One of the many things that makes the Mill Valley Film Festival special is the fact that you can go for a walk in the woods, stare out at the ocean, and take in that big blue California sky — all in between screenings. Here are some MVFF standouts from years past that showcase nature on the big screen itself.
Into the Wild (2007)
The mysterious real-life story of Christopher McCandless, a privileged college grad who sold everything to trek across the country and up into Alaska, is infused with poetic nuance in this bracing, sorrowful film. Starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless and directed by Sean Penn with music by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, it paints a breathtaking picture of a man fading away into nature, holding on to the ones he loves until his very last gasp.
The Homesman (2014)
Hilary Swank made quite an impression when she kicked off MVFF’s 37th year with this film on opening night. It’s an American frontier tale, depicting the unlikely attempt by Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) to transport three mentally ill women across the unforgiving Nebraska Territories by covered wagon, aided by a scruffy hired drifter (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs). A bizarre, beautiful portrait of female independence whose haunting, harsh vistas echo the protagonist’s internal strife.
Step by step, we follow Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) braving the elements on a 1,100-mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail while confronting emotional fallout from the recent death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage. Witherspoon (Oscar-nominated for her performance) and director Jean-Marc Vallée are in top form in this powerful, intimate character study based on Strayed’s memoir, framed evocatively by the trail’s arid expanses and spiny mountain ranges.
All Is Lost (2013)
Robert Redford plays a man adrift at sea on a damaged yacht, amid tempests and sharks, fighting to survive and searching the open ocean for a beacon of hope. A powerhouse cinematic experience with enveloping sound and gritty imagery, the film wowed audiences in the festival’s 36th year. Director J.C. Chandor was in attendance to discuss the film and joined Bay Area director Ryan Coogler and several other filmmakers for a special panel discussion.
Robert Redford in All is Lost
Breaking the Waves (1996)
A wide-eyed young woman (Emily Watson) is dragged into a dark world of carnal and spiritual turmoil when her husband (Stellan Skarsgård) is paralyzed from the neck down in an accident on an oil rig. The chorus of the crashing waves near the couple’s coastal Scottish village acts as a sort of infernal soundtrack to this twisted romance from preeminent arthouse auteur Lars Von Trier.
Life of Pi (2012)
After surviving a shipwreck, Pi (Suraj Sharma) is thrust into a fantastical adventure at sea, forging an unlikely bond with another survivor: a hungry Bengal tiger. After winning a lifetime achievement award at MVFF in 2007, Taiwanese director Ang Lee returned to the festival in 2012 with this movie, which brought his second Best Director Oscar win. The dazzling scenes at sea are a spectacular display of CGI wizardry and a shining example of visual effects and story working as one.
For ages human beings have looked to the sky for answers, and few films suggest the mystery and temptation of the cosmos better than Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning sci-fi drama. Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguist recruited by the military to communicate with an alien race who have scattered a dozen ominous, hovering spaceships across Earth for reasons unknown. Sci-fi movies don’t often tug on the heartstrings, but there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater when this gem screened at MVFF 39.
The Wind Rises (2013)
The exhilaration of flying high above the clouds is bottled perfectly in mastermind auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s final and arguably best film. Based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeronautical engineer who designed fighter planes during World War II, The Wind Rises soars with flowing imagery and a dreamlike sensibility that makes the heart flutter with delight. Hand-drawn animation is a rarity in movies these days, but MVFF attendees were lucky enough to catch Miyazaki’s artistry on the big screen.
Up in the Air (2009)
Ten million frequent flyer miles. That’s the goal of professional downsizer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Jason Reitman’s jet-setting romantic drama, featured in MVFF’s 32nd lineup. In a time when lost souls can choose to spend most of their time sitting in a chair detached from humanity, this Oscar winner examines one man’s fear of grounding himself, both figuratively and literally.