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Mill Valley Film Fest: Pics Make Strategic NorCal Stop on Awards Trail

To court S.F. tastemakers, awards season breakouts make their NorCal bow at Bay Area showcase

Along the treacherous road trip from European sprocket operas to the Dolby Theater in March, there lies a lush coastal valley town in Northern California, where awards season hopefuls take their films for a little respite from the chaos.

Coming up on its 36th year, the Mill Valley Film Festival has become less of a detour and more of a strategic pit stop en route to the Academy Awards. The fest is developing a flawless track record, having played host to the Northern California premieres of all five of the past best picture victors. That might have something to do with the Bay Area’s enormous population of Academy voters, among the nation’s largest outside of the Southland.

More than a dozen buzzy contenders are slated to bow at Mill Valley in the first two weeks of October. Bay Area cinephiles will flock across the Golden Gate for what’s shaping up to be a Cannes mini encore.

Titles lauded on the Riviera now making their way to Marin include “Father and Son,” “Nebraska” (which opens the fest), “The Past,” “Sarah Prefers to Run,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “Wakolda,” “The Missing Picture” and “All Is Lost.”

Mark Fishkin, who founded Mill Valley in 1978 and has directed it ever since, says the fest is proud to celebrate such prominent coups as “12 Years a Slave” (director Steve McQueen and star Chiwetel Ejiofor will be honored and interviewed at its premiere) and “August: Osage County” (helmer John Wells will also be feted).

That said, Fishkin is perhaps most proud of the more modest films, often documentaries, that find their audience for the first time at the festival, such as “Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield,” from San Francisco filmmaker Bob Sarles, about the blues guitarist and one-time Marin denizen who was in Dylan’s band when he went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. There will be an accompanying tribute concert Oct. 11 at the Sweetwater Music Hall. He says Mill Valley, which often celebrates its local music legacy, has made its name on a certain curatorial perspective, one that has turned the fest into something of an adjective: “that’s a Mill Valley film.”

“We have a simple philosophy,” says Fishkin. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a $200 million movie or $200,000 — we look for quality filmmaking and quality storytelling.”

With what Fishkin calls the best of both worlds — “a destination ambiance and the clout of an urban festival” — Mill Valley sets itself apart by keeping humble. Attendees won’t be able to snap photos of Sean Penn on a red carpet (he’ll be on hand to introduce “The Human Experiment”), but they might find themselves next to a relaxed Andy Garcia sipping a coffee on 4th Street in nearby San Rafael — home of the fest’s biggest venue, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center — between screenings.

Part of what contributes to Mill Valley’s signature halcyon vibe is fighting the itch to make the fest competitive.

“At times I think we could have a higher profile if we were competitive,” Fishkin says. “But this is a place for film lovers, for discovery … for camaraderie among filmmakers that shouldn’t be compromised.”

Regardless of whether Mill Valley is doling out competitive awards, it has an undeniable hand in the kudo cookie jar.

Fishkin jokes: “Remember that election when all the emphasis was on Ohio, when no one knew how those three districts would swing? That’s us — we’re Ohio.”

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