2021 MVFF44
Clockwise from top left, “The Power of the Dog” (Kirsty Griffin/ Netflix), “Belfast” (Focus Features), “The French Dispatch” (Searchlight Pictures),  “Dune” (Warner Bros.), “The Lost Daughter” ( Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix © 2021) and “Cyrano” (2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Through the course of 11 days of the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 2020, Bay Area film lovers gravitated to an array of virtual viewing options conjured by quick thinking festival organizers, empowering viewers to immerse themselves in great cinema from the comfort of their own homes, along with the comfort of their cars at a San Rafael drive-in.

They did so for the most obvious of reasons, as in-person cinematic delights took a back seat to health and safety protocols due to the COVID-19 crisis. Star power – the glitz and glamour of hosting multi-talented actors, directors, cinematographers and more in our hamlet of Mill Valley and at other venues throughout Marin – was sharply limited.

One year later, the 44th edition of MVFF features many of those same virtual options, but it also boasts an excellent lineup of in-person appearances from some Hollywood A-listers. They include BAFTA Award-winning director Joe Wright, set to show the Opening Night California premiere of “Cyrano,” a re-imagining of the timeless tale of a heartbreaking love triangle involving Cyrano de Bergerac, played by Peter Dinklage, and featuring ferocious wordplay at a verbal joust and with brilliant swordplay in a duel. The film features music by The National‘s Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

The stars are returning to Marin County for the fall’s crown jewel festival. Acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve will also be in town to show his version of “Dune.” There will be a tribute to actor/writer/director Kenneth Branagh, who is showing his autobiographical film, “Belfast,” and a (tentatively) scheduled appearance by Wes Anderson for his closing-night film, “The French Dispatch,” which brings to life a collection of stories from the final issue of an American magazine published in a fictional 20th-century French city. On the occasion of the death of its beloved Kansas-born editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the staff of The French Dispatch, a widely circulated American magazine based in the French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, convenes to write his obituary. Memories of Howitzer flow into the creation of four stories: a travelogue of the seediest sections of the city itself from The Cycling Reporter; “The Concrete Masterpiece,” about a criminally insane painter, his guard and muse, and his ravenous dealers; “Revisions to a Manifesto,” a chronicle of love and death on the barricades at the height of student revolt; and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” a suspenseful tale of drugs, kidnapping and fine dining. The film stars Benicio del Toro (SicarioTraffic), Adrien Brody (The PianistThe Grand Budapest Hotel), Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest HotelIsle Of Dogs), Léa Seydoux (SpectreOh Mercy!), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriFargo), Timothée Chalamet (Lady BirdCall Me By Your Name), Lyna Khoudri (Savages, The SpecialsPapicha), Jeffrey Wright (Westworld, The Hunger Games), Mathieu Amalric (The Grand Budapest HotelSound Of Metal), Stephen Park (FargoThe Mindy Project), Bill Murray (Isle Of DogsLost In Translation) and Owen Wilson (Father FiguresMarley And Me).

“We’re finding that people are really excited about coming,” MVFF Founder Mark Fishkin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The Bay Area is one of the most highly vaccinated areas in the country, and Marin is one of the counties that is the most vaccinated, so we are, in a sense, in a natural bubble. Safety is the most important thing. It’s the most important thing we can do as a society, and it’s the most important thing we can do if we want to be successful presenting this event.”

Tickets go on sale for California Film Institute Members on Sunday, Sept. 12, with tickets available for the general public starting Thursday, Sept. 16. Online and at the CineArts Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley; Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; and the Berkeley Art Museum’s Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. Proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test required to attend in-person screenings, which will be at reduced theater capacity. Masks required. Review all Covid-related policies & procedures here.

MVFF44 presents several Spotlights throughout the Festival including: Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), presenting his most personal movie to date, The Hand of God (É stata la mano di Dio); San Francisco native Simon Rex for his sensational turn in Red RocketMaggie Gyllenhaal and members of the phenomenal ensemble she put together for her directorial debut The Lost Daughter.

In addition to a tribute to Branagh, the Mind the Gap Award – Innovative Artist will be presented to the first woman to receive the acclaimed Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, Academy Award winner Jane Campion with a screening of her first Western, a rich story of longing, love, and betrayal, “The Power of the Dog.” 

MVFF also features the Mike Mills-directed “C’mon C’mon,” an ode to the relationship between adults and children told via a middle-aged man learning how to take care of a kid for the first time, set against a panorama of twenty-first century American cities and issues. Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew (Woody Norman) forge a tenuous but transformational relationship when they are unexpectedly thrown together in this delicate and deeply moving story about the connections between adults and children, the past and the future.

Passing (US, narrative feature, dir. Rebecca Hall) Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga deliver their most powerful performances to date in Rebecca Hall’s exquisitely nuanced drama centered on one form of Black resistance to the Jim Crow one-drop rule (“passing as white”), and the complexities of identity, privilege and sacrifice that follows. Fine supporting performances from André Holland and Alexander Skarsgård round out the all-star cast.
The Power of the Dog (UK, narrative feature, dir. Jane Campion) Set on a ranch in mid-1920s Montana, Campion’s first Western is a rich story of longing, love and betrayal. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a powerful performance as well-heeled, consummate bully Phil, whose world is thrown out of kilter when brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings a wife (Kirsten Dunst) home to the family ranch. 
The Princess Diaries (US, narrative feature, dir. Gary Marshall) Special 20thAnniversary FREE outdoor screening as part of Mill Valley’s free Movies in the Park series. Friday, October 8, 7:00 PM, Old Mill Park, Mill Valley.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (US, narrative feature, dir. Steven Spielberg) Special 40th Anniversary screening of the cinematic classic that started it all. Sunday, October 10, 8:00 PM, Sequoia in Mill Valley.
Spencer (UK, narrative feature, dir. Pablo Larraín) Kristen Stewart is the Princess of Wales, enduring an awful 1991 Christmas with England’s royal family. Jackie director Pablo Larraín frames this gripping and artistically bold film like a Brothers Grimm fable by the way of The Wizard of Oz. You’ll never forget Stewart’s en-pointe performance, nor the rest of this daring, powerful drama.
The Velvet Underground (US, documentary feature, dir. Todd Haynes) They were the leather-jacketed, sexuality-blurring rock stars that inspired generations of musicians—who better to pay tribute to the Velvet Underground than Todd Haynes (MVFF Tribute, 2017)? As much a portrait of an era as of a band, the filmmaker’s first documentary employs avant-garde filmmaking style that fueled the Velvets’ indelible moment in the spotlight.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America (US, documentary feature, dirs. Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler) Former ACLU deputy legal director and longtime criminal defense attorney Jeffery Robinson presents a powerful consideration of America’s history of racism. Weaving together academic lecture, political history, personal recollections, noteworthy interviews, and archival footage, this involving documentary connects America’s historical legacy with contemporary social issues and invites personal introspection and communal re-examination.

American Gadfly (US, documentary feature, dir. Skye Wallin) Feeling their generation’s concerns were ignored by the Democratic Party mainstream, some New York teenagers decided to put their social-media savvy to work—by launching a presidential campaign. More improbably still, their chosen candidate was an 89-year-old hero of the progressive left. This inspiring documentary proves “little people” can still rattle Big Politics.  California Premiere
Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez (US, documentary feature, dir. Susan Stern) A star in San Francisco’s influential underground comics scene of the late 1960s and ’70s, Rodriguez created beautifully rendered art that was nonetheless raunchy, politically radical, and sometimes willfully offensive. His filmmaker widow parses a complex personality and artistic legacy, both of them dazzling if often wildly at odds with today’s cultural norms.  California Premiere
Becoming Cousteau (US, documentary feature, dir. Liz Garbus) From two-time Oscar®-nominee Liz Garbus, this exquisite documentary portrait reintroduces the great marine-conservation pioneer Jacques Cousteau, whose own personal underwater odyssey transformed him from aficionado to advocate and left a legacy of international inspiration.  California Premiere
Boiling Point (UK, narrative feature, dir. Philip Barantini) A commanding Stephen Graham leads a brilliant ensemble as the highly stressed head chef at a struggling London restaurant where disaster looms on the Friday before Christmas. No honeyed food movie, Philip Barantini’s riveting, brilliantly staged, single-take drama is a harrowing, humane appraisal of the fine-dining subculture.  North American Premiere
Born in Chicago (US, documentary feature, dirs. Bob Sarles, John Anderson) White blues prodigies in the 1960s learn from their Black heroes and carry the spirit of the music to the next generation of fans. Featuring explosive live performance footage and a who’s-who of blues legends, Born in Chicago is a loving tribute to a distinctly American art form.  North American Premiere
MISSION: JOY – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times (US, documentary feature, dirs. Louie Psihoyos, Peggy Callahan) A fascinating look at the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this doc from Peggy Callahan and Oscar®-winner Louie Psihoyos tackles big topics and big feelings. It’s an engrossing portrait of two influential world leaders who share the ability to find hope––and even joy––in adversity.

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