In recent years, I spent the first two weeks of October covering the Mill Valley Film Festival . The festival celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, honoring the gamut of independent film, from star-heavy productions with awards in their sights (Sean Penn, Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield were among the celebs who passed through town) to low-budget local productions that might never screen publicly again.
I intended to cover this year’s festival in the usual copious detail, but quality screeners were exceptionally scarce this year, and my plans to visit Mill Valley/San Rafael were waylaid first by work and later by my reluctance to travel into the fire zone. But I did screen a handful of films before my plans collapsed, so I’ll talk about them in this space.
In many respects, writer-director Jessica M. Thompson’s debut feature The Light of the Moon (GRADE: B-) is the sort of movie that you attend film festivals to discover. It tells the story of Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz from Brooklyn Nine Nine), a successful New Yorker who gets raped while walking home one night, profoundly affecting her personal and professional relationships. The production values are low and other than Beatriz’s excellent work, the performances are amateurish, yet the film is thoughtful and detailed and non-exploitative, and Thompson is one to watch.
A less delicate but more striking discovery comes in the form of Alain Gomis’ Félicité (GRADE: B), a Kinshasa-set hybrid of kitchen sink drama and dreamy musical. Molten-lava newcomer Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu stars in the title role, playing a bar singer scraping for money after her hooligan son gets in a motorcycle accident. Except for the intoxicating rhythms, this film could be a Dardenne Brothers joint.
Swiss director Petra Volpe is another up-and-coming auteur, and the arthouse-ready The Divine Order (GRADE: B-) shows potential for making smart movies for the indie mainstream. A fictionalized story about the 1971 referendum to allow Swiss women the right to vote, the film follows Nora (a wonderful Marie Leuenberger), a prim housewife unleashing her inner feminist. There are few surprises here, and the manipulative third-act twist is unnecessary, but Volpe and her star keep the film relatively grounded and humane.
Old-school auteurs also came out in droves for Mill Valley. I’ve only seen a handful of pictures by the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, but he strikes me as the sort of international director who has been making endless versions of the same movie for decades. The dour comedic tone and discarded protagonists of The Other Side of Hope (GRADE: C+) feel very familiar, and the film comes off as a forgettable chapter in a long book.
French director/adorable woodland creature Agnès Varda, on the other hand, remains a restless fountain of creative reinvention, even as she approaches her 90th birthday. Her latest film is Faces Places (GRADE: B), a collaboration with French artist JR that sees the duo traveling the countryside, bringing art to small villages while playfully examining their creative approaches. Jean-Luc Godard makes the perfect cameo by refusing to make a cameo.
Barbet Schroeder’s stomach-turning documentary The Venerable W. (GRADE: B) continues the Iranian-born Swiss director’s profiles of evil, this time focusing on Wirathru, a Myanmar monk who became famous by slandering the country’s Muslim minority. This film is just as pungently intimate a portrayal of evil as Schroeder’s career-defining 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada. The most challenging part: how easily Wirathru’s invective could be re-worded for the mouths of conservative American politicians.
Sorry to say, but for all of the strong independent visions at Mill Valley, the best festival film I’ve screened so far is Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (GRADE: B+), a Netflix production that debuted on the service the same day it got released in theaters. Wah-wah. The Meyerowitz Stories is more acridly intellectual extended-family comedy from the director of The Squid and the Whale. It’s also a powerful reminder that Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are wasting their best years on crap.
In addition to screening those films, I joined some of my San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleagues in selecting an award for the best documentary with Bay Area ties that played the festival. Nine films were eligible for the prize, but only a few of them are worth discussing.
The winner, thank God, was Richard O’Connell and Annelise Wunderlich’s persuasive The Corridor (GRADE: B), about Bay Area convicts enrolled in a GED program, a groundbreaking rehabilitation program initiated by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. Intimate yet epic, compassionate yet courageous and filled with raw and honest emotion, The Corridor is one of the top documentaries of the year so far. This film desperately deserves exposure.
Narrated by Ralph Fiennes, André: The Voice of Wine (GRADE: B-) tells the story of André Tchelistcheff, a Russian immigrant who helped create the Napa Valley wine scene. The film was directed by Mark Tchelistcheff, André’s grand-nephew, which allows for access to a treasure trove of archival material but also makes the film uncritical and purposefully vague in places.
Finally, Kim Swims (GRADE: C+) follows New Zealand open-water swimmer Kim Chambers as she prepares for one of her most significant challenges: swimming the 30-mile, shark-infested span between the Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate Bridge. Director Kate Webber keeps the film focused on the process rather than the personalities, but It left me with unanswered questions for a woman who seems hellbent on torturing her body for no reason. Questions like, “Why?” and “Dear God, why?”
That’s all I’ve got. See you at next year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, I hope!
Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.