Mill Valley Film Festival at 30

Dennis Harvey October 4, 2007

Time flies when you’re having fun. The Mill Valley Film Festival turns 30 years young this year, sporting none of the pants-widening girth and wobbly ankles suffered by another way-out-west fest that began life in 1978. Unlike that media magnet, MVFF remains primarily a local event — albeit one that attracts plenty of Hollywood names. The paparazzi, the handlers, the buyers and sellers and buzz chasers have yet to seriously crash the party. Hey, this is still Marin: Laid-back is the posture of choice.

What do you do when you’re turning 30? Celebrate the past’s experience by looking to the present and future, of course.

That’s pretty much the plan, as 2007’s edition features new work from many an old alumnus, starting with its two-opening night features. “Slums of Beverly Hills” creator Tamara Jenkins’ long-awaited second film, family seriocomedy “The Savages,” will bring her along with star Laura Linney, whose career was feted in a 2003 “Spotlight.” Steamy Mandarin-language intrigue “Lust, Caution” marks the third time director Ang Lee has opened Mill Valley — which he’s visited since his debut “Pushing Hands” in 1991. He’ll get his own honorary tribute program tomorrow night, Friday Oct. 5.

Other tributees this year likewise have Mill Valley histories. Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), who brings his new drama “Reservation Road” along with stars Mark Ruffalo and Mira Sorvino (note: not all guest appearances mentioned here were confirmed at press time) on Oct. 10, closed the festival in 1996 with his directorial debut “Some Mother’s Son.”

The brilliant thesp Jennifer Jason Leigh is being celebrated Oct. 13 before a screening of her acclaimed new vehicle (with Nicole Kidman) “Margot at the Wedding,” written and directed by her husband Noam Baumbach, whose memorable “The Squid and the Whale” played here two years ago. Oct. 14 closing night selection “The Kite Runner,” the much-anticipated adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s international bestseller, brings back director Marc Forster of “Monster’s Ball” and MVFF ’04 favorite “Finding Neverland.”

Other notable returnees include experimental prankster John Sanborn (premiering his nearly five-hour epic “365”), pioneering indie and TV-movie director John Korty (presenting a digital remaster of his delightful 1966 debut “The Crazy Quilt”), eclectic German auteur Doris Dorrie (with her new non-fiction “How To Cook Your Life”), and many more.

But nobody comes close to the MVFF track record of local maverick Rob Nilsson, who showed his first feature “Northern Lights” here in 1979 and since has shown…well, we can’t even count them. This year he is premiering no less than three new features, including the final two in his long-gestating, epic “9 @ Night” program. (Check back with us tomorrow, for an interview in which Nilsson explains all.)

Flabbergasting factoid: This isn’t even the first time he’s premiered a trio of brand-new, full-length movies at one MVFF. That happened before in 2000. Holy crap, Rob, slow down: You’re making the rest of humanity look so, so lazy.

There’s plenty of work from spanking-new talents to be sampled over Mill Valley’s 11-day course too, naturally. Where to begin? With the popular “5 @ 5” series of thematically clustered shorts? With first-time director (if hardly unfamiliar in other guises) Ben Affleck’s bracingly good mystery-cum-drama “Gone Baby Gone,” based on a similarly hard-hitting novel by “Mystic River” author Dennis Lahane? “Control,” Anton Corbijn’s acclaimed biopic about suicidal Joy Division singer Ian Curtis? Sterlin Harjo’s “Four Sheets to the Wind,” a tiny but lovely piece about a dysfunctional Seminole-Creek family in Oklahoma?

Other movies preceded by considerable positive vibeage include the Israeli ensemble whimsy “Jellyfish;” Kurdistan-set refugee drama “Crossing the Dust;” award-winning Romanian “California Dreamin’ (Endless),” completed after director Cristian Nemescu’s tragic car-crash death; outre Australian comedy “Kenny;” Afghanistan documentary “Postcards from Tora Bora;” and a revival screening of William Wellman’s superb if little-known 1933 Great Depression tale “Wild Boys of the Road.”

World premieres? Mill Valley’s got ‘em — even some not directed by Rob Nilsson. They include self-explanatory documentary “The Pixar Story,” James Searle’s thriller “Juncture,” and “The Trips Festival,” about the legendary three-day SF festival that in 1966 preceded — and kickstarted — every subsequent, celebrated multimedia counterculture event.

What have we left out? Well, the expansive annual Children’s FilmFest of creative kid pics from around the globe; the avant-garde, new-technology-focused “V(ision)Fest” section; sidebars on new work from Germany, India and Romania; “New Movie Lab” events encompassing seminars and one-on-one filmmaker consultations (signup is first-come, first-served) with industry professionals; the Marin Symphony performing Shostakovich’s score live to silent classic “Battleship Potemkin;” an array of local and other musicians covering Bob Dylan tunes in honor of Todd Haynes’ wildly imaginative “biographical” fantasy “I’m Not There.”

Plus more…a lot more. Which you’ll have to cross the Golden Gate Bridge — or at least consult the MVFF schedule — to discover.