SN&R film critic Daniel Barnes caught a bunch of films at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and got a jump start on his 2015 Academy Awards predictions
In recent years, the Mill Valley Film Festival, which just wrapped up its 37th annual run on October 12, has become something of an awards season bellwether. During last year’s Academy Awards run, four of the nine films nominated for Best Picture had played the previous fall at Mill Valley, including the eventual Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. In addition, 10 of the 20 performers nominated for an acting Oscar last year were in films that showed at the 2013 festival, with three of them—12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o and Dallas Buyers Club’s Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto—taking home the trophy.
Unlike the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival does not hand out jury prizes, only audience awards. These audience prizes have become increasingly accurate awards barometers —in 2013, both 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club were singled out by MVFF audiences, with Steve McQueen’s slavery drama named Overall Audience Favorite.
That bodes well for the Oscar hopes of this year’s MVFF Audience Favorite The Imitation Game, a crowd-pleasing biopic about British genius Alan Turing, as well as its star, and presumptive Best Actor favorite, Benedict Cumberbatch. The festival’s audience lapped it up, but I thought that the film was doltish, sentimental, and easy, a shallow portrayal of brilliance with less brains than A Beautiful Mind. In other words, I expect it to win 10,000 Oscars.
Another British biopic with Oscar aspirations that should be encouraged by its Mill Valley reception is James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, which was awarded the World Cinema Gold honor. The film follows physicist Stephen Hawking from his puppy-love youth and early successes through his fight with motor neuron disease and eventual celebrity. It’s no more intelligent than The Imitation Game, reducing Hawking’s theories to an insipid argument about the existence of God, and insinuating that his greatest contribution to mankind is overcoming odds. However, The Theory of Everything has the uncanny technical brilliance of Eddie Redmayne’s performance—he becomes Stephen Hawking, body and soul.
Reese Witherspoon is already generating awards-season buzz for her star turn in Wild, the follow-up film from Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee. Wild is based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, who in the ’90s exorcised personal demons by hiking more than 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon is very good, as is Laura Dern in a supporting turn, and the scenery is gorgeous, but the film as a whole is a little too Hike, Pray, Love for my tastes.
Foxcatcher is a darker film, teeming with the sweat-lodge claustrophobia of a wrestling room, and as such it will probably be a much harder sell to the senior-skewing Academy (the senior-skewing MVFF audience voters ignored it). Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), Foxcatcher tells a far less inspirational real-life story, that of the disturbing relationship between billionaire John E. DuPont and Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. Bennett keeps the film wound tighter than a magnet’s coil, and he is blessed with three powerhouse performances. Steve Carell is transformative as the paunchy DuPont, but Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo give just as much of their bodies to the film.
In the long shot categories, Bill Murray will likely generate goodwill for his near-iconic turn in St. Vincent, but the film itself is inescapably lightweight. Juliette Binoche reaches beyond luminescence towards something truly personal and profound in Clouds of Sils Maria, playing a high-maintenance actress who agrees to appear in a new production of the play that made her famous, only this time as the older woman instead of the ingenue. Director Olivier Assayas’ film wound through my mind like a cloud snake, but many festival-goers I talked to were put off by its deliberate pace.
Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, however, towers above them all. This is a tactile and unconventional biopic of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner. Mr. Turner kicked off the festival’s inaugural Friday night program, and the film was the winner of my own personal audience prize. This is a deeply personal story of an ultimately unknowable man—a gentleman, a beast, a restless traveler, a lover of domesticity, a celebrity dandy, a phlegmatic wretch. Spall won an acting prize at Cannes, but he might be a little too raw for the selfie-snapping Oscars set (sample quote: “Ggrrlhrghhghrlghhgh!”).
Beyond spotlighting some of the odds-on favorites for the major Academy Awards, this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival also served as a showcase for frontrunners in the Best Foreign Language Film category. According to Academy rules, every country is allowed to submit only one film per year for consideration, and this year’s selections featured 10 of the films that were singled out by their home countries. These included entries from Taiwan (Ice Poison), Israel (Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem), Germany (Beloved Sisters), Mauritania (Timbuktu), Spain (Living is Easy with Eyes Closed), Australia (Charlie’s Country), and Croatia (Cowboys).
Two Days, One Night was the best of the bunch; this is another bleak slice-of-life from Belgian masters Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The Dardenne brothers have been making features for over a quarter century, but with its star performance (Marion Cotillard, shattering) and tighter, 12 Angry Men-style narrative, this could be their breakthrough.
Mommy is already the fifth film from 25-year-old French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan, and while it is probably too insane for Academy voters to embrace, it does feature a complex lead performance from Anne Dorval, and a gonzo use of slow motion, aspect ratio, and 1990s pop songs.
Sweden’s Oscar submission is Force Majeure, a chilly, pitch-black comedy about a seemingly tight-knit family that comes unraveled on a luxurious ski vacation. It’s a slow burner, more interested in picking at loose psychological seams than with momentum or payoff, but it creates a sense of unspeakable disappointment and doubt that creeps into the pores like frostbite.
I watched another 15 or so films beyond those mentioned above, mostly documentaries, foreign films, and indies without distribution deals. Only a few of them merit serious consideration, but with roughly 100 features showing over the course of the 11-day festival, it’s quite possible that I just made some bad scheduling decisions. Ale Abreu’s charming animated feature The Boy and the World was an exception, as it turned simple pencil drawings and musical refrains into a kaleidoscopic world of childlike wonder.
However, my two great discoveries of the festival were both live-action films, and both were highly impressive debuts from filmmakers to watch. Brazilian writer-director Fernando Coimbra’s prickly A Wolf at the Door is a vicious modern noir set in Rio de Janeiro, a poison-tipped artichoke with a rotten heart. British director Yann Demange’s ’71 is even better, a night-in-hell thriller set in Belfast during The Troubles, the conflict that emerged when the city was split into Catholic/Irish Republican Army and Protestant factions. It has no chance in hell of winning an Oscar or making a lot of money, but it’s the sort of under-the-radar festival discovery that drives one to return year after year.