Despite the devastating fires taking place just north of Marin County, where the Mill Valley Film Festival takes place, this year’s festival forged ahead to celebrate its 40th anniversary. They also made a valid point to remember their neighbors facing hardships in nearby Napa and Sonoma counties. Each screening was proceeded with words of solidarity and empathy, as well as an invitation to help those effected. As a hallmark year for the festival organizers promised a particularly special line up of films, stars and honorees, and in all that, they did not disappoint.
I only got a small sampling of the dozens of festival films that fell into several categories, including US cinema, world cinema, shorts and documentaries, but it was enough to appreciate what’s coming to the cinematic landscape. Not least of which is Ai Wei Wei’s powerful and stunning documentary “Human Flow.” The renowned artist and activist turns his camera to the plight of refugees throughout the world. Covering migrants in 23 countries over a year’s time, he captures the unique challenges facing millions of people fleeing their homeland in hopes of security and a better life. This is both a large story of political and social crises, as well as personal stories of human dignity. This is a film that should not be missed. A documentary on a much smaller scale, but also noteworthy is “Kim Swims” by director Kate Webber. Open water swimmer Kim Chambers takes on the daunting challenge of swimming 30 frigid miles from the shark-infested Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a gripping film of athletic determination and endurance. I found myself wanting to view it more than once, and not be so whiny when the pool I use for laps isn’t like warm bath water.
In the foreign film category, director Luca Guadagnino weaves another mesmerizing and sensual tale in his latest film, “Call Me By Your Name.” It’s the summer of 1983 when American graduate student Oliver stays with his professor and his family at their vacation home in Northern Italy. It eventually becomes a summer of love as the professor’s young son, Elio, becomes smitten with the older charming, attractive and seemingly womanizing, Oliver, who soon takes notice. This is new territory for Elio, new to sex and any kind of love, let alone with a man. Every performance in this film is captivating, and the story is sweet and pure, but there is one specific scene/dialogue towards the end, that alone is worth the price of admission. Does “Call Me By Your Name” achieve masterpiece status that Guadagnino’s debut film, “I am Love” did? Maybe not quite, but it sure is close.
I wish I could give such high praise to Claire Denis’s new film “Let the Sun Shine In” featuring Juliette Binoche, but I cannot. This film of middle-aged angst and love loss, falls short of expectations. Binoche plays a recent divorcee who starts and stops a series of love connections, leaving her – and the audience – frustrated and forlorn. Denis, who is better known for meditative dramas, is taking a stab at her version of a romantic comedy. While Binoche is always a pleasure to watch perform, her talent is not enough to salvage this movie. A unique entry from the UK is actor-turn-director Danny Huston’s “The Last Photograph.” This is an obvious small budget independent film that was a labor of love, winning the hearts of festival goers. When a father and son host a Christmas dinner at their house the night before the son takes off for the New York to spend the holidays with his girlfriend, little did they know it would be their last time together. The photo taken of them together that night would added value when the son was among the dozens of people tragically killed in the 1988 Lockerbie disaster. Huston gives a moving and believable performance of grieving father 15 years after the tragedy and desperate to find that last photograph of his son after a thieving duo steal his briefcase.
One of the stand outs from the U.S. cinema section that I was lucky enough to gain access to is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut film, “Molly’s Game.” As it turns out, and to no surprise, Sorkin directs as well as he writes. No doubt, this will be one of “thee” hot tickets this year at the box office, and an Oscar contender for writing and acting categories. The movie is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic competitive downhill skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high stakes private poker games then got entangled in a legal web. Jessica Chastain embodies the role of Bloom, and she along with Idras Elba who plays her attorney, handle Sorkin’s dense, rapid fire dialogue with aplomb. The movie is fast paced, going from Molly’s past, including childhood, athletic life and poker career, to the present in which she is dealing with her case. This is a gripping drama, with moments of humor and featuring an unlikely, but undeniable heroine.
From the mind and mastery that gave us “Pan’s Labyrinth,”Devil’s Backbone” and “Hellboy,” comes “The Shape of Water” starring Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Sencer and Michael Shannon. Director Guillermo del Toro weaves a bizarre, yet charming fairy tale set in early 60s post war era. Hawkins plays a sweet, lonely woman who does custodial work in a government laboratory. Her life changes when she stumbles upon a top secret “asset” being held captive. This is not your typical prisoner-turn love interest, but then again, this is not your typical writer/director. Think “Amalie” meets “Creature from the Black Lagoon” … sort of.
All in all, MVFF 2017 was well curated, well-run, getting much local participation and praise. It’s understandable why it’s thrived for 40 years, and probably will continue to do so.