By Daniel Barnes
The 41st annual Mill Valley Film Festival kicked off last night with the California debuts of two awards-groveling biopics: Peter Farrelly’s TIFF Audience Award winner Green Book and Matthew Heineman’s A Private War. Over the next week-and-a-half, celebrities such as Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton and Maggie Gyllenhaal will breeze through the Bay Area to support their various Oscar hopefuls. In past years, I have made the three- to four-hour round trip between Sacramento and the Mill Valley/San Rafael area to cover the festival in detail, but this year I will be out-of-town celebrating my tenth wedding anniversary.
Of course, as a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, I will have every opportunity in the world to watch Best Picture candidates like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and Steve McQueen’s Widows, which will all screen at this year’s festival. I generally count on the Mill Valley Film Festival to fill in my documentary and foreign language film blindspots, and I was able to complete part of that mission through pre-festival screeners. As of post time, I have watched 12 of the films screening at this year’s festival, but a couple of them are too inept and insignificant to single out. There was only one standout among the remaining ten films, but the rest are all worth mentioning.
Ordered from least favorite to favorite:
10) The Great Buster: A Celebration (Dir.: Peter Bogdonavich)
An inessential and nonpenetrating documentary about silent comedy master Buster Keaton, arranged by Bogdonavich in a manner that is both dreadfully linear and pointlessly jumbled. The film offers a treasure chest of Keaton clips, but there are just as many punch-the-screen moments, including Johnny Knoxville and Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts extolling Keaton’s influence on their work.
9) The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales… (Dir.: Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert)
Ernest & Celestine collaborators Renner and Imbert return with another low-key, hand-drawn story of talking animals, although the magic is significantly muted this time around. A trilogy of stories presented as the performance of an animals-only theatre troupe, the film displays occasional charm but meanders more often than not.
8) Friend/Rafiki (Dir.: Wanuri Kahui)
The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love goes to Africa, as the daughters of rival Kenyan politicians come together despite their frowning families and hyper-conservative surroundings. Directed with sensitivity and lyrical beauty by Kahui, and well-acted by leads Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, but unnotable for anything else besides topicality.
7) When the Trees Fall (Dir.: Marysia Nikitiuk)
The first few films listed above are almost crushingly conventional, but this strange slice of Ukrainian magic realism has a primal energy and unconventional, borderline chaotic construction that is more typical of the films further down this list. At heart, it’s a fairly standard story of a rebellious teenage girl and her criminal boyfriend trying to escape their restrictive society, but it is constantly expanded and undermined by visions, dreams, fantasies and inexplicable occurrences.
6) Little Woods (Dir.: Nia DaCosta)
A bleak but solid slice-of-life thriller about Ollie (Tessa Thompson), a prescription drug dealer for North Dakota oilmen, and her attempts to leave the criminal life behind while also assisting her screw-up sister. The film has atmosphere and intensity to burn, but it also feels dwarfed by similar yet superior films like Winter’s Bone and Frozen River.
5) Museum/Museo (Dir.: Alonso Ruizpalacios)
Based on a true story about criminals who stole over 100 Mayan artifacts from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, but given a self-consciously seriocomic treatment by co-writer/director Ruizpalacios and star Gael Garcia Bernal. As with When the Trees Fall, I was captivated by the weird energy, shifting tone and unconventional approach, even if I wasn’t particularly captivated by the story and characters.
4) Pet Names (Dir.: Carol Brandt)
I felt like I was constantly on the verge of loving this observant comedy about ex-lovers reuniting for an impromptu camping trip, and even if I could never quite get over the film’s disaffected hump, I wouldn’t be shocked if director Carol Brandt and/or screenwriter and star Meredith Johnson made a masterpiece someday.
3) Free Solo (Dir.: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)
I am writing about this mountain-climbing documentary in the 10/19 issue of the Sacramento News & Review, so I’ll just say that this is probably my favorite documentary of the year so far.
2) Seder-Masochism (Dir.: Nina Paley)
Nina Paley follows up her 2008 animated feature Sita Sings the Blues with another mix of the deeply personal and slightly blasphemous, this time creating a jukebox musical out of the Book of Exodus. Seder-Masochism lacks the thematic coherence and striking originality of Sita Sings the Blues, but it’s actually a more accomplished film, with an endless number of knockout setpieces.
1) Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
The no-doubter best of the bunch, a slow-burning mystery about a South Korean slacker (Yoo Ah-in) who becomes obsessed with a beautiful but flighty ex-classmate (Jun Jong-seo), even when she returns from a trip abroad with a wealthy and handsome boyfriend (Steven Yuen). Powerfully enigmatic and immaculately constructed, Burning shares the same unconventional energy, chilly reserve and oblong shape as several of the films listed above, but it also captivates from scene to scene and moment to moment, rather than coasting on broad-strokes good intentions. If I submitted my SFFCC Awards ballot today, Burning would be at the top of my Best Foreign Film category.