Friday, April 9, 2021

SFFILM64 2021 Preview


It's been a year since SFFILM's 63rd edition was Covid-cancelled, a hapless victim of its position on the festival calendar year. Unlike Sundance, Berlin and Palm Springs, the fest was unable to squeak through before the world shut down. Unlike festivals soon to follow, SFFILM couldn't just instantly transition to the streaming and drive-in model that soon became our pandemic norm. We learned what a stellar event they had planned after SFFILM, rightfully proud, posted the entire line-up on its website. The whole thing was made doubly sad as SFFILM63 was to be the last assembled by treasured and respected Director of Programming Rachel Rosen.


Well, that was then and this is now. SFFILM's 64th iteration will most assuredly take place from April 9 to 18, with a promising roster of live events and online screenings. The festival is roughly half its normal size, at least in terms of feature films (43), with an impressive 57 percent of all films being directed by women filmmakers and an identical percentage by BIPOC. With few exceptions, SFFILM64 will be available to stream from anywhere in the USA and at any time during its 10-day run. I've previewed 13 selections, and will touch on others I hope to catch during the festival proper.


Where else to begin but with Big Nights? This year's Opening Night boasts the world premiere of Chase Palmer's Naked Singularity, a heist thriller starring John Boyega (Star Wars, Small Axe). The Closing Night attraction will be Marilyn Agrelo's StreetGang: How We Got to Sesame Street, an origin-story documentary about public television's long-running, esteemed children's show. For Centerpiece Film the fest has selected Bo McGuire's Socks on Fire, an autobiographical docu-drama about an inheritance battle between the Southern director's homophobic aunt and cross-dressing uncle. The film won the Best Documentary prize at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. Naked Singularity and Street Gang will have live showings at Fort Mason drive-in and be available for all to stream. Socks on Fire can only be streamed by festival passholders and its drive-in option will be supersized with a live drag show. A late addition to Big Nights is a drive-in only appearance by Bay Area Grammy-winning musician Fantastic Negrito, who'll perform a live score to the collage film Lost Landscapes of Oakland.


Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney's retro-dystopian fantasy Strawberry Mansion emerged the clear favorite of the films I previewed. Audley, a longtime fixture of sub-indie U.S. cinema, directs himself in the role of a humorless tax auditor who monetizes individual elements of people's dreams (as in, if you dream about a buffalo, you'll get taxed 50 cents.) His ordered world is capsized upon entering the secluded home of aging eccentric Arabella, whose nightscape he traverses by watching her dreams on VHS while wearing some kind of electric welding helmet. What follows is an astonishingly inventive psycho-adventure fraught with danger, romance and plain weirdness. The directors also wrote the screenplay, wherein they've miraculously juggled Maddin, Lynch, Sendak, Gondry, Gilliam and Pee Wee's Playhouse, not to mention their own waggish sensibility, all without resorting to pastiche.


I also taken by two upcoming releases from distributor Magnolia Pictures. Cryptozoo is the latest boundary-pushing animated escapade from director Dash Shaw, who expands on the promise shown in his 2016 debut, the underseen My Entire High School, Sinking Into the Sea. Employing an eye-popping mix of crude and sophisticated animation styles, Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski weave a wild tale about the world's endangered cryptids (think unicorn, Kracken, Gorgon, et al.) and one woman's efforts to protect them from nefarious U.S. military schemes. Voicework is provided by an eclectic mix of actors ranging from Michael Cera to Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriski. Dash Shaw will be the recipient of the festival's 2021 Persistence of Vision Award, given each year to a director whose "main body of work falls outside the realm of traditional narrative filmmaking." He'll also participate in a live Cryptozoo "Making Of" talk on Friday, April 16.


Magnolia is also distributing the superb UK genre flick Censor. Director Prano Bailey-Bond's debut feature is set in a Thatcher-era England where gruesome exploitation movies are being blamed for real-life crimes. That becomes a problem for mousy censor board member Enid, who's recently approved a movie where a man eats his wife's face. Her subsequent dive into the depths of a shady director's filmography reveals a possible connection between an actress and Enid's long lost sister, who disappeared as a child while under Enid's care. The resulting denouement will have viewers either howling in delight or disgust. I was among the former.
Although intensely unnerving at times, Censor also has just the right amount of sardonic shadings to take some of the edge off. I was reminded somewhat of fellow UK director Peter Strickland's work (Berberian Sound System, In Fabric). Appropriately, Censor and Cryptozoo will have drive-in screenings in addition to online presentations.


Three favorites from the Narratives:International section depict lives of not-so-quiet desperation as experienced from disparate points on the planet. In her follow-up to 2012's Oscar-nominated Wadjda, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour's The PerfectCandidate concerns a female doctor's frustrations with getting a paved road to her clinic. She finds herself running for municipal council almost by accident, which the film uses to unveil the small and large humiliations experienced by Saudi women. Nigerian directors Arie and Chuko Esiri's masterful This is My Desire uses a bifurcated structure to render the lives of two Lagos residents dreaming of emigration: a solemn middle-aged printing plant engineer fed up with crumbling infrastructure and his needy family, and a bright female bartender whose life is weighted down by mercantile relationships with men. This is My Desire represents intimate, social issue filmmaking at its best, and stands in sharp contrast to the Nigeria portrayed in noisy Nollywood melodramas. Colombian director Nicolás Rincón Gille employs an episodic approach in Valley of Souls, tracing the aquatic odyssey of a fisherman as he searches a river for two sons murdered by paramilitaries. Elegiac, heartbreaking and enhanced by gorgeous widescreen cinematography, Valley of Soul's languorous 137 minutes are never less than captivating. Side note: it helps to know that Colombian cyclist Egon Bernal won the Tour de France in July, 2019.


Fans of Latin American cinema should be pleased by SFFILM64's Cine Mexicano spotlight. From among its six offerings I previewed Alexis Gambis's Son of Monarchs, winner of Sundance's Alfred P. Sloan Prize for depiction of science or technology in a narrative feature. The film's main character Mendel (Tenoch Huerta, Gueros, Sin Nombre) is a Mexican biologist whose youth was spent amongst the monarch butterflies in Michoacán's forests. Son of Monarchs alternates between scenes of childhood and Mendel's adulthood in NYC, where he works mapping out butterfly DNA structure while navigating personal existential crises. Not least of the movie's appeal is the refreshing experience of watching a Mexican immigration narrative that doesn't concern the undocumented. Son of Monarchs features a nice supporting role for Gabino Rodríguez, the smoky-eyed, pointy-jawed actor who's the most recognizable face in Mexican independent cinema. Rodríguez also turns up in SFFILM64's Fauna, the actor's tenth collaboration with Mexican indie filmmaker Nicolás Pereda. Fauna nears the top of my list of films to catch during the festival, along with Dance of the 41, a historical LGBT period piece about an early 20th century scandal in Mexican high society. I also hope to see The Spokeswoman, a documentary about the first indigenous woman to run for Mexico's presidency.


I previewed two additional works from the Narratives: US section. Home is a tough and touching redemption story about an ex-con returning home after a 17-year prison stint for murder. For the most part, the movie effectively conveys a certain type of American underclass without resorting to reductive white-trash miserablism (although some of the sets are art-directed to distraction). Jake McLaughlin delivers an edgy, sympathetic lead performance. He's joined by Kathy Bates as his ornery cancer-afflicted mother, as well as Lil Red Howry (the best friend in Get Out) as Bates' wise homecare giver. Home isn't the type of film I'd ordinarily seek out, but I was fascinated that it's both written and directed by German actress Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, a pair of Bourne movies). I'd love to know what drew her to this project, apart from its providing a juicy supporting role for her husband, actor Derek Richardson, as the protagonist's junkie best friend.


Supercool is another kind of American movie I wouldn't ordinarily watch, but I was curious why SFFILM might program a "teens gone wild comedy." The first thing that struck me was the Finnish subtitles on the festival-provided screener. It turns out that filmmaker Teppo Airaksinen's main body of work lies in Finnish TV (180-plus episodes worth), so how he came to this project is no doubt a story worth hearing. At age 67, I'm clearly not the intended audience for a film like this. I'll therefore reserve judgment except to say it seemed very well made, left me exhausted, didn't make me laugh, had an almost creepy surfeit of queer content and an incongruous retro soundtrack (Huey Lewis & the News!?). Oh, and Damon Wayans Jr. is in it. Supercool is having its world premiere at SFFILM64.


Documentaries traditionally make up a large chunk of SFFILM's line-up and this year is no exception. The one I'm most anticipating is Peter Nicks' Homeroom, which hones in on the triumphs and travails of Oakland High School's 2020 graduating class. The film marks the final installment of Nicks' "Oakland Trilogy," which began with 2012's sublime The Waiting Room about Oakland's Highland Hospital, and continued with his 2017 study of the city's police department, The Force. SFFILM is also honoring Nicks with the festival's George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, given for "distinguished service to cinema as an art form." Another much-awaited Bay Area-related doc is Mariem Pérez Riera's Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, which honors the soon-to-be 90-year-old Berkeley resident and EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner. The film drew raves at Sundance and following its spring festival rounds, will open theatrically in June. It's worth noting this is one of the few SFFILM64 selections with a limited viewing window (April 9 to 12), and one of only two that are geo-blocked for California residents only (the other being Street Gang).


A majority of the festival's 18 documentaries are biographical or autobiographical in nature, including four I previewed. In keeping with a Bay Area groove, there's David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's We Are As Gods, which surveys the visionary life of Stewart Brand. Tagged as the "Intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the Counter Culture" and then later the "Da Vinci of Cyber Culture," Brand is most recognized as creator of "The Whole Earth Catalog." The documentary switches between a chronological retelling of his exploits and accomplishments, and a critical examination of his current interest in "de-extinction." Brand is a leading proponent of this highly controversial science, which seeks to genetically reintroduce extinct species such as the American chestnut tree, the North American passenger pigeon and more ominously, the woolly mammoth. We spend a lot of time with Brand at Siberia's Pleistocene Park, where an entire ecosystem is being prepped for the mammoth's return. One curious omission from We Are As Gods is Brand's creation of The WELL, regarded as the world's first significant virtual community. Brian Eno composed the film's fitting music score.


Two women directors have made docs focused on their problematic mothers. Co-directed by Paul Sng, Celeste Bell's Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché honors one of punk music's pioneers. With her anti-fashion sense and mouthful of braces, the "half-caste" Styrene (née Marion Elliott) blasted on the scene with her band X-Ray Spex at age 19, an anomaly in a music genre dominated by white males. Musicians Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna and Neneh Cherry are among the talking heads who discuss her influence. She'd dissolve the band three years later at their height of popularity, which was followed by a decades long struggle with mental health issues. Director Bell was born in 1981 and spent much of her childhood living on a Hare Krishna commune, until social services stepped in and she was put in her grandmother's care. Bell narrates her mother's story and often appears on camera, visiting places of significance in Styrene's life. This is sometimes effective (bringing her Mom's ashes to be scattered in an Indian river) and sometimes not (Bell aimlessly wandering around a nocturnal Times Square).


In contrast, Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani narrates but never appears (except in photos) in a documentary about her mother. Radiograph of a Family employs generic archival footage, family photos and movies, love letters, and imagined dialogue to uniquely depict the grossly mismatched marriage between her secular doctor father, and a mother who'd transform from docile bride to a machinegun-wielding religious fanatic during Iran's revolution. It's an eerie and melancholy tale. The final doc I previewed was Oskar Alegria's Zumiriki. The title means "island in the middle of a river" in Basque, and anyone who saw Alegria's The Search for Emak Bakia at the festival in 2013 knows to expect something singularly enigmatic. The river in question is the Arga in northeastern Spain, along whose banks stood Alegria's family home. Zumiriki consists entirely of Alegria building a camouflaged cabin perched on the Arga's banks, and then once built, spending months submerged in the lore and natural surroundings of his childhood stomping grounds. It's charmingly indulgent and a delightful way to spend two hours.


Now to wrap up with a few odds and ends. On Saturday, April 17 SFFILM will host a virtual tribute to white-hot actress Vanessa Kirby, wherein she'll be presented with the festival's Impact Award. Kirby has been seen nearly everywhere in recent years, from The Crown to three Mission Impossible movies to 2019's $730M blockbuster Fast and Furious Present Hobbs and Shaw, and now of course her gritty, Oscar-nominated performance in Pieces of a Woman.


For the first time ever, the festival presents a separate section of Mid-Length Films. Defined as ranging between 30 to 50 minutes in length, each of the five programs will present one such film paired with one or two shorts. I'm particularly intrigued by Tales of the Accidental City, which finds a group of Nairobi residents gathered over Zoom for a court-ordered anger management class. Speaking of shorts, SFFILM64 of course has an entire section devoted to them, 56 to be exact, spread out over seven programs.


Finally, in addition to aforementioned Socks on Fire and Dance of the 41, there are a half dozen more films of LGBTQ interest scattered throughout the program. I'm most intent on catching Romania's Poppy Field, whose protagonist is a closeted policeman called to quell unrest at a Bucharest cinema showing a film with queer content. I'd also love to see the sneak preview of Language Lessons, but unfortunately (for me) it's only showing at the drive-in. The film recently earned raves at Berlin and SXSW and is about a friendship that develops over Zoom between an Oakland gay widower (Mark Duplass) and the Costa Rican woman (Natalie Morales, who also directs) from whom he takes Spanish lessons. I've also heard excellent things about Tove, a biopic about bisexual Finnish children's book author Tove Jansson. The documentary Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution and Islam profiles a reformist Muslim lawyer who, among other things, is a champion for LGBTQ Muslim youth. Ma Belle, My Beauty and Nudo Mixteco round out SFFILM64's queer offerings.










Tuesday, September 15, 2020

FRAMELINE44 2020 Preview

Frameline announced the postponement of its 44th edition on March 31. When the June event got rescheduled for autumn, I think most of us believed movie-going normalcy could return in six months. (As a June placeholder, the festival hosted a successful, four-day online "Pride Showcase.") Well, here we are a half-year later and things aren't at all normal, with Bay Area indoor movie theaters still shuttered due to COVID-19 concerns.

This year's Frameline, which runs from September 17 to 27, therefore remains a strictly online streaming affair. The lone exception will be the Opening Night world premiere of Shit & Champagne, SF drag legend D'Arcy Drollinger's sendup of 1970's sexploitation flix, which screens at Concord's West Wind Solano Drive-In. All but three of Frameline's 43 programs will be available to watch anytime during its 11-day run. Ticketholders are encouraged, however, to tune in at specific screening times to enjoy Q&As and panel discussions. I've had the chance to preview 13 Frameline44 selections, mostly culled from the fest's foreign film offerings.

Of all the movies in Frameline44's World Cinema section, Two of Us arrives with the biggest buzz. Premiering to acclaim at last year's Toronto Film Festival, Filippo Meneghetti's riveting directorial debut concerns two older lesbians, Mado and Nina, who reside in the same apartment building but live across the hall from each other. Comfortable in a decades-long clandestine relationship, their dream is for the diminutive Mado to sell her apartment so they can move to Rome. That plan is thwarted when Mado suffers a stroke, reducing Nina to little more than a meddling neighbor in the eyes of Mado's adult children. Legendary German actress Barbara Sukowa (Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz and Lola) gives a fierce performance as Nina, who'll take extreme protective measures once Mado's kids get wise to their mother's true nature. The festival's 'Hold Review' policy for Two of Us restricts me from saying more about this exceptional film. Be advised Two of Us only has a three-day screening window (September 25 to 27).

A second World Cinema offering I unequivocally recommend is Rūrangi, Max Currie's breezy, big-hearted New Zealand social dramedy. Originally broadcast as a web TV series, its five episodes have been strung into a cohesive 96-minute feature. After a decade of Auckland urban living, trans-male activist Caz Davis reluctantly returns to the rural hometown he left behind as a young woman. The physical change is such that he's initially unrecognizable to all those he was close to. Quick-witted Anahera, his Maori former BFF who now runs the town's thrift store, is first to discover and embrace the transition. Caz gets a chillier reception from his father, a budding eco-activist and farmer still bitter over Caz not showing up for his mother's funeral. The most poignant reunion occurs with Jem, his bumbling (and straight) ex-lover who's still in love with Caz, even though his ex now presents as male. With its affecting performances, intelligent script and gorgeous photography, Rūrangi was the most delightfully surprising of the films I previewed. Fortunately, the ending leaves open the possibility for a sequel.

In terms of sheer cinematic audacity, nothing in the World Cinema section tops Dry Wind, Daniel Nolasco's sly-humored, homoerotic fever-dream set in central Brazil's arid Goiás region. Middle-aged Sandro is an unassuming gay bear and fertilizer factory manager who lives in a perpetual state of being hot and bothered. And who can blame him when his environs – whether at the factory, public pool locker room, police station or nearby eucalyptus forest – are just one big Tom-of-Finland fantasyland of both real and imagined, neon-hued hardcore sexual encounters. Jealousy rears its head with the arrival of Maicon, a blond cycle-riding Adonis who begins tricking with Sandro's co-worker-cum-fuck-buddy Ricardo. (A scene where Maicon abruptly joins Sandro on a terrifying carnival ride, and insists on holding his hand, is an inspired moment of guard-dropping tenderness). Dry Wind is the movie I'll most regret not seeing on the Castro Theater's giant screen with an energized audience. Be advised that Frameline's "sexually explicit material" caveat is fully warranted here.

The Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award is arguably queer cinema's highest accolade, and each year Frameline dependably programs the winner. This year's recipient was No Hard Feelings, first-time director Faraz Shariat's somewhat flighty refugee drama that deepens in gravitas as it moves forward. We initially meet Parvis – an assimilated dyed-blond German-Iranian club kid – as he reports to a Hanover refugee center to perform community service. It's there he befriends resident siblings, the handsome Amon and his ebullient sister Banafshe. In contrast to Parvis, who's openly queer and has an accepting family, Amon is deeply closeted due to the homophobia of his refugee center peers. Just as Parvis and Amon enter into a furtive love affair, Banafshe runs out of options to keep herself from being deported back to Iran. It's the latter development that causes Parvis to mature and see beyond his own wants and needs. No Hard Feelings suffers a bit from awkward construction and quizzical plot ellipsis, but not enough to detract from its humanist message.

Here are quick takes on four additional World Cinema offerings, representing a diverse range of countries and cinematic styles. Veteran Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek (Steam: The Turkish Bath, Facing Windows) delivers another of his highly-accomplished dramedies about upper class gays in The Goddess of Fortune, wherein a pair of married (to each other) middle-aged hunks haltingly salvage their deteriorating relationship when forced to care for a dying friend's children. A far bleaker portrait of middle-aged gay life emerges in Peter Mackie Burns' Rialto. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor gives a memorably desperate performance as Colm, a married yet emotionally isolated Irish alcoholic who can only find succor in the company of a blackmailing teenage hustler. The opportunity to watch Crazy Rich Asians heartthrob Henry Golding make out with guys is but one good reason to see Hong Khaou's Monsoon, a low-key meditation on identity and memory in which a young Asian-Brit returns to a Viet Nam he scarcely recognizes from childhood. Making its world premiere at Frameline44 is Nicol Ruiz Benavides' Forgotten Roads, which is set in a Chilean backwater town. When recently widowed Claudina moves in with her daughter and grandson, a long-awaited opportunity for happiness appears in the form of a free-spirited neighbor woman. Among the film's delights is a subplot about UFOs, a notion no less fantastical than the tiny town having its own gay nightclub.

In addition to the 12-film World Cinema side-bar, Frameline44 expands it international scope with a Spotlight on Taiwan. Chen Ming-lang's The Teacher is an earnest, but overcooked relationship drama about two gay men. Moody high school civics teacher Kevin experiences homophobia at work and lives with his supportive, beautician mother. He falls in love and moves in with Gao, a slightly older, HIV-positive factory owner who's still married to a wife that wants children. High anxiety over a single condom-less sex act renders the film an antiquated AIDS drama the likes of which we haven't seen in ages. While it's admirable to have a movie that doesn’t downplay the still salient issue of HIV transmission, perhaps the filmmaker should have set the film 25 years ago and gone for a full-bore melodrama.

The Teacher is partially set against the backdrop of Taiwan's effort to become the first Asian country granting full marriage equality. That years-long struggle, which finally triumphed on May 17, 2019, is effectively documented in Sophie Yen's documentary Taiwan Equals Love. Yen recounts how events unfolded in the public arena – pro-equality street demonstrations vs. conservative counter-attacks, disappointing legislative setbacks vs. progressive court decisions. This narrative is woven around the intimate stories of three couples whose lives would be positively impacted by marriage equality. Lesbians Jovi and Mindy want their relationship legitimized for the sake of Jovi's young daughter. For gay seniors Hsiang and Tien-Ming, who've been together 30-plus years, marriage becomes important as one of them experiences the onset of Parkinson's. Finally, the story of young lovers and business partners Gu and Shin-Chi reveals a limitation in the new law – Shin-Chi is from Macau and transnational gay marriages unfortunately remain illegal. The fight continues.

The only other selection I previewed from Frameline44's Documentary section was Laurie Lynd's fascinating Killing Patient Zero, which decimates the theory that Air Canada flight attendant Gáeton Dugas was, as the New York Post so ineloquently put it, "The Man Who Gave Us AIDS." Topping the film's revelations is how Dugas acquired the "Zero" misnomer is the first place: a study identifying him as Patient "O" (as in the letter O, meaning Out of California) was misread as Patient "0" (as in zero, or "the first.") The fact is, out of the initial 248 AIDS cases identified in the US, Dugas was only linked to 48. The official making that disclosure also reveals how tremendously helpful Dugas was to the CDC. He willingly shared all the info in his personal "black book" and traveled to Atlanta to give blood for CDC studies. (Regrettably, Dugas continued having sex during this period, believing the sexual transmission theory of AIDS had yet to be proven. He died in 1984). The doc's most cynical reveal, however, was the decision by author Randy Shilts and his publicist to leak the 11 Dugas-related pages of "And the Band Played On" to the New York Post. They knew the conservative paper would use it to foment outrage towards this "monster," and thereby send book sales skyrocketing. In addition to interviews with medical authorities and government officials, director Lynd sagely employs B. Ruby Rich and Fran Lebowitz to place the early AIDS crisis within a sociological context. Equally welcome are the loving testimonials by Gáeton Dugas' friends, lovers and fellow Air Canada flight attendants as to what a gregarious and life-affirming person he was. My only (minor) quibble about Killing Patient Zero, is that it provides no information or speculation about what the origins of AIDS in North America might have actually been.

Finally, I also had a look at two American narrative films. Anna Kerrigan's Cowboys pops up in both Frameline44's US Feature and Famous Faces sidebars, the 'faces' herein being those of Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell (Brittany Runs a Marathon). Both actors give committed performances as the parents of an 11-year-old Montana girl who inherently knows she's meant to be a boy. Zahn has the showier of the two parts, playing a supportive parent with manic tendencies who in effect, kidnaps his 'son' and heads toward the Canadian border on horseback towards an uncertain future, with the law in hot pursuit. I was impressed with the film's seamless flashback structure, as well as its choice to set a trans-narrative within a Red State milieu. Apart from a few heavy-handed missteps, Cowboys is the best film I've seen on this subject since French director Céline Sciamma's Tomboy in 2011. I wasn't quite as taken by Ali LeRoi's The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, which is one of four Frameline44 Centerpiece films. The titular character is a queer Black SoCal highschooler of well-to-do Nigerian parentage, who repeatedly awakens from dreams/daydreams in which he's murdered by white police. What's interesting is the writer and director's decision to place the anxiety-laden Tunde in an extremely haut-bougie world almost exclusively populated with white people. What's not interesting is the overwrought, sudsy teen drama that plays out once Tunde enters into an affair with his female bestie's dimwitted jock boyfriend.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MVFF42 2019

The biggest cinema celebration in the Bay Area turns 42 this year, with a spectacular line-up of movies I'm salivating to see. Running from October 3 to 13, Mill Valley Film Festival expands its traditional North Bay horizons by adding Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive as a venue. That's dynamite news for those of us dependent on public transit. Auto-less cinephiles now have a second MVFF option (in addition to the Rafael Film Center) that's easy to reach with a loaded Clipper Card. This is my 13th year blogging about MVFF and as always, I present a subjective take on what excites me among the 116 feature films on offer. Since no one can see everything at a festival, I've indicated upcoming theatrical and VOD release dates where known.

MVFF built its reputation as the first prominent autumn festival to launch "awards buzz" movies direct from the late-summer triumvirate of Venice, Telluride and Toronto. That tradition continues with the festival's 2019 "Big Night" selections. Kicking things off will be Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy, the true story of a lawyer (Michael B. Jordon) attempting to free a wrongly convicted African American death row inmate (Jamie Foxx). Actors Rob Morgan, Karan Kendrick and Foxx are expected to attend opening night festivities. A second option for that evening is The King, the latest from Animal Kingdom director David Michôd. Timothée Chalamet has drawn rave notices for his Henry V portrayal, and is supported by Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the screenplay) as Falstaff. The King will have a limited theatrical release on October 11, before hitting Netflix on November 1.

Fest attendees have dual choices on closing night as well. James Mangold's Ford vs. Ferrari stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale in a true tale of Ford Motor Company and its hell-bent determination to beat Ferrari at Le Mans speedway in 1966. In the neo-Noir Motherless Brooklyn, director-actor Edward Norton stars as a Tourette syndrome-afflicted detective in the 1950's. The film has been compared to Chinatown, exchanging that movie's L.A. water wars for the racist agenda of real-life New York city planner Robert Moses. Mangold and Norton are expected to attend their respective screenings. For this year's Centerpiece presentation, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) will present Waves, an African-American familial drama that has garnered unanimously ecstatic reviews.

While festivals like Cannes have recently eschewed Netflix product, MVFF exhibits no such reticence. Receiving an elevated presentation at this year's fest will be Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, an anguished tale of marital dissolution starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Some critics are calling the film a career-high for Baumbach, who will receive a MVFF Award on behalf of the movie's ensemble cast. The director shares the stage with supporting actors Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty and Laura Dern, the latter of whom hosts a master class earlier in the day. Marriage Story gets a limited theatrical release on November 6 before surfacing on Netflix exactly one month later. 

The Two Popes and Dolemite is My Name are also Netflix titles. Popes is essentially a two-hander speculating on the machinations behind Pope Benedict's (Anthony Hopkins) resignation and Pope Francis' (Jonathan Pryce) ascension. The movie's Oscar-nominated director, Fernando Meirelles (City of God) is an expected festival guest. The Two Popes hits theaters on November 27 before popping up on Netflix December 20. Dolemite is My Name delivers the outlandish tale of how flailing African American comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) invented his Dolemite character and came to make the eponymous 1975 Blaxploitation cult classic. It was written by the team that scribed Hollywood biopics Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Big Eyes, and is directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan). Dolemite is My Name rolls into theaters and onto Netflix October 4 and 25 respectively.

Two high-profile biopics were among the crop of summer festival premieres. Seberg stars Kristen Stewart as American actress Jean Seberg (Breathless, Paint Your Wagon) and focuses on the F.B.I.'s "concern" over her Black Panther support. Stewart will accompany the film at an in-person MVFF Spotlight tribute on October 7. Seberg is being distributed by Amazon, but no release date is imminent. The near-mythical saga of American slave liberator Harriet Tubman is the subject of Harriet, which has gathered critical praise for Cynthia Erivo's lead performance but less enthusiasm for its conventional storytelling. Director Kasi Lemmons will attend the festival and the film's release date is November 1. Although not a biopic per se, The Aeronauts recounts the mostly-true story of a record-breaking 1862 hot air balloon journey, reuniting The Theory of Everything cast members Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne. Look for that one on December 6, with VOD availability on Amazon shortly thereafter.

One of the most anticipated premieres at Venice and Toronto was The Truth, director Hirokazu Kore-eda's follow-up to last year's Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters. Working for the first time outside Japan, his film stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as opposing sides of a tempestuous mother-daughter relationship. MVFF screens the film twice – at a "special U.S. premiere" on October 11 and a "regular screening" the following day – with a curious $45/$16 ticket price differential. MVFF also affords an early look at two surefire Toronto crowd-pleasers before they hit local multiplexes. Critics had a rapturous response to Knives Out, an old-fashioned who-dunnit in the vein of Murder on the Orient Express, with an all-star cast headed by Toni Collette. Opinions were more divided on Jojo Rabbit, which won the festival's audience award. The WWII dramedy concerns a young German boy whose imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (played by the film's director, Taika Waititi). I'm a big fan of Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows), but comparisons to Holocaust-era "comedies" like Life is Beautiful give me pause. Jojo Rabbit and Knives Out arrive in theaters October 18 and November 27 respectively.

Several dozen documentaries premiere at Telluride, Venice and Toronto each year. Five that caught my attention are featured at MVFF42. British director Michael Apted receives a festival tribute accompanied by a screening of 63 Up. This marks the ninth installment of his "Up" series, wherein the same group of UK citizens were filmed at seven year intervals since 1964. It's slated for a December 13 Bay Area release and will return for February's Mostly British fest. Two docs tackle the infamous lives of Roy Cohn and Imelda Marcos. Where's My Roy Cohn? delves into the career of a self-hating gay lawyer and right-hand man to assholes Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. It's directed by Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54, Citizen Jane) and opens at Landmark's Clay Theatre on October 18. The Kingmaker profiles the Philippines ex-first lady and is the perfect subject for director Laura Greenfield. Her previous films The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth examined the nauseating excesses of the one percent. Another pair of docs take on Middle Eastern concerns. Feras Fayyad's resoundingly praised The Cave looks at life in a war-torn subterranean Syrian hospital that's mostly run by women. "Studious" has been used to describe Taghi Amirani's nine-years-in-the-making Coup 53, a deep dive into the 1953 US/UK-orchestrated coup against Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister. It no doubt benefits greatly from the skills of acclaimed Bay Area film editor Walter Murch. The directors of these five docs, save for Roy Cohn's Matt Tyrnauer, are expected to attend the festival.

I'd like to highlight two Venice premieres from Chile making their way to MVFF42. While both debuted to mixed reviews, the talent involved, combined with the unlikelihood of their ever getting another Bay Area big screen showcase, make them personal must-sees. Ema is the latest from Pablo Larraín, whose three previous films – Jackie, Neruda and The Club – all played Mill Valley. Set in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, Ema has been tagged as a borderline-experimental, psycho-sexual melodrama. Gael García Bernal stars as a choreographer whose marriage to his lead dancer really goes off the rails. The Prince marks the feature debut of filmmaker Sebastián Muñoz. This homo-erotic, Cocteau-flavored fantasy is set in a Chilean prison circa 1970. It won Venice's Queer Lion prize and stars the incomparable Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero, From Afar), whose presence is sufficient reason to see any film. Both movies are U.S. premieres.

Now for a gander at what MVFF programmed from 2019's pre-summer festivals. By the time Mill Valley rolls around, the important Sundance films have already come and gone from the Bay Area. There are three notable exceptions this year. Alfre Woodard will receive a MVFF42 tribute, accompanied by a screening of Clemency. The beloved actress plays a maximum-security prison warden in charge of executions. The film won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. dramatic competition for director Chinonye Chukwu, who will also attend Woodard's tribute. Clemency will be released around Christmastime. Another Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner – this one for "vision and craft" – is Alma Har'el's Honey Boy. Written by Shia Labeouf, the film is a meta-cinema-as-therapy narrative about the actor's hardscrabble childhood and abusive relationship with his father. Labeouf portrays his own dad, with Lucas Hedges inhabiting the adult Labeouf. Amazon releases this one in theaters on November 8. The third Sundance title is Scott Z. Burns' The Report. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, the Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) staffer who uncovered shocking secrets about the C.I.A.'s post-9/11 torture program. Both director Burns and Daniel Jones are expected in person. The Report will have a limited release November 15, followed by Amazon Prime availability two weeks later.

Berlin is the next important festival to follow Sundance. MVFF has programmed a half dozen Berlinale titles I'm hot to see, including some top prize winners. This year's Golden Bear was awarded to Synonyms by Israeli director Nadav Lapid (The Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher). In his frantic new socio-dramedy, an ex-soldier moves to Paris in a desperate attempt to expunge his Israeli identity. Berlin's Silver Bear (aka the Grand Jury Prize) went to By the Grace of God, François Ozon's heartbreaking and methodical recounting of how three real-life adult Frenchmen sought justice against the Lyon priest who molested them as children. I had a chance to preview this one on screener and it's outstanding, especially the lead performances by Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet and Swann Arlaud. It's a very different type of film for Ozon and he succeeds magnificently. By the Grace of God and Synonyms arrive in Bay Area cinemas on November 1 and 8 respectively.

Hans Petter Moland's Out Stealing Horses nabbed a Berlin prize for Outstanding Artistic Achievement, awarded to cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk. Moland is best known for 2014's Norwegian revenge thriller In Order of Disappearance. (He also directed that film's 2019 Liam Neeson-starring remake, Cold Pursuit.) Moland is expected to attend Horse's North American premiere at MVFF42, along with star Stellan Skarsgård. Another Berlin selection making its N.A. premiere at Mill Valley is Mongolian filmmaker Quan'an Wang's Öndög (Egg). Wang made a splash on the international arthouse circuit in 2006 with Tuya's Marriage, a Golden Bear winner from that year's Berlinale.

The most anticipated Berlin selection at Mill Valley could be Varda by Agnès. It's the final film from venerated filmmaker Agnès Varda, the French New Wave icon and 2018 Honorary Oscar recipient who passed in March at age 90. You should try and catch this at Mill Valley – Janus Films is distributing the film domestically, but there doesn’t appear to be a theatrical release plan. The final Berlin film I'm excited about is Marighella, a sprawling biopic about the writer-politician-revolutionary who was murdered by Brazil's military dictatorship in 1969. Carlos Marighella is played by musician Seu Jorge, best known to movie audiences as the Portuguese interpreter of David Bowie songs in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Marighella marks the directorial debut of popular Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Elite Squad, Narcos) and it's anticipated he'll attend the movie's MVFF screenings.

Five months after this year's Cannes Film Festival, only Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die have surfaced in the Bay Area. MVFF42 had a plentitude of Cannes films from various competitions and sidebars to choose from and their 17 selections don't disappoint. The festival brings us a whopping 11 titles from the main competition alone, including Bong Joon-ho's Palme d'Or-winning Parasite. Described by Variety's Jessica Kiang as a "tick fat with the blood of class rage," the latest from genre filmmaker Bong (The Host, Memories of Murder) reps the first Korean win for art cinema's highest accolade. Parasite arrives in Bay Area theaters October 18.

Although MVFF either could not, or chose not, to procure Cannes' Grand Prix winner Atlantics (available on Netflix November 29), they did secure the two films which tied for the Prix du Jury (or 3rd place). Bacurau is the latest from Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius), who has emerged as Brazil's most important new cinematic voice. His new work (co-directed by Juliano Dornelles) is described as a dystopian genre exercise in which rural villagers find themselves the target of American game hunters (lead by the inimitable Udo Kier!). Prix du Jury co-winner Les Misérables is not yet another adaptation of Hugo's novel, but a contemporary "street thriller" pitting Parisian cops against the city's suburban underclass. France has chosen Malian-born director Ladj Ly's feature debut as its 2020 Oscar submission, which Ly adapted from his same-titled 2017 short. 

Both Cannes acting awards are on display at MVFF42. Antonio Banderas took Best Actor for Pedro Almodóvar's meta-autobiographical Pain and Glory. Here the star of many early Almodóvar joints (Law of Desire, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) portrays a creatively blocked filmmaker visiting his past via Fellini-esque vignettes. It's worth noting Pain and Glory opens in Bay Area theaters while the festival is still in session. Cannes' Best Actress prize was awarded to Emily Beecham for her role in Little Joe, the English-language debut of Austrian director Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou, Lourdes). Beecham plays a scientific plant breeder in a film Variety's Owen Gleiberman calls "an Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the age of antidepressants." Little Joe won't show up in local theaters until late 2019. Two additional competition prizes were handed to Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The director won Best Screenplay for her story about an 18th century countess' daughter (the beguiling Adéle Haenel) who falls for the female artist hired to paint her portrait. The film, which comes to U.S. theaters in early December, also won Cannes' Queer Palm.

From among the non-prize winners, I'm most looking forward to Ira Sach's Frankie. Isabelle Huppert heads an all-star cast in this dramedy about a dying movie star vacationing with family in Portugal. Despite some mixed reviews, the combo of Huppert and Sachs (Love is Strange, Little Men) renders this unmissable. Sachs will be on hand for the October 6 screening and the film opens in the Bay Area November 1. I also find myself, somewhat surprisingly, looking forward to Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, starring August Diehl (The Young Karl Marx) as a WWII German conscientious objector. Ever since 2011's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life, I've found Malick's copious output either disappointing or insufferable. But I'm optimistic about A Hidden Life and look forward to its mid-December release.

Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective) is another director whose early works thrilled me, but whose recent films literally put me to sleep. His latest is The Whistlers, a cops-vs-mafia comedic Noir that sounds nutty enough – a secret whistling language from the Canary Islands is a major plot component – that I can't help but be intrigued. The movie isn't slated for U.S. release until February 2020. Then there's The Traitor, a welcome new film from veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Vincere). The Traitor explores the real-life story of Tommaso Buscetta, the highest-ranking Mafia don to ever cooperate with authorities. November 27 is its targeted U.S. release date. The Whistlers and The Traitor are both 2020 Oscar submissions from their respective countries.

The only film from Cannes made available for press preview was Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You. This new movie from the populist UK filmmaker – and two-time Palme d'Or winner – rightfully racked up euphoric reviews, but inexplicably left the festival prize-less. Here the director aims squarely at the horrors of the so-called 'gig economy', as we watch a formally middle-class family implode when the father becomes a 'self-employed' parcel deliveryman. Despite moments of fleeting optimism, the movie is often unbearably stressful to watch. Rack that up as a testament to Loach's imperative as a chronicler of working class struggles. If you miss Sorry to Miss You at Mill Valley, it reappears at February's Mostly British festival before an early March 2020 U.S. release.

Shifting gears to Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, MVFF42 features three lauded works from the line-up. I'm really excited about seeing Karim Aïnouz's The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, which claimed the sidebar's top prize. I've admired the Brazilian filmmaker since his 2002 feature debut, Madame Satã. Described as a "tropical melodrama," Invisible Life unravels the fatalistic tale of two beloved Rio sisters who become separated by familial strictures. The Un Certain Regard prize for best director was handed to Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov for Beanpole. Balagov stirred controversy at Cannes two years ago, when his Un Certain Regard entry Closeness triggered walkouts (for including footage deemed an anti-Semitic snuff film). Beanpole, which depicts the struggles of two female hospital workers in post-siege Leningrad, was much better received and even secured U.S. distribution through Kino Lorber. (Closeness, meanwhile, was recently made available on streaming platform MUBI). Invisible Life and Beanpole have both been submitted for 2020 Oscar consideration. The third Un Certain Regard title gracing MVFF42 is The Swallows of Kabul, a tragic animated love story set during Taliban-era Afghanistan.

The biggest buzz emerging from Cannes' Directors' Fortnight sidebar was The Lighthouse, a hallucinatory Gothic yarn about a 19th century lighthouse keeper's (Wilem Dafoe) contentious relationship with his new assistant (Robert Pattinson). Director Robert Eggers (The Witch) shot the film in B&W, employing a 1:19:1 aspect ratio. MVFF screens the film just once, with Pattinson in person. Tickets, were they still available (they're not), would set you back a wallet-busting $95. I'll wait for the film's general release on October 18. Another Directors' Fortnight selection featuring monochrome cinematography and boxy aspect ratio is Melina León's Song Without a Name. In 1988 Peru, an indigenous woman enlists a gay journalist to investigate the disappearance of babies stolen from bogus birth clinics. A third title lifted from the DF sidebar is Levan Akin's And Then We Danced. Herein an aspiring male dancer with the National Georgian Ballet develops a same-sex attraction with a competitive new arrival. Oddly enough, the movie will be Sweden's 2020 Oscar submission. (Director Akin is Swedish and the film is a Swedish-Georgian-French co-production). Fortunately, both Song Without a Name and And Then We Danced commanded sufficient critical praise to acquire U.S. distribution, so chances are MVFF won't be our lone opportunity to experience them. The directors of both films are expected at the festival.

There's great stuff to catch at MVFF42 besides importations from other festivals. I'm especially thrilled to have a ticket for Martin Scorsese's hotly anticipated The Irishman, which arrives in theaters November 1 before its Netflix debut on November 27. I'll also be in the house for the fest's tribute to ubiquitous character actor and former San Quentin inmate Danny Trejo (Machete), featuring the U.S. premiere of the bio-doc Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo. Other notable in-person appearances include a spotlight on director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) and a tribute to actress Barbara Rush. The 92-year-old Rush held down one of the most eclectic careers in film and television history. Credits range from 1953's It Came from Outer Space (for which she won a Golden Globe for "Most Promising Newcomer – Female") to 60's primetime soap Peyton Place to 1980 disco extravaganza Can't Stop the Music. Screenings of recent film restorations will also be accompanied by impressive in-person talent. Director Philip Kaufman and actress Lena Olin will be on hand for 1988's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ditto filmmaker Nancy Kelly and actress Rosalind Chao with 1990's Thousand Pieces of Gold. Last but not least, rapper Snoop Dogg will DJ at the Sweetwater Music Hall on October 11, with proceeds benefitting the restoration of Mill Valley's Sequoia Theatre.