By Daniel Barnes
MVFF42 is in the books.
The 42nd annual Mill Valley Film Festival featured the usual mix of awards contenders, pseudo-indies and super-indies. New films from Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Noah Baumbach made their Northern California debuts. Meanwhile, stars like Kristen Stewart and Olivia Wilde breezed through town for tributes.
I couldn’t make it to the festival this year, but I lived the experience vicariously through screeners. Rather than a thorough recap of MVFF42, this is a simple rundown of the nine films I got to see, ranked from worst to first.
9) The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash (Thom Zimny)
This rote documentary about Johnny Cash was the only outright dud of the MVFF42 bunch. It’s hard for me to hate on anything Cash-related, but this estate-approved documentary feels dangerously low on substance. Like most music documentaries, it’s chiefly concerned with safeguarding the brand and spotlighting certain aspects of the catalog. Predictably framed by Cash’s Folsom Prison performance, The Gift is not much different in form, content and perspective than Walk the Line. That is not a compliment.
8) Watch List (Ben Rekhi)
A dark and sturdy morality play about a widowed Filipino mother sucked into the blades of Duterte’s drug war. Alessandra de Rossi does decent work in the lead role, even if her transition into a Sidney Bristowe-style assassin felt forced. It’s timely stuff, although Rekhi too often employs predictable genre tropes to get his point across. If nothing else, Watch List strikes a devastating blow to the Philippine Department of Tourism.
7) Aurora (Miia Tervo)
I’m not usually up for a quirky, cross-cultural rom-com, but I enjoyed this love story set in Finnish Lapland. The excellent Mimosa Willamo stars as the title character, a young woman seemingly programmed for self-destruction. Amir Escandari plays Darian, an Iranian immigrant and single father desperate for asylum. Aurora agrees to help Darian find a mate, but wouldn’t you know it, they develop feelings for each other. Not many original parts here, but it’s a charming vehicle nonetheless.
6) By the Grace of God (François Ozon)
Prolific French director Ozon skips genres again, this time landing on a Le Spotlight exposé of Catholic child abuse coverups. Instead of making a halo for journalists, though, Ozon takes the perspective of the victims. The story gets portioned between three protagonists, each one molested by real-life priest Bernard Preynat. Ozon does the material justice, taking his time and staying true to the themes of faith and forgiveness. That said, this is also the type of slow-moving, good intentions-filled parade float that tends to turn me off.
5) Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters (Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet)
I don’t have much to say about this solid documentary about stop-motion and VFX legend Tippett, but neither does the film. Strangely enough, that unwillingness to psychoanalyze Tippett is one of the film’s strengths. Mad Dreams and Monsters works best as a pocket history of stop-motion animation in movies, covering Tippett’s influences and acolytes alike. It’s basically a clips show, but the stories of Tippett’s work with George Lucas and Paul Verhoeven offer insight into the collaborative nature of filmmaking.
4) Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)
Fourteen is former Slate and Chicago Reader film critic Sallitt’s first feature film since The Unspeakable Act in 2012. He fills out the margins with critic colleagues, but unfortunately, Film Twitter can’t act for shit. Thankfully, leads Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling can. They play mismatched Brooklyn best friends, one a shy and struggling writer, the other magnetic but deeply troubled. The elevator pitch for Fourteen is Broad City goes Mumblecore, although that diminishes the film’s emotional intelligence and impact.
3) Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo (Brett Harvey)
This one surprised me, as I never thought we needed another Danny Trejo documentary after the serviceable 2005 effort Champion. However, Harvey digs deeper into Trejo’s inspiring story of sin and redemption, capturing the lowest lows (solitary confinement in San Quentin) and the highest highs (meeting Salma Hayek in 1995, but possibly I’m projecting). Now 75 years old with nearly 400 IMDB credits, Trejo shows no signs of slowing down. We’ll probably get a third Trejo documentary sometime around 2030.
2) Rewind (Sasha Neulinger)
A Capturing the Friedmans-like confessional, but once again told by the victim instead of the perpetrator. Director Neulinger pores over video footage from his childhood, where he finds his abusers hiding in plain sight. Rewind is easily one of the most disturbing films of the year, but it’s also a non-exploitative and rewarding story about confronting past horrors. In getting to shape his own story, Neulinger gains the ultimate triumph.
1) And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
Comparisons between this Swedish-Georgian coming-of-age love story and Call Me by Your Name are inevitable. However, Akin’s bracing dance drama is both rawer and more polished, not to mention fully free of Armie Hammer’s monotone mugging. Levan Gelbakhiani does stunning work as Merab, an ambitious trainee at the Georgian National Ensemble. Into Levan’s hetero-normative world steps Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), who quickly becomes his top competition and #1 crush. Equally sad and ecstatic, And Then We Danced fully commits to the concept of dance as expression. It was the unquestionable highlight of my MVFF42 “experience.”