An awards bellwether

The Mill Valley Film Festival got off to a splashy, star-heavy start this year, holding West Coast premieres of Arrival and La La Land that were attended by their respective stars Amy Adams and Emma Stone. Both films hold serious awards ambitions, and the festival, now in its 39th year, has become a significant bellwether for the Academy Awards. The most recent Best Picture winner Spotlight, for example, kicked off last year’s festival, and three of the four acting Oscar winners also came from films that played the festival.

And so the stars were beckoned once again to this small town 20 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides Adams and Stone, the list of actors and directors who attended the festival to hawk their respective awards contenders included Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Ewan McGregor (American Pastoral), Joel Edgerton (Loving), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), Nicole Kidman (Lion) and Aaron Eckhart (Bleed for This).

Beyond its predilection for spotlighting eventual major awards winners, the Mill Valley Film Festival also features a wide array of foreign films, including many of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submissions (the Academy allows each country to submit one film a year). Among my favorites screened during the festival: the Italian submission Fire at Sea, a strikingly beautiful neorealist documentary from director Gianfranco Rosi that contrasts the devastating African immigrant crisis on the island of Lampedusa with the relatively sleepy day-to-day lives of the residents.

Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian submission, The Salesman, is even better. This is another brutally ephemeral moral tale from the director of A Separation and The Past. Farhadi constructs each moment with warm empathy and cold precision, culminating in a long, emotionally devastating final sequence where every word and gesture is so tightly wound around a sense of world-crumbling dread that I could barely breathe. It was the best film I saw during the festival.

Hard-working director Pablo Larraín, who showed The Club at last year’s festival, traveled to the Bay Area to debut two new movies this year—the Chilean Oscar submission Neruda, an ambitious but baffling story about the great poet and politician’s escape from his own government; and Jackie, an English-language biopic about Jackie Kennedy set in the immediate aftermath of the 1963 assassination; the latter film is generating Oscar buzz for star Natalie Portman.

I screened 24 films over the course of the festival, largely avoiding awards bait and other films scheduled for a 2016 local release, concentrating instead on the under-the-radar independents, documentaries and foreign fare. Some of my favorites included Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, a dark horse awards contender for Sonia Braga’s magnetic performance; Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist, a disturbing documentary about police militarization; the gorgeously animated Studio Ghibli co-production The Red Turtle; South Korean director Je-yong Lee’s alternately rambunctious and bleak The Bacchus Lady; and Terence Davies’ austere Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, featuring a possessed lead performance from Cynthia Nixon.