Now Playing! Mill Valley Serves Up Star Directors and Local Docs

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Woman against a rock.
Zendaya as Chani in Denis Villeneuve's 'Dune.' (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

The Mill Valley Film Festival, which opens today with its usual array of prestige pictures and starry artists, is typically a harbinger of the fall/winter conversation about Oscar front-runners. But the movie business is still slightly off its axis from the pandemic, with most eyes instead glued to the multiplex fates of James Bond and Marvel heroes.

The Academy won’t even announce its nominations until Feb. 8 (five days before the next Super Bowl), with the awards ceremony March 27 (four days before baseball’s opening day). So we can expect the launch and orbit of serious movies to be protracted and prolonged. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait if you’re starved for meaty movies.

MVFF has nabbed over a dozen of the buzzier titles, in-person and online. Sandwiched between opening night’s Cyrano (starring Peter Dinklage) and closing night’s The French Dispatch (Oct. 17, just days before it opens in theaters) are these temptations: Jane Campion’s simmering Western The Power of the Dog (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst), Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, Rebecca Hall’s Harlem Renaissance drama Passing, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (starring Cumberbatch and Claire Foy) and Kristen Stewart’s star turn in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer.

Black-and-white image of a man on the ground.
Rusty Murphy as Travis in Rob Nilsson's 'Center Divide.' (Courtesy MVFF)

Every one of those films will get a theatrical release (not to mention a streaming slot), so you could seek out a few of the local films the festival devotes a chunk of its program to. Center Divide, the latest hand-wrapped parcel of poetry and grit from Rob Nilsson, launches its characters out on the open road looking for redemption and whatever comes their way. This stunningly shot film marks a kind of apotheosis in the untamed maverick’s long career in that it is simultaneously a portrait of wounded, damaged people stumbling around the Garden of Eden and heroic survivors traversing a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Unconventional local heroes are everywhere on the nonfiction side. Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez, Susan Stern’s candid-to-a-point biography of her late husband, traces the iconoclastic creator of Trashman and Big Bitch from biker bars in his native Buffalo to underground papers in Manhattan to mural-painting in the Mission. Suzanne Joe Kai’s Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres profiles the San Francisco journalist via a balanced blend of stardom and humility.

Spain Rodriguez painting a mural in 'Bad Attitude.' (Photo by Joe Ramos)

Every festival knows its audience, and the range of subject matter reminds us that the Mill Valley Film Festival takes place in Marin County. That’s not meant to be snide; name another place where there’s such passionate interest in spirituality (Mission: Joy—Finding Happiness Hope in Troubled Times, featuring the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu), food (Julia), marijuana (Lady Buds), the environment (Coextinction) and music (Bob Sarles’ blues history Born in Chicago).

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Which of these movies will factor in the Academy Awards? That question seems less and less important every year, doesn’t it?

The Mill Valley Film Festival takes place in person and online Oct. 7–17. Details here.