Fall Film Festival Season

Tired of blockbusters? Have no fear. We’re heading into the fall film festival season. I guess the theory is that now that the kids are back in school, the grownups can go to the movies.

Two festivals open the week after next, one big, one small. They’re both general film festivals, identified with a town or neighborhood rather than a type of person (Jewish, Arab, gay) or a type of film (documentaries, noir). One is in Berkeley, the other Mill Valley.

Since you’ve probably already heard of the Mill Valley one, lets start with the Berkeley Video & Film Festival. This three-day affair at the Oaks Theater (at the top of Solano) emphasizes American (and often local) independent films. To my knowledge, none of the films scheduled are up for any kind of regular theatrical release.

The Berkeley festival has a unique admission policy. You don’t pay for an individual screening, but for a daily marathon. For instance, on Saturday, October 7, the programming runs from 1:30 in the afternoon until nearly 11:00 at night. One $12 ticket gets you three features (one fiction, two documentaries), 22 shorts, and one intermission.

The Mill Valley Film Festival used to be small, but these days it’s a major player. The line-up includes 104 features (yes, that’s features, in addition to 127 shorts), with 13 world, seven North American, and 18 US premieres (translation: 18 of these films have been shown at Toronto). A lot of major indiewood films get their first local showing here, including The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and Babel. Among the less-likely-to-be-seen-later films that caught my eye are a documentary about cinematography called Cinematographer Style (there’s also a cinematography seminar) and Hinokio, a science fiction animated children’s film from Japan.

One sign of festival’s importance is the caliber of stars and high-profile directors willing to come and be honored. This year in Marin County (despite the name, much of the Mill Valley festival happens in San Rafael), visiting celebrities include Helen Mirren, Tim Robbins, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. For less-known auteurs, Mill Valley is presenting multiple filmmaking seminars (including the cinematography one mentioned above) and yet another CinemaSports competition (I’m not sure if these make-a-film-in-one-day contests have become a tradition for Bay Area festivals, or a law).

I’m going to see as many of the scheduled films beforehand as time and the festivals’ screening policies allow. (Time is the big factor, especially with the High Holy Days about to start.) In future newsletters and weekly schedules, I’ll recommend and warn you about individual films as they approach, and use the red dot () to let you know which will likely get a commercial release after the festival.

Speaking of which, here are this week’s recommendations (and they’re all recommendations this week). By the way, instead of listing the films chronologically by exhibition date as I did in the past, I’m now prioritizing them, based on my own subjective opinion of what shouldn’t be missed this week.

Recommended: Matador, Castro and Shattuck, opening Friday for one-week engagement. The most immoral, offensive, and politically incorrect movie I have ever loved. A handsome former matador (Nacho Martínez), missing the thrill of the bullfight, now kills women for pleasure. Meanwhile, a beautiful lawyer (Assumpta Serna) gets her kicks by murdering men. When these two finally meet, will it be a lifelong commitment? A pre-Hollywood Antonio Banderas is the young innocent caught between them. Matador shines a light, even if it’s a playful one, at the darkest side of human sexuality, refusing to judge anyone for how they satisfy their erotic tastes.

Recommended: Sherlock Jr., There’s nothing new about special effects. Buster Keaton used them extensively, in part to comment on the nature of film itself, in this story of a projectionist who dreams he’s a great detective. The sequence where he enters the movie screen and finds the scenes changing around him would be impressive if it were made today; for 1924, when the effects had to be done in the camera, it’s mind-boggling. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr. is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags. This is an extremely short “feature,” running only about 44 minutes (depending on the projection speed). I don’t know at what speed the PFA will screen Sherlock Jr., but they’re showing it, with piano accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg, as part of their Mechanical Age series.

Recommended: Half Nelson, Parkway, opening Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in the best performance of the year so far) teaches history in an inner-city middle school, and teaches it well. But when school is out, he consumes as much cocaine as he can buy, smoking crack when he can’t afford the expensive stuff. His drug-fueled life is coming apart at the seams, but he can’t step outside of his destructive path. And one student whose difficult life may be turned around by his teaching (Shareeka Epps) discovers his habit and finds herself tempted by the business end of the drug economy. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have created a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama (even the drug dealer is sympathetic), and easy answers.

Recommended: Citizen Kane, Lark, Sunday; 5:30, Monday, 7:00. How does a movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name many this insightful that are also this dazzling and fun. And Rosebud, by the way, is a McGuffin.

Recommended: An Inconvenient Truth, 4Star, opening Friday. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film of a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science and dangers of global warming in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). I’m generally skeptical about political documentaries as a force for good, but if it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one.

Recommended: National Lampoon’s Animal House, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. The two biggest comedy hits of the 1970’s both portrayed young people in 1962. But while American Graffiti celebrated students leaving high school at the symbolic end of the ’50s, Animal House followed them to college as they created the ’60s. Rebellious, impolite, and very funny, John Belushi and his gang of misfits refuse to let anyone stand in the way of their tasteless, outrageous, and antiauthoritarian fun. Countless bad rip-offs haven’t destroyed the sheen of the first “slob” comedy. A Parkway Tribe Night.

Recommended: Stolen Life, Rafael, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday, 8:45. An emotionally stunted teenage girl leaves her loveless home for college, then makes a really bad romantic decision that will ruin her life. That’s not a particularly new story, but Xun Zhou, who is in almost every scene as well as narrating the picture, plays the lead with such depth and conviction that she overcomes the melodramatic contrivances in Liao Yimei’s screenplay. Stolen Life also offers a view of modern China that few Americans get to see. And yes, it’s still part of the Global Lens series.