With due respect for the provocative lineup assembled every year by its stellar programmers, what attracts me to the Mill Valley Film Festival is the ambiance. The sunlight feels a little softer than it does in the city, and I bask in the scent of cashmere, coffee and corduroy. A day in Mill Valley, or even San Rafael (where the festival also unspools at the Smith Rafael Film Center) is like a mini-vacation, a respite from the petty ignominies of urban living. That sense of mellowness even extends inside the theaters, regardless of how downbeat the film might be. As unhappy and perilous as life occasionally appears onscreen, it seems a long, long way from the blissful valley. Perhaps that's the allure of the suburbs, in a nutshell.
The dilemma at Mill Valley, even more than at most festivals, is whether to hone in on the films that don't have distribution and may never play the Bay Area again. I usually suggest waiting to see the films that will get a theatrical release, but if you're dying for a few words from Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding), Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone), Todd Haynes (I'm Not There) or Mira Sorvino and Terry George (Reservation Road), then you'd best move quickly.
That said, herewith is a random sampling of the 30th annual festival that holds the promise of great pleasure and revelation.
Urban Existentialism: Israeli cinema is enjoying a wave of acclaim, with prizes at all the major festivals in the last year. Fiction writers Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen took the trophy for best first feature at Cannes for Jellyfish, a delicate, perchance bemused tale of three women whose lives overlap in Tel Aviv. Fans of Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) will likely dig it.
Local Hero: Tireless East Bay filmmaker Rob Nilsson has found an unlikely home at Mill Valley for his nocturnal urban fables. This year he premieres Go Together, the last in his 9@Night series of digital features, which features a chunk of (fictional) plot involving Oakland's Parkway Theatre. The lineup also includes the second installment in the series, Used, which epitomizes Nilsson's ongoing obsession with the plight and the passions of the marginalized urban underclass.
Eastern Euros: Romania is the latest global hot spot for exciting, up-and-coming filmmakers. California Dreamin' (Endless) is a sobering political satire set in an around a NATO train held up by a stationmaster during the 1999 war in Kosovo. The film serves as a kind of eulogy to its gifted director, Cristian Nemescu, who was killed in a car accident during postproduction.
Tales of the Great Depression: In 1933, Hollywood director William Wellman turned his attention to the trainloads of hungry adolescents and teenagers who hopped the rails looking for a job -- or a least a meal. Wild Boys of the Road still holds up as a cautionary adventure tale for all agesÂ—and may offer a glimpse of the subprime, post-Bush economic future that awaits us.
Havana Calling: Any film that alludes to Cuba has a built-in Bay Area appeal, even if it never gets near the island. Julie Gavras' Blame It On Fidel depicts a young girl's coming of age in a deeply political French household in the '70s. It's always gratifying when a first feature displays a concern for history and politics; alas, it happens abroad far more frequently than among American filmmakers.
Murder, He Wrote: In Knee Deep, former local filmmaker Michael Chandler examines the complex dynamics surrounding a family farm in Maine. After long years and long hours of working the land, Josh Osborne expected it would be his one day. When his mother set about selling it to developers instead, he lost it. Chandler's work furthers the current documentary approach of showing every side and every nuance, shifting the viewer's sympathies with almost every cut.
Adventure Junkies: I am leery of first-person documentaries, which all too often indulge rather than probe. Even if Indian filmmaker Gaurav Jani makes the same mistake -- I haven't yet seen his Riding Solo to the Top of the World -- the ride seems well worth it, nonetheless. It's a motorcycle diary with such incredible vistas that I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it makes Mill Valley's scenery seem prosaic.
The Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 4-10, 2007. For tickets and information visit mvff.com.