30th anniversary fest clings to its indie focus

Thirty might be the birthdate-erasure point for many a bodacious starlet or long-term “teen” thesp. But it’s a flattering milestone for any film festival to pass — particularly one that’s been showcasing indie cinema just as long as the more buzz-magnetized Sundance.

While the latter is now considered largely a media, buyers and sellers’ event, the Mill Valley Film Festival remains a homey, locally beloved celebration of the small and adventuresome, independent-minded theatrical releases, and international cinema cherry-picked from competitive A-list fests like Cannes.

Unspooling Oct. 4-14 at various Marin County locations, the fest’s 30th-anniversary edition opens this Thursday with dual opening-nighters, Ang Lee’s Focus Features period steamer “Lust, Caution” and Tamara Jenkins’ tart Fox Searchlight seriocomedy “The Savages.” Midfest “Centerpiece” on Oct. 11 is Michael Schroeder’s Christopher Plummer starrer “Man in the Chair.” Official closer on Oct. 14 is forthcoming Paramount Vantage release “The Kite Runner,” Marc Forster’s adaptation of the Khaled Hosseini international bestseller.

Rather than offering retrospective programs, festival is acknowledging its three-decade history via new work by alums. “Savages” star (and expected return guest) Laura Linney was honored with a career tribute in 2004. Scenarist-turned-helmer Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), who gets his own tribute Oct. 10, provided 1996 closer “Some Mother’s Son.” Ang Lee, likewise to be honored Oct. 5, is a Mill Valley fest staple: His first feature, “Pushing Hands,” played here in ’92. “Lust, Caution” marks the third time (following “Ice Storm” and “Ride With the Devil”) he’s had a work selected as an opening-nighter.

Final tributee is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s receiving some of her best notices in years as Nicole Kidman’s put-upon sibling in real-life spouse Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” (Oct. 13).

Very first festival in 1978 featured a tribute to local filmmaker John Korty, best known for classic telepics such as “Go Ask Alice,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “Farewell to Manzanar.” This year he’ll present a digital remastered print of his pioneering 1966 indie debut, “Crazy Quilt.”

Another returning local favorite is Rob Nilsson, whose 1979 Camera d’Or winner “Northern Lights” made its North American bow here. He brings no less than three world premiere features: “Northern” sequel “Presque Rien” plus two (“Used,” “Go Together”) that complete his “9@Night” series of interwoven streetwise tales.

Another epic project seeing its world preem is veteran experimentalist John Sanborn’s nearly five-hour “365.”

Other world launches are mostly in the docu category, with highlights including Leslie Iwerks’ “The Pixar Story” (with several locally based subjects like John Lasseter in attendance) and Eric Christensen’s “The Trips Festival,” about the three-day 1966 San Francisco multimedia event that was the first legendary hippie happening.

U.S. preems of note include Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream” and Susanne Bier’s English-language debut, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. Bier will attend, joining helmers such as Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), Alison Eastwood (“Rails & Ties”), Mary Lambert (“Fourteen Women”) and Gavin Hood (“Rendition”).

As usual, the Mill Valley fest –held in Marin County, where many rich vintage rockers went out to pasture — is big on live-music programming. This year, the Marin Symphony performs Shostakovich’s original score to Eisenstein’s projected silent masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin.” A TBA lineup of musicians cover Bob Dylan tunes after the Oct. 7 screening of Todd Haynes’ Dylan quasi-bio “I’m Not There.”

Returning sidebars include the Children’s FilmFest (now in its 13th year), 5@5 shorts showcases and avant-garde V(ision) Fest. Spotlights within the World Cinema section shine on new work from Romania, Germany and India.

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