Scenes from the Opening Night of the 46th Mill Valley Film Fest. Photos by Kirke Wrench.

When asked about the uniqueness of hosting the 46th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival in a year in which many of the stars of the show are still on strike and unable to promote their films, Zoe Elton, the event’s director of programming told an audience at the Smith Rafael Film Center that it was “like going back to our roots,” when the event began as a director-oriented festival.

The opening night showcase film was “Day of the Fight,” which does not yet have distribution but does boast the directorial debut of Jack Huston. The British actor known for his work with Martin Scorsese (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and the role of Bobby Kennedy in “The Irishman”) and as a regular on the fourth season of “Fargo” is a black-and-white film about a boxer coming to terms with his past on the day of his first fight in 10 years.

After the multiple screenings of “Day of the Fight” kicked off the evening, the throngs of film lovers descended on Marin Country Mart in Larkspur for a multi-faceted party with live music and plenty of food and drinks.

“I grew up watching black-and-white films,” Huston told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I love that I come from a background of film, and I’ve been brought up to respect film and respect what film is and what it means and how goddamn lucky we are to be a part of this beautiful business. I want people to go into this film and remember those days when you walked into the cinema and just had an experience, because I know that this film leaves something imprinted on you.”

John Huston, whose first film was the 101-minute black-and-white San Francisco noir classic “The Maltese Falcon,” would have been proud of his grandson’s directorial debut, a 105-minute gritty black-and-white character study, Chronicle staff writer G. Allen Johnson wrote. “Day of the Fight” boasts a familiar cast, including Ron Perlman, Steve Buscemi, Joe Pesci and Michael Pitt, Huston’s co-star on “Boardwalk Empire.” Johnson says Pitt carries the film with his intense, riveting and emotionally honest performance.

“I stand with my union,” Huston told the Chronicle. “I think we’re all hoping and praying and keeping fingers crossed that we’re going to come up with a resolution very soon. This film is my actors. That I can’t be standing here tonight holding (Pitt) in my arms and just saying thank you, that’s tough.”

But they have found allies in the MVFF team. Although the festival features many high-profile big nights — Sofia Coppola presenting her Priscilla Presley biopic “Priscilla,” Emerald Fennell showcasing her highly lauded “Saltburn,” Todd Haynes in person for “May December” and the music team behind closing night film “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper’s biopic of Leonard Bernstein — Elton and founder Mark Fishkin were determined to champion the movie in its opening night slot. There’s also an MVFF Centerpiece Spotlight on Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction.

“There are certain films that stand out, and those are the ones that deal with subjects where you may not even have any familiarity with the location or the people, but they resonate in a universal way that everybody can understand,” Fishkin, who serves as festival executive director, told the Chronicle. “This film not only tells a story in a magnificent way with incredible actors and is beautifully shot, it’s just better than anything I’ve seen in a long time.”

While the roster of films remained top-notch and there was plenty of of the aforementioned pomp and circumstance, it made for a different type of kickoff for MVFF46, which has historically made its name on (at least) a trio of attributes: an incredibly eclectic, boundary-pushing selection of films from all over the globe and an almost eery ability to showcase films that end up garnering Academy Awards, But one key attribute was missing: celebrity appearances by actors and directors to receive in-person tributes and to accompany awards-worthy screenings.

The festival’s other three spotlights also center on filmmakers, including playwright-turned-movie director George Wolfe, whose biopic captures the pivotal role that civil rights icon Bayard Rustin, a gay man portrayed by Colman Domingo, played while working with Martin Luther King Jr. Wolfe will attend and accept the MVFF award for directing for his upcoming Netflix feature, “Rustin.”

Closing Night: ‘Maestro’ – Oct. 15

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan deliver stunning performances as Leonard Bernstein and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, in this intimate portrait of a marriage that spanned more than 25 years. Bernstein was an indispensable figure in the history of classical music, as a conductor, composer, pianist, and educator.

Certainly the dominant American conductor of the late 20th century, he accomplished as much as anyone in making “serious” music intelligible to a broad audience. With breathtaking sweep, Maestro reflects on Bernstein’s life, career, and marriage with Felicia, which endured through his many liaisons.

The film marks Cooper’s return to the director’s chair, following his triumphant A Star Is Born, and, co-scripting with Josh Singer, he’s also among its producers along with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Against an evolving film canvas of black-and-white and color, his extraordinary portrayal captures Bernstein’s bold and charismatic conducting style, animated by music from the maestro himself. —Richard Peterson


Spotlights & Tributes

MVFF46 will present several Spotlights and Tributes throughout the Festival. This year’s Spotlight programs include five-time Tony award-winning director and DGA award recipient George C. Wolfe, presenting the powerful Rustin; acclaimed writer and director Jeff Nichols for The Bikeriders; Wolfe and Nichols will be honored with the MVFF Award for Directing; and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman, MVFF43) receiving the Mind the Gap Award for Filmmaker of the Year with the beautifully wicked Saltburn.

This year’s Tribute programs include Academy-Award nominated writer-director Todd Haynes and powerhouse producer Christine Vachon who will receive the MVFF Award: Lifetime Achievements for Collaboration in celebration of their decades-long partnership in conjunction with a screening of their newest work, May December; and the Bay Area’s own Lynn Hershman Leeson who will receive the Mind the Gap Lifetime Award: Achievements – Visionary Artist Award prior to a screening of four short films under the collective title Cyborgian Rhapsody. TRIBUTE TO TODD HAYNES & PRODUCER CHRISTINE VACHON. MORE INFO & TIX.


Many local films and filmmakers are being celebrated during MVFF46, including the World Premiere of Maureen Gosling’s lively portrait of singer Barbara Dane in The 9 Lives of Barbara Dane; the West Coast premiere of Avenue of the Giants by Finn Taylor, which dramatizes the true story of Auschwitz survivor Herbert Heller; The World Premiere of Water for Life, chronicling the efforts of environmental defenders in Latin America fighting for clean water by Bay Area documentarian Will Parrinello; the World Premiere of A Double Life by Catherine Masud, which unravels the life of Civil Rights activist and fugitive Stephen Bingham and his alleged involvement with the 1971 San Quentin Prison Riots; and a portrait of local legend Carol Doda in Carol Doda Topless at the Condor, by Jonathan Parker and Marlo McKenzie. MORE INFO & TIX.

MVFF Music

MVFF Music returns with two live music shows at downtown Mill Valley‘s historic Sweetwater Music Hall. On October 10, Performances In Honor Of An American Hero, following the world premiere of Maureen Gosling’s documentary, a special one-of-a-kind tribute concert honoring the legendary Barbara Dane including guest artists Holly Near, Willie Chambers (Chambers Brothers) and many more; and following the California premiere of Feast Your Ears: The Story of WHFS 102.3 on October 13, the party will continue with A Celebration Of East And West Coast Renegade Radio, with performances by Jesse Colin Young, Taj Mahal, members of the Firesign Theater, and a reunion of former DJs from both KSAN and WHFS radio. MORE INFO & TIX.