[EDITOR'S NOTE: Dennis Harvey's coverage of the 30th Mill Valley Film Festival was originally published in indieWIRE's sister publication covering the Bay Area's film scene, SF360.]
Like its late-'70s-birthed classmate Sundance, the Mill Valley Film Festival has a long-standing emphasis on American independent cinema. The difference being that at this point anything premiering at Sundance is instantly "discovered" by international media, sussed by agents, studio scouts and distributors. As its profile has risen, "indie cred" has perhaps inevitably lowered -- several titles each year are just uninspired, starry if relatively low-budgeted quasi-mainstream flicks.
Not so at Mill Valley, which retains its genuinely alterna-vibe and local (rather than professional outta-towner) audience after 30 years...even if that loyal audience is very white, suburban and wealthy. Here, the bulk of the program remains truly alternative, with many a worthy movie not already poached by other, more media-pumped festivals.
Not that there weren't plenty of celebrity visitations at MVFF's 30th. First-time director Ben Affleck and thesp Amy Adams turned up -- traffic-delayed but still welcome -- to promote "Gone Baby Gone." Ang Lee, a Mill Valley regular since his own 1991 debut "Pushing Hands," discussed his career in a tribute program the night after "Lust, Caution" opened the festival. Questions about that latest effort prompted him to muse, "You could say all my films are about food and sex." (We're not sure where "Hulk" fits into that equation, though.)
Jennifer Jason Leigh got her own tribute in a program that included "Margot at the Wedding," the new film by her writer-director husband Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") in which she co-stars with Nicole Kidman and Jack Black. A little nonplussed by interviewer Ben Fong-Torres' line of questioning, she responded to his asking why several of her characters have been prostitutes by cracking, "I guess there aren't that many jobs for women." (She also noted that on her very first professional job, a part in 1970s TV series "Baretta," star "Robert Blake threw a chair on the set. He has a temper.")
A phalanx of the studio's top animators attended the premiere of documentary "The Pixar Story." An all-star lineup of musicians performed a Bob Dylan tribute concert after Todd Haynes' Dylan fantasia "I'm Not There," among them John Doe, Wilco's Nels Cline, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Bob Weir and Chris Isaak. And the closing feature was supposed to have brought in "The Kite Runner" director Marc Forster, scenarist David Benioff and the bestselling novel's author Khaled Hosseini to the Sequoia Theatres. (I myself wasn't able to make it to witness.)
These were the big-noise events. But eavesdropping on audience buzz at any given screening was likely to point instead toward the spotlight on new Romanian cinema, a digitally-shot drama from Burkina Faso, or a documentary about some impossibly off-grid culture. Marin audiences seem to have a particular fondness for the latter such exotica, and this year everybody's favorite armchair-adventure discovery seemed to be "Riding Solo to the Top of the World," a literal one-man enterprise in which filmmaker Guarav Jani, his camera and his motorcycle journeyed to the Changthang Plateau -- an Indian mountain region bordering China where the average altitude is 15,000 feet and the few human residents are nomadic shepherds.
Other far-flung audience hits included "The Iron Ladies of Liberia," about that previously violence-plagued nation's new wave of enlightened female leaders; Kurdistan road-trip parable "Crossing the Dust;" and "Kiviuq," a telling of traditional far-north Canadian Inuit fables in dance, music and Inuktitut language.
Closer to home, two excellent documentaries in the kids-do-the-darndest-things mode of "Spellbound" stirred considerable enthusiasm. Tricia Regan's "Autism: The Musical" follows a group of diversely "functional" Southern California autistic kids -- and their sometimes equally high-maintenance parents -- as Miracle Project founder Elaine Hall pulls off the near-impossible feat of focusing their attentions toward creating a stage show. But even that stunt is dwarfed by those performed by the competitive jump-rope and double dutch (the two categories have elaborate, separate rules) tweens-to-teens in Stephanie Johnes' "Doubletime." You're probably thinking: Jump rope tricks, right...big whoop. But the mix of acrobatics, hip-hop dance, speed, and whatnot these kids pull off is more exciting to watch than 95% of what you get at the Olympics.
Other nonfiction finds included "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer," an engrossing portrait of the still-salty, hard-living bebop "canary," and "Knee Deep," a stranger-than-fiction tale of attempted matricide in the depressed farmlands of not-so-quaint inland Maine. A big favorite for many was Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick's "Passion and Power: The Technology of the Orgasm," which looks at the "secret history" of the vibrator from Victorian times (when doctors used it to relieve women's "hysteria") to today. Alas, there were no thematically relevant gift bags for patrons after the screening.