To a vast number of local film fans, the annual Mill Valley Film Festival is like a 10-day-long Roman feast, a cinematic bacchanal in which roasted pigs and hand-peeled grapes have been metaphorically substituted with movies, movies and more movies.
Running through mid-October, the 2018 MVFF—now in its 41st year—will screen more than 200 movies on eight different screens at four separate locations peppered between Mill Valley and San Rafael.
That’s a feast in anyone’s book.
And for what it’s worth, regular attendees of the festival’s many after-parties and receptions and galas know there is actual food and drink at the feast, served up with lavish style in the company of certified movie stars like this year’s special guests Rosamund Pike, Alfonso Cuarón, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard E. Grant and others.
But to a significant number of other film fans, the MVFF is less of a buffet, a banquet or a smorgasbord than it is a straight-up film fan’s treasure hunt.
To such folks, the annual event is a daredevil’s adventure. It’s an epic, 10-day-long, Indiana Jones–level feat of fearless, pulse-pounding, movie-watching thrills and chills, each new day seasoned from start to finish with little movie-making gems and unsung cinematic jewels. Many of the films are tucked away in the crevices and corners of the festival’s massive schedule and guidebook.
“We love people who see the festival that way, because so do we,” says Zoe Elton, MVFF’s director of programming. “And I personally love it when people say that what they love about our festival is discovering movies they’d never have had a chance to see anywhere else. It’s for those people that we spend a year searching the world, literally, for little treasures and priceless discoveries.
“But with so much good stuff packed into the festival’s 10 days, you really do have to do a bit of digging sometimes to find all of those riches.”
Some events and screenings, of course, are hard to miss. It doesn’t take much excavation to uncover the fact that the MVFF’s opening night on Thursday, Oct. 4, includes Oscar-chasing, big-screen star vehicles like Rosamund Pike’s Private War and Viggo Mortensen’s Green Book. Or that closing night, Oct. 14, will bring director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) with his new film If Beale Street Could Talk. Or that Carey Mulligan and Paul Dano will be spotlighting their new film, Wildlife, on Oct. 5, and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) will be present the next day for a special presentation of his new drama with Steve Carell, Beautiful Boy.
Those are just some of this year’s big events, and are easy enough to discover (if not so easy to score tickets to). According to Elton, many regular MVFF attendees pick up a program guide early and pore over it like a treasure map, making notes and dog-earing pages.
“That’s the best way to find the secret little films that get less fanfare than some of the bigger releases,” Elton says. “Some people know what they’re looking for, and they scan the program, or the website, looking for certain keywords. Some people focus on foreign films, films from specific countries, or films directed by women, or documentaries about specific subjects, or movies with a certain point of view.”
Among this year’s hidden treasures, Elton points out, is a film about an actual treasure hunt.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is a documentary by director Bill Benenson, and follows a team of scientists and adventurers—including bestselling author Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) on a real-life quest to find a fabled Mayan city in the jungles of Honduras.
Other easy-to-overlook goodies include the festival’s many short films.
From Mexico, Mon Amor is a family-friendly collection of shorts featuring both live-action and animated storytelling.
The festival’s 5@5 series is a daily showcase of shorts curated along themes, including Boho Dance, a selection of films by women filmmakers from the United States, Switzerland, Iran and Canada. Another 5@5 entry is The Way It Is, a grouping of films by teen filmmakers, many from the Bay Area.
Fans of legendary folk singer Holly Near will be pleased to find Holly Near: Singing for Our Lives, a documentary by director Jim Brown, exploring the life and activism of Near, as described by onscreen “witnesses” Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Gloria Steinem and others (see Music, p15).
Of course, some treasures are harder to find than others, and some don’t appear in the printed program guide at all.
“We just added a new film an hour ago,” says Elton, “and since the program has been out for a couple of weeks already, it’ll take a little extra work for people to find out about it. There are a few films that show up off-the-radar like that, every year. So we do email blasts, we use social media, and we have an audience who know to watch out for last-minute, after-the-fact discoveries, and to be checking the website often.”
That new film she just added? It’s The Biggest Little Farm, directed by John Chester. “It played at Toronto and Telluride,” says Elton. “It’s a film about a couple from Los Angeles who, when they have to move out of their apartment—because they have a dog they love who barks too much—decide to create a sustainable farm in the country. He’s a filmmaker, she’s a foodie, and what they create with this farm is delightful and surprising and so inspiring.”
Here are the wheres and whens of several films mentioned in this piece, for ease of treasure-hunting.
The Lost City of the Monkey God Monday, Oct. 8, 8:45pm, Sequoia Theater, Mill Valley; Tuesday, Oct. 9, 6:15pm, Century Larkspur
From Mexico, Mon Amor Sunday, Oct. 7, 1:30pm, Rafael Film Center; Thursday, Oct. 11, 10:30am, Century Larkspur
Boho Dance Thursday, Oct. 11, 9:15pm, Rafael Film Center; Friday, Oct. 12, 6:15pm, Century Larkspur
The Way It Is Sunday, Oct. 7, 11am, Sequoia; Friday, Oct. 12, noon, Century Larkspur
Holly Near: Singing for Our Lives Sunday, Oct. 7, 3pm, Sequoia; Monday, Oct. 8, 3:15pm, Rafael Film Center
The Biggest Little Farm Sunday, Oct. 14, 11:15am, Rafael Film Center
For the full current schedule visit MVFF.org, or pick up a copy of the program guide at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and the Chamber of Commerce in Mill Valley.