Home Arts & Entertainment Highlights from the 43rd Annual Mill Valley Film Festival

Highlights from the 43rd Annual Mill Valley Film Festival

by Art U News

By Greta Chiocchetti, Kirsten Coachman, and Nina Tabios

Last month, the 43rd Annual Mill Valley Film Festival weathered the current COVID-19 pandemic by going the virtual route. While the majority of the festival’s screenings could be accessed through the online CAFilm Screening Room, they also held nightly screenings at their pop-up Drive-In Cinema at Lagoon Park – Marin Center in San Rafael.

This year’s slate of programmed films ran from October 8–18, offering a wide variety of content for both Bay Area cinephiles and casual movie watchers alike to dive into. Art U News had the opportunity to screen a handful of films during this year’s festival, from the star-filled features “Ammonite” and “The Father” to the intriguing and powerful documentaries “Banksy Most Wanted” and “Us Kids.” 

“23 Walks” (2020)

In the endless green parks of Hampstead Heath, London, pensioner Dave (Dave Johns), a retired psychiatric nurse, walks his gentle, elderly German shepherd, Tillie. The two are regulars on these pathways, exchanging friendly words with other humans and their canine companions. Then, one day Dave and Tillie come across Fern (Alison Steadman), a divorcee and secretary, with her Yorkshire terrier, Henry. At first, Fern chastises Dave for not having Tillie on a leash. But as they continue to cross paths on their daily walks, the two develop a friendship that soon blossoms into romance.

In what feels like a classic tale of two strangers falling in love, British writer-director Paul Morrison delivers a warm and honest portrait of late-age romance. Like most people when broaching a new relationship, Dave and Fern come with baggage and the film acknowledges the weight of it all with kindness and warmth. For these reasons, the stilted chemistry between Johns and Steadman makes sense from a directorial point of view. But for a romance movie, “23 Walks” is missing a much-needed chemistry between its human actors. 

“Ammonite” (2020)

Screened at the Drive-In Cinema on Oct. 11 was “Ammonite,” writer/director Francis Lee’s follow-up feature to 2017’s “God’s Own Country.” The film is centered around acclaimed paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) who lives a sullen existence with her widowed mother (Gemma Jones) in the 1840s. After tourist and appreciator of her work Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) makes a request to allow his bereft wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) to accompany Mary on her daily trips to the Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis, the relationship between the women evolves unexpectedly.

No surprise here, Winslet turns in yet another strong performance in “Ammonite.” She continues to be able to disappear into her characters and bring out the emotion within. It’s quite something to watch her trudge along the rough coastline in search of fossils among the rocks. 

The missing piece to the film is a genuine connection between Mary and Charlotte. Their interest in one another comes across rather a bit forced and muddied. And while it’s an event to see celebrated actors such as Winslet and Ronan share the screen, the lack of onscreen development between their characters ultimately makes the intimacy between the two feel abrupt and unearned.

“Banksy Most Wanted” (2020)

There’s the seven wonders of the world and then there’s Banksy. In a new documentary by French directors Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley, journalists and curators laud the graffiti artist as the “Picasso of the 21st century,” and with good reason. For years, Bansky has been one of the most provocative voices in contemporary art, whose humble beginnings stenciling the streets of Bristol has led to a global art movement tracing from New York City to Jerusalem to million-dollar antics in institutions like Sotheby’s. His anti-establishment, anti-capitalist agenda has made him simultaneously beloved and loathed (depending on who you ask) but what looms largest throughout his career is the simple question: Who is the person behind the name? 

With the help of those who are closest to Banksy, as well as those who came closest to unveiling them, Rouvier and Haley try to crack the Banksy code with thoughtful journalism. But rather than trying to unveil who the artist is, the directors seem more interested in pressing questions about influence and impact, especially within the art world. Yet the mystery remains: whether you believe in the Banksy ripple effect or think it’s all part of another orchestrated stunt—this film included—all that’s left to do is wonder.

“Belly of the Beast” (2020) 

In Erika Cohn’s documentary “Belly of the Beast,” the horrific reality of non-consensual sterilization in California prisons is brought to light in a devastating exposé. Framed by former inmate Kelli Dillon’s harrowing personal tale, the film is a timely exploration of the years-long battle for justice, including the passage of an anti-sterilization bill and reparations for victims.  

After undergoing surgery to have ovarian cysts removed, Dillon realizes that she also underwent a forced hysterectomy—a tragic realization as she was planning to have more children after serving her time in prison. Dillon seeks help from the prison abolition organization Justice Now, and ultimately realizes that unfortunately, she is not alone in her experience.

Though Dillon, in partnership with Justice Now founder Cynthia Chandler, was able to spearhead a legislative ban on sterilization of female prisoners, progress is still relatively slow: to date, not a single California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation doctor or official has faced any consequences for their role in the involuntary sterilizations. “Belly of the Beast” offers a blunt look into the uphill battle to cement a woman’s right to choose her own reproductive future.

“The Father” (2020)

Keep tissues on hand for the Florian Zeller-helmed “The Father,” starring Academy Award-winning actors Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Adapted from the French playwright’s original play for the screen, the film is a heartbreaking story between a father, Anthony, and his daughter, Anne, coping with the change of dynamics in their relationship. It’s a stunning feature debut from Zeller who captures Anthony’s deterioration caused by dementia in a manner that is empathetic yet wraps audiences up in Anthony’s cloud of confusion. The brilliant editing of Yorgos Lamprinos, as well as the detailed production design by Peter Francis, is sure to keep audiences on their toes throughout the course of the film. 

Across the board, the performances in “The Father” are top-notch—Colman is superb as Anne deals with the emotional toll of witnessing her father’s mental state unravel as the days pass, however, it’s Hopkins’ devastating final scene that lingers long after watching the film. For those that are in the midst of or have previously experienced caring for a loved one with dementia, “The Father” may prove to be a challenging watch. Overall, the powerful drama is delivered with care by Zeller and his talented cast.

“Trust Me” (2020)

In the year 2020, the last thing we probably need is another outlet or piece of work telling us how scary the world is—we live in it, we know. But in the documentary “Trust Me,” Oscar-nominated director Roko Belic reveals that we’re not alone in this doom-and-gloom feeling of the world around us. In fact, it’s by design.

“Trust Me” takes a look at how the ways we consume, process, share, and internalize media messages in the digital age can have real ramifications in our physical lives. It addresses not only the psychological effects but also the emotional and social impact it can have on our mental health, our democracy, and society, especially for the younger generations. Being inundated with scary and clickbait-y headlines daily can create real problems, especially when misinformation spreads. To contextualize it, one expert said, “When our fear goes up, our trust comes down.”

It’s hard to not be shocked by the information unveiled in “Trust Me,” but as disastrous as it all seems, Belic also offers tangible solutions. The film brings forth the experts, educators, and government officials who are fighting for journalistic integrity and media literacy, which offers a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hard-hitting and eye-opening documentary. 

“Us Kids” (2020) 

After the tragic 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 of their classmates, coaches, and teachers dead and 17 more injured, Parkland survivors Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Klosky, and others were determined to turn an unimaginable loss into a momentous push for change. “Us Kids” follows the remarkable political movement spurred by that experience—without letting viewers forget that the changemakers are in many cases not even old enough to vote themselves yet. 

The film, directed by Kim Snyder (“Newtown”), shines with its portrayal of its subjects as the teenagers they are. They go from worrying about going to college to fighting the powerful systems in place which allow firearms to be so readily available—and to coping with the newfound national fame that comes along with their activism. But the most heart-wrenching scenes are the ones showing the survivors still coming to grips with how quickly their lives changed forever. 

“I saw a picture of my friends and I four days before the shooting, and we were at the fair. And I said, ‘What is that? How was that my life?’” says survivor Cameron Klosky in the film. “The things I’m doing now are not unlike what I would have done. I liked politics—I was at my first Obama rally when I was eight. Advocating for gun control in D.C., chances are I might have done it anyway. But doing it because you want to and doing it because you feel like you have to are two very different things.”

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