Along with Glenn Close's 'Albert Nobbs,' the Duplass brothers' latest, 'Jeff Who Lives at Home,' opens Mill Valley.

Mill Valley Brings Oscar Contenders Close to Home

Dennis Harvey October 6, 2011

Mill Valley amps up the star wattage in its annual mix of local, international titles.

We have already entered that half of the year that marches an endless parade of predictions and speculations toward Oscar night. It is rendered particularly silly by the fact that so many of the films in contention haven't actually been seen yet; being year-end prestige releases, they are still in the editing room or undergoing other post-production processes. This year in particular there haven't been a lot of movies already released that are being seriously discussed as award bait, a few indies with breakout performances aside. (Remember, last year we'd already had The Social Network.) So the inevitable onslaught of bet-placing seems even more premature than usual.

And yet, it's just possible that you might get a very special jump on the eventual statuette hullabaloo by attending the Mill Valley Film Festival this year, especially this Thursday and Friday. Because that's when MVFF's 34th edition kicks off with the costume drama Albert Nobbs (alongside the new Duplass Brothers comedy Jeff Who Lives at Home), followed the next day by an in-tribute to its star, Glenn Close.

Close has become one of those actors famous in part for not winning an Oscar, to the general amazement of all. Indeed, she hasn't even been nominated since 1989, though in the six years prior she got that acknowledgement five times, starting with her first big-screen film. Already an acclaimed stage actress, she commenced a run of warm, motherly roles with 1982's The World According to Garp, as mom to Robin Williams (who in real life is just four years' her junior). Two unforgettable villainesses in Fatal Attraction and Dangerous Liaisons upset that image for good, and her choices since have been anything but predictable, ranging from voice work to TV guest spots to indies to Cruella de Ville. Plus more stage work, not least as a singing Norma Desmond in the musicalized Sunset Boulevard. Most recently she's found a new audience as the killer-lawyer antiheroine of the hit broadcast series Damages.

Adapted from a play she'd already done off-Broadway, Albert Nobbs is Close's first real movie role in several years, and one can easily she what lured her: For a performer so strikingly versatile, the title character would have been impossible to resist. "Albert" is a butler at a Dublin hotel in the late 19th century, plain-featured and reticent in personality, but with a spectacular secret: He is in fact a she. Early reviews for Rodrigo Garcia's film (which also stars Mia Wasikowska, Janet McTeer, Brendan Gleeson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) have been guarded, but there's been no lack of praise for Close, who's said to make something spectacular of this "stunt" casting.

Will the part finally get her a little golden man of her very own? Quite possibly—Oscar loves such conspicuous tests of acting mettle. Regardless, it will be a pleasure to see Close speak in person Friday night, and to see the inevitable clip reel display her remarkable range.

By no means will her appearance be the only starry one at MVFF 34. Others include tributes to established international star Michelle Yeoh (who plays Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady) and two rising ones, Ezra Miller from We Need to Talk About Kevin (in which he portrays a school-shooting perp) and Elizabeth Olsen (who's also been mentioned as a Best Actress prospect for her role as an escaped cult member in Martha Marcy May Marlene).

The festival's long-running focus on African cinema will be celebrated this year by a visit from Burkina Faso's Gaston Kabore, who will present both his groundbreaking 1982 God's Gift and 1997's Buud Yam. And closing night on October 16 brings Michel Hazanavicius and the leading actors of his brand-new silent film The Artist, a French comedy set in 1927 Hollywood that since Cannes this spring has been called one of our own annum's major delights.

Considering so much star wattage, one might forget—but not for long—that Mill Valley's majority emphasis has always been on Bay Area, American and world-cinema independents. On the local front, highlights include documentaries Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? (Donald Goldmacher and Frances Causey), Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (Austin Forbord) and What Happened Here?, the latter an unlikely latest by MVFF staple Rob Nilsson—it's not a gritty improvisational drama but a nonfiction meditation on Trotsky, the Ukraine and the 20th century's most notorious genocides.

As usual there will be numerous music-related events, including an October 15 live concert honoring Indian maestro Ali Akbar Khan that may well draw some very heavyweight guest players; a four-feature edition of the annual Children's FilmFest, with spoken translation for the subtitled programs; a sidebar highlighting activist cinema; plus several panels on related topics as well as business-of-filmmaking ones. Don't forget the daily "5 @ 5" shows gathering together shorts in one inexpensive matinee-priced package.

Picking just a few standouts from the central program, you might want to make time for the political flashback of Sascha Rice's California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown; Ralph Fiennes' directorial bow with the grim Shakespearean tragedy Coriolanus; Alberto Fuguet's acclaimed Chile-U.S. coproduction Country Music; the premiere of A Few Best Men, latest comedy by Stephan Elliot of The Adventures of Priscilla fame; John Goddard's annual musical clip hootenanny The Hi De Ho Show; Gerardo Naranjo's much-praised Mexican drama Miss Bala; Wim Wender's astonishing (and 3-D!) Pina, a tribute to his late choreographer Pina Bausch; Chen Kaige's (Farewell My Concubine) new Chinese epic Sacrifice; and a 30th anniversary celebration of Raiders of the Lost Ark on October 10 that might well lure some names even bigger than Glenn Close into making a personal appearance.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.