Bay Area Film Festivals and Premieres Worth Your While This Fall

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Still from Suzanne Joe Kai's 'Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,' playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival this fall. (Fred Morales)

Just a few months ago, theater chains and distributors (especially the rapacious studios) were salivating about the turnstile-spinning, popcorn-chomping return of the masses to the multiplex. A few summer superheroes were primed to light up the box office, setting the stage for a steady parade of fall moneymakers, holiday hits and executive Christmas bonuses.

Then came the delta variant, possibly postponing the storybook ending yet again. Film festivals have devised a dual-platform approach, with some in-person screenings and a ramped-up online program. The studios, meanwhile, are agonizing over the big, expensive movies (like the latest James Bond adventure, gathering dust on a shelf for the last year and a half) they’re counting on to mint millions in October—if, and only if, theatergoers feel safe crowded together (with or without masks).

This is not to overlook streaming, which is a permanent part of the landscape now. But it can never replace the big-screen experience of sitting in the dark with strangers. Here are the highlights of what’s headed our way in the next couple months, that is, if the schedule holds.

Reminder: COVID precautions remain in flux. Proof of vaccination is a requirement for many indoor events. Before making plans, and again before arrival, be sure to check event websites for the latest protocols.

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‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’

Limited theatrical release Sept. 10; streaming on Amazon Prime Sept. 17

Jamie Campbell knew who he was in high school in the English town of Bishop Auckland, and he resolved to express it. Supported by his mum (though not his dad) and accompanied by a film crew—a protective strategy Jamie devised, and arranged by pitching a documentary to a production company—he wore a dress to prom and made his drag debut as Fifi la True. Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 aired on British TV in 2011, inspiring Sheffield theater director Jonathan Butterell to create the exuberant, affirming 2017 musical that went on to become a West End hit. Butterell’s screen adaptation of the same name, starring newcomer Max Harwood and featuring Richard E. Grant as the confident queen who takes Jamie under his wing, precedes the musical’s North American premiere, slated for L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre in January.

View of forest with colorful, smoky overlay.
J.M. Martínez, 'Recursive Lattice.’ (SF Cinematheque)

Crossroads

Livestreamed Sept. 17–23
In-person shows Oct. 16–17 at the Roxie Theater, San Francisco
Most programs online through Oct. 21

Sixty years young, San Francisco Cinematheque keeps the flame of avant-garde film and video alive and aloft. It’s more of a beacon, really, as the long-running Crossroads festival attracts a remarkable range of new short works from established and young filmmakers around the world. The lineup features world premieres by Takahiro Suzuki, Jennie MaryTai Liu, Julia Dogra-Brazell and J.M. Martínez, among others. Experimental film is the least-commercial form of moviemaking—although its stylistic and technical innovations are routinely co-opted by ad agencies—and arguably the purest.

‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

In theaters Sept. 17

It’s anybody’s guess, at this late date, if the late evangelist and eyelash fashionista Tammy Faye Bakker is more revered in queer or Evangelical circles. Jessica Chastain channels our heroine, with Andrew Garfield playing hubby Jim and Vincent D’Onofrio inhabiting the snake skin of Jerry Falwell, in Michael Showalter’s moving saga of a crisis of prosperity gospel—I mean, faith.

Three teenagers on a suburban street, one in a cheerleading uniform.
Inde Navarrette in the short film '#WHITINA,' directed by J. Sean Smith. (Courtesy SF Latino Film Festival)

SF Latino Film Festival

Oct. 1–17 online and in-person

There’s an astonishing depth and breadth of narrative filmmaking in Latin and South America that people in this country are often oblivious to. That’s especially regrettable given 1) the simplistic headlines that drive our shallow understanding of life in the southern hemisphere and 2) its geographic proximity. Cine+Mas’ annual festival compiles a cornucopia of small treasures for local audiences, sprinkled with fiction and documentary portraits of Latinx life in the U.S. The 13th edition promises to be, as always, vibrant and tough-minded.

Stills (L–R) from 'The Many Saints of Newark,' 'No Time to Die' and 'The Last Duel' prove all films with a blue tinge should be taken seriously. (Warner Bros. / Universal Pictures / 20th Century Studios)

‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ ‘No Time to Die’ & ‘The Last Duel’

Oct. 1; Oct. 8; Oct. 15, respectively

October brings what passes for mainstream adult entertainment: Violent action with a thin veneer of serious, deep themes. First up is the Sopranos prequel that nobody asked for, with Alessandro Nivola, Vera Farmiga and Corey Stoll doing the heavy lifting and Michael Gandolfini as Young Tony. No Time to Die is the aforementioned Bond flick, with Daniel Craig playing 007 for the last time and Oakland-born Cary Joji Fukunaga at the helm for the first time. The trifecta is completed by Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which unfolds in 14th-century France and involves honor, betrayal, a woman asserting her free will and a duel. So of course Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck play the leads (alongside Jodie Comer). Nothing to do with Affleck and Damon penning the script, with the help of Nicole Holofcener. I don’t suppose France would ever recall their ambassador over a movie, but it’s an amusing fantasy.

Still from Rebecca Hall's 'Passing,' featuring Clare (Ruth Negga) and Irene (Tessa Thompson). (Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival)

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct. 7–17 online and in-person

Marin County’s long-running soirée is a supreme apple-picker, plucking the most promising titles from the Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York festivals (which all take place in September) on their way to theatrical releases and end-of-year awards. The juicy offerings include Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground (opening Oct. 15 before streaming on Apple+), Denis Villeneuve’s take on Frank Herbert’s Dune (Oct. 22) and Eve Husson’s adaptation of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (Nov. 19).

The dazzling list of women directors also includes Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter), Rebecca Hall (Passing, adapted from Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel) and Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog). Release dates are forthcoming for all three films, with the latter two coming to Netflix.

MVFF also has the local premieres of a slew of Bay Area documentaries, including Susan Stern’s Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez, Suzanne Joe Kai’s Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres and Andres Alegria and Abel Sanchez’s Song for Cesar. Local filmmakers have been busy during the pandemic, and we’re about to reap the benefits.

The Bangarra Dance Ensemble performing 'Whistler' from 'Ones Country.' (Daniel Boud)

SF Dance Film Festival

Oct. 15–24 in-theater screenings and online through Marquee TV

The growth of the SFDFF’s programming, in good times and pandemic times, is one of the more impressive developments on the local film scene. Yes, the vast majority of the 123 pieces (from 25 countries) are shorts, but the variety of approaches (both choreographic and cinematic) in a single program is an enticement for audiences (although no less of a challenge for programmers). Feature-length offerings include the captivating Bollywood fable Natyam and the Australian documentary Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra, which salutes the dance company forever changed by three Aboriginal brothers over 30 years ago. The SFDFF also screens the recent docs Ailey and Can You Bring It? Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters for those who missed them the first time around.

‘The French Dispatch’

Opens Oct. 22

Wes Anderson’s latest obsessively designed gingerbread house of a movie revolves around a fictional literary magazine published in the last century by American expatriates in a French town. His regular retinue of stars playing oddballs (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston) is abetted by Frances McDormand, Benicio del Toro, Jeffery Wright, Timothée Chalemet and Gallic stars Mathieu Amalric and Léa Seydoux. Whether they infuse the twee proceedings with life and emotion is both the key question and beside the point: Anderson’s movies are an inside joke, and you know if you get them (and like them) or not.

‘Spencer’

Opens Nov. 5

A decade or so ago, when she was winsomely emoting in the Twilight movies, nobody could have imagined Kristen Stewart would someday be an Oscar candidate. Especially in one of those emotionally fraught, home-for-the-holidays movies. Ah, but what if the home is, uh, a palace? (Sandringham Estate, actually.) Stewart plays Princess Diana at a low point in her marriage to Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) in this speculative drama penned by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders). The Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Jackie, Ema) continues his recent exploration of women in desperate circumstances asserting their power and claiming their independence.

‘tick, tick...BOOM!’

Limited theatrical release Nov. 12

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Netflix drops Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, adapted from Jonathan Larson’s early-’90s autobiographical musical, into theaters for a qualifying run for little gold statues before streaming it far and wide Nov. 19. Larson wrote tick, tick...BOOM! to expunge his disappointment and frustration after his previous musical didn’t receive a New York production. He did go on to have the success he wanted with Rent, but couldn’t enjoy it. The day of its first off-Broadway preview, Larsen died of a misdiagnosed heart condition. Don’t let it bring you down: Andrew Garfield (as Jon) and Bradley Whitford (as Stephen Sondheim) lead the cast of Miranda’s homage to creativity, ambition and the vagaries of love.