The Spinning Platters Guide to the 34th Mill Valley Film Festival

by Jason LeRoy on September 26, 2011

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, which is having its Bay Area premiere during the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The Mill Valley Film Festival, one of the Bay Area’s most esteemed and prestigious film events, is returning for its 34th installment October 6-16. The MVFF has come to represent the first opportunity for Bay Area film buffs to check out festival favorites from the likes of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride before their theatrical releases, not to mention a chance to mingle with the talent; expected guests this year include Glenn Close, Martin Donovan, Luc Besson, Michelle Yeoh, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, and Ezra Miller. Last year’s festival featured the likes of 127 Hours, Blue Valentine, and eventual Best Picture winner The King’s Speech. Look after the jump for the top 12 films to check out this year.

Butter

US, 90 mins

directed by Jim Field Smith

In this wickedly hilarious satire (think Best in Show and Election), Jennifer Garner excels as Laura Pickler, the take-no-prisoners-ambitious control-freak trophy wife of Bob (Ty Burrell), whose excellence at competitive butter carving is legendary in his Iowan hometown. When it is suggested Bob step aside from the state’s annual butter-carving bonanza so someone else can have a chance, Laura, who sees her hubby’s celebrity as the conduit for her own aspirations to public office, fears her dreams are melting. She resolves to enter the competition herself, but meets a formidable rival in the form of Destiny (a fantastic Yara Shahidi), an 11-year-old African American girl whose innate talents with the trowel match her charm and wisdom. Throw in Bob’s wannabe-lover, bad-girl hooker Brooke (a scene-stealing Olivia Wilde), and the competition becomes a complete carve-up of the eccentricities and absurdities of lifeand Americans of all political stripes.

The Artist

France, 100 mins

directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Taking Best Actor honors at Cannes this year with a swagger and a smile, French performer Jean Dujardin dazzles as George Valentin, reigning superstar in 1927 Hollywood who resists the imminent transition to sound motion pictures. Bérénice Bejo matches his charm as Peppy Miller, a beautiful movie extra whose star rises as George’s wanes, in a sprightly and soulful backstage tale with echoes of A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius reunites the leads of his hit comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and crafts a picture-perfect black-and-white silent movie with a musical score that is as much loving homage as knowing satire. A new silent classic for the ages, this French production has American ambience to spare and a great supporting cast, including John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell not to mention the most captivating canine performer in memory!

Albert Nobbs

Ireland, 113 mins

directed by Rodrigo Garcia

Reprising her Obie-winning off-Broadway role, Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs is extraordinary in a performance that’s moving and subtle, funny and heart-wrenching. At a luxurious hotel in mid–19th-century Dublin, all the needs and niceties of its upper-crust guests are meticulously ministered to by the impeccable staff: maids (Mia Wasikowska among them) and cooks and menservants, including one rather shy butler named Albert Nobbs. While others flirt, “walk out” and gossip, Nobbs seems the perennial loner. Befriended by a rather dashing housepainter employed at the hotel, Nobbs is inspired to pursue his dreams of love and independence. But there’s a catch: Nobbs is a woman who has long dressed and lived as a man in order to escape destitution. Nobbs’s brave and awkward foray into the unfamiliar world of love and romance is touchingly rendered by director Rodrigo Garcia and his fantastic cast in this pitch-perfect, beautiful film.

Coriolanus

UK, 122 mins

directed by Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes marks his directorial debut with an ambitious, action-packed contemporary setting—in war-torn Bosnia—of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Fiennes reprises the juicy titular role he played on the London stage: powerful general Caius Martius, aka Coriolanus, at odds with the City of Rome. Contemptuous of a starved populace that has begun to riot, Martius prefers the battlefield where he meets his old enemy Tullus Aufidius (a very macho Gerard Butler) and returns a hero. Reveling in his triumph, he gains election as a governing consul but is soon opposed by the citizenry. His anger at the public’s disfavor leads to his expulsion, and in desperation he turns to his sworn enemy Tullus, with whom he takes revenge on the city. With Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’s iron-willed mother and Jessica Chastain as his trophy wife, a high-powered cast and chilling modern urban battle scenes propel this timeless work into the 21st century.

Pariah

US, 86 mins

directed by Dee Rees

By day, 17-year-old Alike is an earnest student with a talent for writing poetry. By night, she’s an aspiring “lothariette” sneaking into lesbian clubs with her best friend Laura, whose tough-girl swagger is popular with the ladies. But Alike is hiding more than a fake ID from her parents. Heading home, she sheds her do-rag and baggy clothes for the gold earrings and pink top that her domineering mother favors. Desperate for Alike to outgrow her “tomboy thing,” her mother imposes her church friend’s daughter, Bina, hoping that her artsy and bohemian charm rubs off. Reluctant at first, the two grow closer as they bond over music, art and literature. But adolescence can be a confusing time, when no one is sure where they stand. Torn between the expectations of her mother and her own self-discovery, can Alike emerge as a young woman with a clear sense of her own identity? Director Dee Rees draws natural performances that transcend the coming-of-age drama with effortless authenticity, for a portrait of young adulthood at once touching, brutal, humorous and real.

My Week With Marilyn

UK, 100 mins

directed by Simon Curtis

Michelle Williams’s mesmerizing performance as Marilyn Monroe is a revelation, capturing the wholeness—the fragility and sensuality, the charisma and the tangibility—of someone all too often merely impersonated. In Simon Curtis’s delightful debut feature, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), is newly graduated from Oxford and determined to break into film. When he gets a job as an assistant on The Prince and the Showgirl, he finds himself a player in the legendary standoff between the great English classical actor and director, Laurence Olivier (played with appropriate aplomb and a certain swagger by Kenneth Branagh), and the American icon, celebrity phenomenon and upstart Method actor Monroe, abetted by her ubiquitous drama coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker). Based on Clark’s memoirs, Simon Curtis’s film is a delight, placing the estimable Williams in a cast of notable contemporary British greats (Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi), among whom she proves her own formidable talents.

Like Crazy

US, 88 mins

directed by Drake Doremus

Can love be both a blessing and a burden? In this wonderfully acted romantic drama, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Felicity Jones (The Tempest) portrays Anna, an English exchange student and burgeoning journalist who falls for Jacob (Anton Yelchin), a young American furniture designer. With Anna’s visa set to expire, both face at least temporary separation. However, when she delays her trip Anna inadvertently derails their future, setting off a chain of events involving geography, time, trust and their own individual ambitions. Eschewing typical romantic tropes, the film favors spontaneity over spectacle, letting the camera linger lovingly on the pair as if merely capturing moments in time. Jones’s ingenue appeal and impressive performance lend an emotional intelligence to the story, while Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead delight as Anna’s gregarious Scotch-loving parents. Refusing easy answers, Like Crazy asks whether first loves are ever truly extinguishable.

Jeff Who Lives At Home

US, 84 mins

directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass

For most people, chasing destiny is nothing more than a fool’s errand. But not for unemployed Jeff, who lives at home with his mother. A poet-philosopher disguised as a do-nothing 30-year-old slacker, Jeff knows that he has a place in the universe, and today he’s ready to go out and find it. Filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass, best known as the pioneers of indie film’s mumblecore movement, continue their winning streak with this funny, sincere and surprisingly moving exploration of life’s Big Questions. Their portrait of a family slowly deflating under everyday banalities is anchored by three affecting performances: Susan Sarandon as the emotionally withdrawn, widowed mother; Ed Helms as the posturing older brother; and standout Jason Segel as Jeff, whose open heart and endless faith are both maddening and inspiring. In our achievement-obsessed world, it’s all too easy to dismiss a person like Jeff. But what a pity that would be.

Shame

UK, 99 mins

directed by Steve McQueen

Visual artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen, reteams with Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank, MVFF 2009) in this highly anticipated follow-up to his harrowing debut, Hunger, which spotlighted on the ascetic protests of IRA strikers in the infamous Maze Prison. In Shame, McQueen turns his camera on a figure with a different appetite altogether. With his unapologetically minimalist style and sparse but piercing dialogue, McQueen zeroes in on Brandon (Fassbender), whose banal corporate facade belies his penchant for trawling the streets of Manhattan in an attempt to satisfy his insatiable sexual nature. However, when his troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, An Education, MVFF 2009), lands on his doorstep, his life is suddenly sent into a tailspin. Shame packs a visceral punch with its subversive subject and the fearlessly honest performances of its two leads in a portrait of the overt rituals and underlying compulsions that dictate our lives.

The Lady

France/UK, 145 mins

directed by Luc Besson

This profound and epic love story, set against a backdrop of political upheaval, chronicles the lives of Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and her husband, British academic Michael Aris (David Thewlis, Mike Leigh’s Naked and Harry Potter). After the bloody military takeover, Suu Kyi entered the political arena, painfully eschewing a peaceful domestic life in London to embody the hopes and ideals of her people. With Suu Kyi placed under house arrest and consequently enduring long periods of separation from Aris and their two sons, the couple remained devoted both to each other and to the necessity of pursuing the greater good. Yeoh’s portrayal of a woman whose commitment to truth and peace place her in the pantheon of great visionary leaders—think Gandhi and Mandela—is an exquisite and beautifully modulated performance, the heartbeat of director Luc Besson’s deeply affecting film.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

US, 101 mins

directed by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene, the debut feature from director-screenwriter Sean Durkin, signals the arrival of two major cinematic talents. This beautiful, stylized and unsettling film is a most assured and sensitive directorial debut. The film also features a breakthrough performance by Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the famed Olsen twins) in the title role. Olsen is luminous and nuanced as a young woman damaged by her two years in a Family-styled cult. After escaping the “family’s” clutch, Martha attempts to re-assimilate into society and reconnect with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). With the revelation of one layer after another, we come to understand the extent of her psychological unraveling at the hands of the sinister sect leader, Patrick (John Hawkes in a dark and restrained performance). The gorgeous cinematography and sparse soundtrack work to create a moody atmosphere, alternating fluidly between past and present, from bucolic farm scenes to the darker corners of Martha’s mind. This film is a tonal poem of carefully observed moments, which will stay with you long after the lights come on.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

UK, 111 mins

directed by Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, MVFF 2002) again proves herself one of the consummate artists of new British cinema in this artistically bold exploration of the troubled, and troubling, relationship between a mother (Tilda Swinton) and her apparently psychopathic son. From his first breath Kevin seems to have had a knack for needling mom, while only revealing his “good” side to his father (John C. Reilly). Told through flashbacks, the story builds a sense of foreboding while foreshadowing catastrophe to come. It’s driven by phenomenal performances all around: Swinton, who is in virtually every scene, is mesmerizing as a woman torn by her plight; Ezra Miller, as the teenage Kevin, strikes a balance between manipulativeness and charm that is tempered by a chilling hint of evil. A gripping and powerful film offering no easy answers to its inherent questions, this standout of the Cannes Film Festival will leave many needing to talk about Kevin.

All summaries courtesy of the Mill Valley Film Festival. For complete festival information, go to the official MVFF website.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nathalie October 8, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Hello
I would like to Know if Gerard Butler is going to show up at this film festival when his movie is playing tonight at the San Rafael theater? I really missed him on the 23rd when he came to this theater to promote his other movie Machine Gun Preacher…
thank you for letting me know asap.
I would die to see him in person! he is sooo sexy this man!
If I don’t catch him there I will try to catch him down in Santa Cruz/Half moon bay where he should be hanging out next week starting the shooting of his new movie Mavericks.
Any tip helps!:)
huge fan of Gerard:)
Nathalie

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