The California Film Institute, producer of the annual Mill Valley Film Festival, is no stranger to outdoor cinematic experience. Two or three times a year, at the nonprofit’s jewel-box Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in downtown San Rafael, movies are screened al fresco—often projected onto the walls of a nearby building or inflatable screen. In the past, the company hosted massive outdoor screenings at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on Mount Tamalpais, including a presentation of The Sound of Music which drew more than 1,000 attendees.
For that matter, the festival—known around the world for the largeness and lushness of its awesome annual galas—has celebrated the art of the movies, and the filmmakers responsible, in countless outdoor environments, from open-air shopping malls and sprawling mansion grounds to party yachts sailing on the San Francisco Bay.
But it took a worldwide pandemic to inspire the popular 11-day, fall season extravaganza to finally feature a drive-in movie theater.
In addition to a jam-packed virtual showcase of films, tributes, forums and interviews which allow fans to catch over 100 movies in the safety of their homes, the 2020 Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 8–18) will produce one big drive-in movie screening every evening for 10 out of 11 nights at Marin Civic Center’s Lagoon Park, in San Rafael. That’s a beautiful setting for a drive-in movie, the quintessentially American experience that first became popular in the 1950s and all but disappeared—until now.
Riding a recent wave of drive-in pop-ups that emerged across the country in the wake of the Covid-19 shutdown, the Mill Valley Film Festival is putting its own spin on the classic American attraction.
It all materializes with the world premiere of Blithe Spirit, a sexy and supernatural romantic comedy from director Edward Hall (founder of the British all-male Propeller Theater Company). This movie, adapted from the classic Noel Coward play, features Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast), Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic), Leslie Mann (Knocked Up, Blockers) and Dame Judy Dench, who will also feature in one of the festival’s Tribute Programs, where she will be interviewed virtually on Friday, Oct. 16, at 7:30pm. Blithe Spirit, about a mystery writer who ends up in a wacky triangle between his new wife and the ghost of his dead one, gets a second watch-from-your-car screening on Friday night.
The rest of the line-up at the Lagoon is an array of Oscar-bait dramas, thrilling documentaries, heart-lightening concert films and anniversary screenings.
On Saturday, Oct. 10 at 7:30pm, director Gia Coppola’s (Palo Alto) frenetically paced excoriation of popular internet celebrity madness, Mainstream, screens. This film stars Andrew Garfield as a bizarre web-prophet—discovered/created by would-be filmmaker (Maya Hawke)—who dreams of fame and gets … more than she bargained for.
Next up are the historical drama Ammonite, by Francis Lee, and God’s Own Country, featuring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in the story of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning and the young woman she is hired to tutor (Sunday, Oct. 11). The following night, on Oct. 12, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones return to comedy in the darkly hilarious 1970s Hollywood spoof The Comeback Trail. Directed by George Gallow (Midnight Run), it’s the story of a schlock movie producer (DeNiro) in serious debt to a murderous mobster (Freeman), who comes up with a way to score a quick insurance payout when he casts an over-the-hill Western actor (Jones) in his new movie, and plans to have him “accidentally” killed on set. Based on Carter Sickel’s acclaimed novel by the same name.
Director Braden King’s The Evening Hour (Tuesday, Oct. 13) is a gorgeously filmed examination of a small mountain community in peril, as a mining company threatens to literally crumble the town’s existence.
Take Me to the River New Orleans (Wednesday, Oct. 14), by Martin Shore, is a work-in-progress musical performance/documentary that stands as a sequel to Shore’s 2014 film Take Me to the River, which was set in Memphis. Moving from the streets of the Big Easy to the recording studios, the film captured the final performances of the Neville Brothers and Doctor John.
Oscar-winner Frances McDormand appears in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (Oct. 15) as a woman who hits the road in her van, along with several hundred other roamers who travel the American Southwest living outside the norms of so-called “society.”
Marking the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, the single-best Star Wars movie of them all (go ahead, fight us) gets its own drive-in movie screening (naturally), on Friday, Oct. 16 at 7:30pm.
And closing out 2020 will be the drive-in movie presentation of the Telluride fav The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (Saturday, Oct. 17), by director Frank Miller. It’s a massive, disco-drenched documentary about the iconic ’70s band, including the full story of how they turned falsetto-singing ensembles into the sexiest thing since The Four Seasons.
In addition to its outdoor presentation, Broken Heart will be offered as a streaming option—as are the vast majority of this year’s offerings—for festival watchers to view at home. Other drive-in titles simultaneously available for streaming include Take Me to the River New Orleans and The Evening Hour.
Of the 100-plus films and shorts being offered this year, the drive-in movies are the closest to “normal,” in-person movie-going activities. Every other event will take place in the MVFF’s virtual Streaming Room, which functions as an access pass to watch most films or activities between their initial screening time/date and midnight on the festival’s closing night.
Included in the film festival are the popular filmmaker Tributes and Spotlights, which boast some heavy-hitters this year. Connected, in most cases, with films being premiered, the lineup of stars who will be joining in conversation (some pre-taped, some live) include Viola Davis (Oct. 10, 6pm), Delroy Lindo (Oct. 11, 6pm), Kate Winslet (Oct. 12, 6pm), Regina King (Oct. 13, 6pm), Sophia Loren (Oct. 15, 6pm), Aaron Sorkin and the cast of his upcoming The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Oct. 17, 6pm), and of course, the aforementioned Judi Dench (Oct. 16, 6pm). But can we say just one more time … Sophia Loren!
She’ll discuss her legendary life and her upcoming film (her first in over a decade) The Life Ahead, based on the acclaimed novel The Life Before Us, by Romain Gary. Though it won’t screen at the festival (it’s appearing this fall on Netflix), there are well over 100 other streaming choices for fans to choose from this year.
One good thing about a streaming film festival is that seats tend not to sell out. Unless those seats are in your car, and it’s a drive-in movie at the lagoon, where space is definitely limited and some screenings are, indeed, selling out.
Sold-out shows? At the Mill Valley Film Festival?
Some things don’t change—even during pandemics.
For the full lineup and ticket purchases, visit MVFF.com.