even hobnobbed with Stone and La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle prior to the film’s Thursday night screening (move your awards lines accordingly, Vegas sports books). I haven’t seen either film, but they’re both serious awards players, so I’ll have every opportunity to watch them before my lists and nominees are finalized in early December.
Much better to loiter over the sumptuous anti-sumptuousness of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion (GRADE: B), a meticulous yet ethereal biopic of 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson (a possessed Cynthia Nixon). It’s slated for an early 2017 release, robbing Nixon of any awards momentum, but after this one and James White, it’s time to acknowledge that she’s doing world-class work, no matter what her trophy case looks like. Similar to Davies’ recent Sunset Song, A Quiet Passion revels in the language and manners of a bygone era while also recognizing the restrictions of those times, especially as they relate to outspoken women. It’s exquisite but still just a little too rigid and bloodless for my taste, and it’s hard to shake the thought that Mike Leigh’s MVFF37 alum Mr. Turner did this already, only better.
A more substantial auteur entry comes in the form of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (GRADE: A-), an almost sickeningly elegant moral tale from the director of A Separation and The Past. After their building literally gets ripped out from under them in a semi-apocalyptic opening scene, married actors Emad and Rama move into a new apartment, where an unexpected intruder terrifies Rama and shoves Emad into a spiderweb of shame and rage. It culminates in a long, emotionally devastating final sequence, one where every word and gesture is so tightly wound around a sense of world-crumbling dread that I could barely breathe.
Studio Ghibli is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an auteur studio, but although the pre-screening emcee opined that Hayao Miyazaki “has his hands all over” the French-Japanese co-production The Red Turtle (GRADE: B), it’s actually co-founder Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday) who gets credited as Artistic Producer on the film. Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit makes his feature debut with this dialogue-free parable about a castaway who forms a special relationship with the titular (and brother, do I mean…) red turtle. It’s a visual marvel, with a Ghibli-esque spiritual connection to nature; the only Ghibli-esque standby it sorely lacks: a female character with some personality and agency.
Meanwhile, agency over her situation is a luxury that the title character of Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai (GRADE: B-) can only dream about. The dutifully overshadowed daughter of a revered artist in 1814 Japan, O-Ei constantly puts her career on hold to serve her more famous father, while resisting the even more restrictive threat of matrimony. A few era-defying, rock-and-roll needle drops aside, there’s a lot of thematic overlap between Miss Hokusai and A Quiet Passion. If only the former boasted more of the latter’s intellectual rigor and intellectual wit; Miss Hokusai mostly gets by on atmosphere and attitude.
MVFF always stocks a full cupboard of documentaries, often at the expense of discriminatory taste, so I’ve learned to tread lightly and cut bait early. Mitch Dickman’s Rolling Papers (GRADE: B-), a look at how The Denver Post covered the first year of marijuana legalization in Colorado, survived the cut – not a lot of meat on these bones, but it’s slick and entertaining nonetheless. Keith Maitland’s Tower (GRADE: B) takes a less conventional approach, using rotoscope animation, photographs, footage and interviews to tell the story of Charles Whitman’s 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin – it’s powerful while remaining respectful, but there’s a certain glibness in the entire enterprise that leans too close to exploitation.
Best of the MVFF39 documentary slate so far: Craig Atkinson’s searing Do Not Resist (GRADE: B+), a stomach-punch look at the militarization of American police, and the disproportionately violent force exacted on black communities. A Dr. Strangelove-ian sequence in which a respected police trainer rallies the ranks with promises of post-bust super-boners goes on our country’s collective nightmare reel. It’s the duty of lazy film critics to remind their readers that every movie, even one decades in the making, is a point-blank commentary on whatever’s in the news this week. So at the risk of joining their hollow ranks, I’ll insist that Do Not Resist is the most timely and necessary film of 2016.
Not so necessary: Mick Jackson’s 110-minute nap Denial (GRADE: C), a hopelessly bland courtroom drama/biopic about writer and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who was forced to defend the veracity of the Holocaust in court when egomaniacal denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued her for libel. Beyond the gravity of the subject matter, and the pseudo-timeliness of the Irving-as-Trump analogue, there’s very little substance and conflict to the film, not even enough to fill an average episode of Law & Order. More on this film in next week’s Sacramento News & Review.
Also in denial: Love Twice (GRADE: C-) director Rob Nilsson, about so many things. The end of the 1980s, the un-coolness of leather jackets, the noxious appeal of romanticizing whiskey-breathed self-immolation and so much more. I could go on, but the guy’s an iconoclast and local legend, so what do I know. Shine on, baby. Nilsson won a Grand Jury Prize at one of the first iterations of the Sundance Film Festival for Heat and Sunlight, and Love Twice finds him tracing his finger over those same self-righteous scars, only with a nonsensical and exponentially annoying stories-within-stories structure.
The best part of any film festival comes when you discover a new voice, even if it’s only new to you. The Bacchus Lady (GRADE: B) is the eighth feature from South Korean director Je-yong Lee, but it’s the first that I’ve seen, and it’s clearly the work of a major filmmaker. Aging prostitute So-young (Yeo-jeong Yoon) impulsively takes care of a strange boy when his mother gets arrested, exhuming long-buried memories in the process. The set-up seems designed for smutty-cute drivel, but rather than serving up sex jokes and moral righteousness, Lee combines the observational rambunctiousness of Richard Linklater with the dark grace of the Dardennes. I’ve seen the latest Hirokazu Koreeda hand-massager, and The Bacchus Lady is just as wise, only with dirtier nails and a quicker pulse. A little more shape and it might have even been great.
Follow my consistently updated MVFF 39 Power Rankings on Letterboxd, and read my MVFF37 coverage HERE and my MVFF38 coverage HERE. Check back later this week for more MVFF39 coverage, including capsule reviews of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and more.