There’s a great, big elephant standing in Mill Valley Film Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin’s office as he, Director of Programming Zoe Elton, and the team at the California Film Institute work tirelessly to put together the schedule for the festival in its 46th year.
“The elephant in the room…is the actors’ strike,” Fishkin says with a laugh and a semi-frazzled sigh. While the strike has seriously impacted the film industry and, in turn, the planning process for this year’s festival as actors will generally not be attending this year, Fishkin’s confidence in his team’s ability to put together a spectacular, world-class, eleven-day event has not wavered one bit.
“We’re still going to have a number of Academy Award contenders, as we always do,” Fishkin says. “Filmmakers will be in attendance, and it’s going to be an exciting festival featuring great talent. [The strike] has forced us to really get creative and look back on our roots.”
While MVFF’s “Big Nights” and red carpets always garner a lot of attention, the backbone of the festival is and always has been the championing of diverse films from across the world, in every genre, whether they be Oscar contenders, international documentaries, or features from local filmmakers. In this respect, this year’s lineup looks to be as strong as ever, with films from accomplished auteurs like Todd Haynes (May December) and Francois Ozon (The Crime Is Mine), groundbreaking international features and eye-opening documentaries (Invisible Nation, Another Body).
The festival’s Opening Night film is Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, starring Paul Giamatti as a surly teacher at a New England academy in the ’70s who is forced to stay on campus over winter break with all of the students with no place to spend the holidays. Payne’s directorial debut, 1999’s Election, was the first film shown at CFI’s Smith Rafael Film Center, a shining example of just how strong MVFF’s roots are.
But that’s not to say this year’s festival is all about getting back to basics and looking to the past. It’s about building toward the future, too. MVFF’s Mind the Gap initiative spotlights women and marginalized filmmakers via screenings, panels, masterclasses, and more. One of the latest additions to the slate is the Mind the Gap Creation Prize of $10,000, awarded to an early-career, female filmmaker. “As much as we’re getting back to our roots, we’re also building on our original commitments in new ways,” Elton explains. “The Mind the Gap Creation Prize is essentially our roots growing branches.”
One filmmaker destined for greatness is English filmmaker Emerald Fennell, who will be presented with a Mind the Gap Award. Her film Saltburn will be featured as an MVFF Spotlight. “It’s astonishing. I don’t even want to talk about it,” Elton says of the movie with a mischievous smile. “It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s subversive. Emerald has put a stake in the ground of cinema history.”
The MVFF programming team works for months to curate the best films possible, and Elton believes the festival’s slate of 90-plus films is truly all killer, no filler. “Our team of programmers is so amazing that you could put the festival schedule up on the wall, throw a dart, and find a gem of a film,” she beams. She’s only half joking: For her and Fishkin, being blown away by a film you had zero knowledge of before walking into the theater is an essential MVFF experience that everyone should seek out.
“Vary from the way you usually approach attending a festival,” Fishkin advises MVFF audience members. “Take a chance! Just walk in and see a film you don’t know anything about. It could be a film that changes your life.”
From Ang Lee, to David O. Russell, to Damien Chazelle, many of the industry’s top filmmakers had their movies featured at MVFF long before they became household names. Taking a chance on a smaller film by an up-and-coming director at the festival could very well be a chance to glimpse the next great filmmaker to take Hollywood by storm.
“One time I saw a young filmmaker being followed by forty people out of a matinee screening of his first feature,” Fishkin recalls. “Sometimes it’s that first-time director who no one’s ever heard of who becomes the darling of the festival, which is always exciting to see.”
Whether you come to the Mill Valley Film Festival to see some of the biggest films starring the biggest talent before they blow up at the Oscars, or some of the extraordinary indie films you may never have an opportunity to see again, the important thing is that the films are seen in the way they were intended — in a theater as a shared experience.
“There’s nothing like the experience of cinema,” Elton says. “To be in a dark room with a group of people and open yourself up to a film is a commitment you make that is unlike any commitment you could make at home.”
“We’ve all developed certain habits over the past few years,” Fishkin adds. “But if there was ever a good reason to go out and have a good time with people, it’s the 46th Mill Valley Film Festival. We look forward to welcoming you all.”
dir. Christos Nikou
Suspecting her relationship with her partner may not be the real thing, Anna (Jessie Buckley) starts working at an institute designed to determine whether love between struggling romantic partners is genuine.
“Nikou creates these films that deal with serious subjects like loss and sorrow, and they’re kind of ambiguous. But he comes at it from a different angle, and it’s so refreshing. I told him he was the future of independent filmmaking. The film is so unusual, but it gives you such a different perspective on love. I’m really excited about that film.” — Mark
The Zone of Interest
dir. Jonathan Glazer
In this period war drama, Commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höss (Christian Freidel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) strive to create a beautiful home and life in a house built next to a concentration camp.
“It deals with the Holocaust and people’s individual responsibility — or lack thereof — in a totally different way.” — Mark
Skin of Glass
dir. Denise Zmekhol
Director Denise Zmekhol tells the story of a 24-story glass skyscraper in Sao Paulo, Brazil, built in the ’60s by her father, Roger Zmekhol. Initially erected as a modernist symbol of progress and prosperity, the original vision for the building was ultimately abandoned, with the structure ultimately becoming a decaying favela for the homeless.
“The film really deals with the culture in Brazil and what’s happening in that country today.” — Mark
dir. Sophie Compton & Reuben Hamlyn
A chilling documentary following a college student who discovers her face has been deepfaked onto porn videos across the internet and searches for justice as a victim of new-age identity theft.
“One of the big topics of the year is AI, which is at the root of both the writers’ strike and the actors’ strike going on now. This first feature a terrifying, fascinating story that touches on the issues surrounding AI.”
dir. Aki Kaurismäki
Lonely grocery store clerk Ansa (Alma Pöysti) meets a fellow lost soul, Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), and the two try to fall in love against all odds.
“Kaurismaki never fails to amaze me and fill me with wonder. Go to world cinema films like this and see how the rest of the world is thinking.”
dir. Alice Rohrwacher
Set in the ’80s, this period romantic drama follows a young, British archaeologist who gets involved in an international network of stolen Etruscan artifacts.
“Rohrwacher is simply one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world.”
Bernard Boo is an AAPI arts and entertainment critic, Bay Area native and proud member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. Find more of his work at PopMatters, Den of Geek and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to him on the Your Asian Best Friends podcast.