Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival’s charms is how it reflects both the local community’s roots and its forward-thinking spirit. Situated just beyond Sausalito as you cross the Golden Gate Bridge northbound from San Francisco, Mill Valley is many things to many people: part dot-com millionaire bedroom community, post-hippie enclave, Arcadia for Bay Area rock royalty and bucolic getaway in the midst of the redwoods.
And even though it doesn’t have the surprise factor of Telluride, or the market flurry of Toronto and Cannes, Mill Valley — like Santa Barbara later during awards season — has been increasingly favored by Hollywood, which looks at such desirable destinations relatively close to home as hassle-free platforms to showcase prestige product. That the festival, presented by the nonprofit California Film Institute and now in its 37th year, can boast of having screened five out the past six Oscar best picture winners gives it the kind of clout that didn’t exist just a short decade ago.
“There’s been a lot of articles out about Toronto and the awards,” says fest founder and director Mark Fishkin, “and there was one that listed 12 films as awards contenders. Out of 11 narratives, we have eight. Let alone the stuff that makes Mill Valley unique, we’re always trying to get this really balanced schedule.”
Some of the films to which Fishkin is referring are Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman,” Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” and Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game.” And, as par for the course, there will be plenty of talent on hand to dress up the offerings, from the well-established (Jason Reitman, Hilary Swank, Chuck Workman, Laura Dern) to rising stars (Eddie Redmayne, Elle Fanning, Ansel Elgort).
But more indigenous to the festival and the Marin County mentality are its sidebars like the issue-driven Active Cinema, the techie-oriented Art of the Sciences, Latin America-friendly Viva El Cine! and the conscientiously curated Valley of the Docs. (“Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary,” being shown as part of Active Cinema, certainly appeals to the area’s ’60s “turn on, tune in and drop out” tradition.)
Tributes to two talents with deep local ties, the late Robin Williams and filmmaker Wayne Wang, also grace the program.
Then there’s Mill Valley’s unofficial status as a haven for music-oriented fare, with no fewer than eight films filling the bill this year: from narrative features with a jazz backdrop like “Whiplash” and “Low Down,” to a pair of documentaries centering on progressive music icons of the cult variety, “Summer 82: When Zappa Came to Sicily” and “Jaco” (about the late, great Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius).
“Jaco” will be part of a curated program from this year’s artists in residence, heavy metal band Metallica, whose headquarters are in Marin, just a stone’s throw from the fest’s flagship venue, the Smith Rafael Film Center. In the tradition of past film presentations about blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield and Hindustani musician Ali Akbar Khan, which generated live tributes at such local venues as the Sweetwater Music Hall and Throckmorton Theatre, respectively, “Jaco” is also inspiring a celebration of the artist’s music Oct. 6 at the Sweetwater, which might be considered Mill Valley’s version of the Troubadour in Los Angeles.
The fest’s music skew began with the very first edition in 1978, when Mill Valley honored David Myers, the cinematographer whose credits include such landmark music films as “Woodstock,” “Renaldo and Clara” and “Rust Never Sleeps.” A 1984 tribute to legendary concert promoter Bill Graham, who lived on a hilltop between Mill Valley and Larkspur, drew about 2,000 attendees and performances by Joe Cocker, Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia.
“I moved here 38 years ago and the music scene was still very much in mind,” says Fishkin. “It’s just been something that’s important to us and that we’re conscious of. It’s in our DNA.”