Movies at Mill Valley: film fest faves for the 46th

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday October 3, 2023
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'National Anthem,' 'Rustin' and 'Nyad' screen at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival.
'National Anthem,' 'Rustin' and 'Nyad' screen at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival.

For its 46th annual season, the Mill Valley Film Festival (October 5-15), presented by the California Film Institute, continues its tradition of programming the most anticipated high profile and prestigious awards season movies, sublime documentaries, irresistible indies, tributes, and panel discussions.

The festival is in-person this year at seven venues. Organizers anticipate a strong appetite for arthouse and independent fare. Some films will be streaming after the festival, Oct. 16-22. The festival has an impressive track record of launching new films, supporting emerging talent, and fostering creative dialogue. Each year the festival welcomes more than 200 filmmakers, representing more than 50 countries.

And, of course, every year there are a significant number of worthy LGBTQ-related films. This year there are several queer biographies, which will open in theaters and screening platforms by the end of the year.

The first public topless dancer in the U.S. is profiled in the documentary "Carol Doda Topless at the Condor." Her San Francisco career was propelled when she increased the size of her bust through silicone injections, such that her breasts were called "the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco."

In 1969 she started dancing bottomless (nude) at the Condor Club. She later ran a successful lingerie shop in San Francisco. She was a study in female empowerment who used male fascination with her body to her advantage. She became an early and steadfast ally to the LGBTQ community.

The hit (i.e. "The Swimming Pool," "Peter von Kant") or miss (quite a few) gay French director Francois Ozon is in top form with a breezy French farce, "The Crime is Mine," based on the Georges Berr 1934 play "Mon Crime" that pays homage to Hollywood Golden Age screwball comedy.

Poor aspiring actress Madeleine is barely surviving in Paris, living with her best friend and lawyer Pauline. Offered a plum role by a legendary theatrical producer but at the price of being sexually abused, Madeleine flees. She is subsequently accused of his murder.

But rather than prove her innocence, Madeleine pleads self-defense, becoming a cause celebre and consequently is offered many theater and film roles. The film also offers us the magnificent Isabelle Huppert as an aging silent film actress who actually committed the murder and now wants to reclaim the fame/adulation being showered on Madeleine by blackmailing her.

This "Chicago"-like movie (without the music) winds up condemning the French judicial system, is pro-women's rights, satirizes sexual harassment, and is a scathing assault on the film and theater industries, using humor and campy performances to soften its virulence. Like Haynes, Ozon is a master of getting brilliant acting from actresses. It's a triumph and one of Ozon's very best.

Sex educator and feminist Shere Hite is the subject of the documentary "The Disappearance of Shere Hite," who in her bestselling 1976 book, "The Hite Report," contained the bombshell revelation that 70% of women achieved orgasm not through intercourse but via masturbation. Her methodology has been attacked as biased and her respondents were done anonymously via written surveys as opposed to phone or in-person interviews. Still, her findings set the stage for later public discussions on gender, sexuality, and female bodily autonomy. The film explores her life after she became notorious.

Early reviews for Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers" have been rapturous and a welcome restoration after his disastrous 2017 film "Downsizing." This period movie follows curmudgeonly history teacher (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school in 1970, forced to remain on campus during the Christmas holiday to babysit marooned students with nowhere else to go, especially brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa), along with a grieving head cook (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) who's mourning the loss of her son in Vietnam. Already hailed as Payne's warmest film, that is funny and touching without being sentimental. There's already talk all three actors will be nominated for Oscars.

"May December" is a fictionalized version of the 1997 real life tabloid scandal of teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who had sex with a 12-year old student, served six years in prison and then married the student when released. Julianne Moore plays the teacher, while Natalie Portman is the actress set to play her in a film, who travels to Georgia to meet and study her.

The great gay Todd Haynes directs and the film is filled with sharp-witted dialogue with some trademark campy humor, though reportedly the film allows the audience to draw its own conclusion. Haynes and Moore have worked together twice before (especially the stellar "Far From Heaven" which gained Moore a deserved Oscar nomination). Haynes knows how to draw great performances from actresses, so both Moore and Portman are allegedly divine. Haynes is also a master of period drama, so we can hardly wait when it opens here around Thanksgiving.

"National Anthem" follows 21-year-old construction worker Dylan (Christopher Plummer) who lives in rural New Mexico. To support his younger brother and alcoholic mother, he joins a community of gay rodeo performers and ranchers. The cinematography heralding the expanse of the American Southwest is supposed to be stunning, even poetic.

The film explores the sociology of the queer rodeo subculture (complete with drag), but it's an old-fashioned movie unafraid to proclaim the power of family and love, showcasing the virtues of meeting and accepting people where they are, with everyone trying to grab their small piece of the American dream.

Annette Bening is getting Oscar buzz for "Nyad," as Diana Nyad, who at age 60, having once been a champion marathon swimmer and then left to become a sports journalist, decided at age 60 to make an epic 110 mile-swim in the shark- and jellyfish-infested waters from Cuba to Florida, aided by her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (played by Jodie Foster). Nyad is both a lesbian and an atheist. The film has already been heralded as an inspirational triumph of the human spirit and tenacious adversity over brutal setbacks.

A winner at this year's Sundance, "The Persian Version" is a study of cultural clash with first generation and rebellious Leila (she wears a burka-tini, burka on top, bikini on bottom). A film director/screenwriter, she lives and works in New York with aspirations to become the Iranian-American Scorsese. She has just broken up with her wife. At a Halloween party, she has sex with a drag queen. Her one-nighter leads to a pregnancy.

She has a complicated, stormy relationship with her mother Shirin who is furious with her lesbianism, even exiling Leila and partner from Thanksgiving dinner. Her ailing father needs a heart transplant. The film then takes an unexpected turn as we learn about Shirin's past, being forced at age 13 to marry an older man, moving to the U.S. to escape scandal, but eventually becoming a successful realtor.

The film is as much about her as it is about Leila, and tries to draw parallels between their two very different lives. As my Jewish friends would say, there's lots of tsuris going on here. Still, it's a feel good movie, but unfortunately loses (or more accurately buries) the lesbian angle and the ending has a TV sitcom feel to it. This is a funny perky tribute to the perseverance and pluckiness of Iranian women. Lesbian writer/director Maryam Keshavarz is a major talent.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, "Rustin," the story of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who organized that epic event, will be shown. He challenged authority, never apologized for who he was and almost was fired from his position because of his sexuality (years earlier he had been arrested for lewd behavior in a men's restroom) but Martin Luther King stood up for him.

Sadly, history has largely forgotten him, but he's been rediscovered. Actor Colman Domingo is considered the early front runner to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Rustin, no doubt aided by the film's director, the renowned theater director George C. Wolfe, who two years ago helmed "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which landed the late Chadwick Boseman an Academy Award nomination.

"Saltburn" is one of the most anticipated films of the year, the second film directed by Emerald Fennell after her stunning debut film "Promising Young Woman," which earned her a Best Screenplay Oscar. The first half utilizes elements of "Brideshead Revisited" as socially aimless Oxford University student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is drawn into the world of the charming, aristocratic, spoiled rich classmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, the It Boy of 2023) who invites him to his family's sprawling estate, Saltburn, for the summer.

In the second half, the film mirrors aspects of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and becomes a psychosexual thriller of obsession, privilege, and desire. As Oliver's eccentric mother, Rosamund Pike is already a virtual Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress. Keoghan triumphs as both a sinister and captivating sociopath in this Gothic mordant expose on contemporary British class dynamics.

"Summer Solstice" is a low-key, low budget narrative about trans man and budding actor Leo who reunites with his cisgender straight college friend photographer Eleanor as they embark on a weekend trip to upstate New York. Because of Leo's transition, the relationship must be renegotiated as secrets are shared and they must decide whether to be friends or something more.

The Eleanor character is an annoying, cloying mess, but is still family for Leo. It has a laid back summer feel to it, but it never quite catches on fire. Still the film shows how labels inadvertently trap us and shield us from our true feelings. A noble miss, still worth watching.

French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung ("The Scent of Green Papaya") won Best Director at Cannes this year for "The Taste of Things" based on Rouffe's 1924 novel "The Passionate Epicure." It's 1885 France and top chef Dodin Bouffant (Benoit Magime) has been living with his cook and lover Eugenie (Juliette Binoche) for 20 years, with their unique exquisite dishes attracting diners from all over the world. He has offered to marry her several times but she has declined, prizing her independence.

But she's ill and Dodin decides to make a special meal to display his love for her. Passion in this film is expressed through delectable food and their mutual devotion to the culinary arts.

Binoche and Magime have acted together previously and have a delicious chemistry, but Binoche is one of those actresses incapable of giving a bad performance. This film joins other top tier gastronomical movies (i.e. "Like Water for Chocolate," "Big Night," and "Babette's Feast") and while somewhat predictable, still the incredible cuisine will win you over. Foodies will be in nirvana. You should plan to eat dinner after watching this winsome movie.

The Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 5-15. $20 (single tickets) to $130 (full pass/special events) at the Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael), BAMPFA (Berkeley), Cinearts Sequoia, Outdoor Art Club and Sweetwater Music Hall (Mill Valley), Lark Theatre (Larkspur) and Roxie (San Francisco).

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