Mill Valley Film Festival 36 (October 3-13, 2013)

In the fall, a young film's fancy heavily turns to thoughts of awards. Long well-positioned as a harbinger of Oscar attention to come, the Mill Valley Film Festival brings out big films and big stars as part of an eclectic slate of studio and indie films, fiction films and documentaries, tributes and panels, a Childrens' Film Fest, concerts in the ASCAP Music Cafe series, and wild-card events like the Star Wars—Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 30th Anniversary Celebration & Screening.

Mill Valley Film Festival 36 kicks off with a trio of Opening Night Films. Take your pick of the highly touted Alexander Payne dramedy Nebraska, with stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte in attendance; fanciful Nazi Germany drama The Book Thief with special guests Brian Percival, Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse; and quirky Western Sweetwater, presented by the filmmakers, the Miller Brothers. Closing Night will showcase The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with director-star Ben Stiller in attendance for a Tribute event. In between, Mill Valley will host Tributes to Rush and director Costa Gavras, Spotlight Events featuring director Steve McQueen & actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (here with their film Twelve Years a Slave), actor Jared Leto (accompanying Dallas Buyers Club), Dakota Fanning (Effie Gray), and John Wells, whose Centerpiece Spotlight will draw attention to his new film August: Osage County, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Terry Letts. Plus, the fest will host the California premiere of At Middleton, with producer/star Andy Garcia, star Vera Farmiga, and director/co-writer Adam Rodgers.

Master classes and panels will allow top names in directing (J.C. Chandor, Wells, McQueen, Scott Cooper, and Ryan Coogler in a panel; Jan Troell & Yohanna Troell in a master class) and film criticism (David Thomson), among others, to speak on their own experiences in and of the industry, while other panels will tackle the state of independent film and women in the industry. The ASCAP Music Cafe, in its second year, provides a venue for up-and-coming musical acts. There's even a hike—the Active Cinema Hike—giving an opportunity for a "skills exchange" of "ideas and wisdom on filmmaking, filmmaker resources, activism and strategies," y'know, plus gentle cardio. Mill Valley's got it all and got you covered.

To review a complete festival schedule and purchase tickets, go to


Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth (10/6 at the Rafael): This documentary under PBS' American Masters banner won't hit the airwaves until February of next year. If you care about Alice Walker—or, for that matter, the literary canon—be the first to see Pratibha Parmar's 82-minute film. Extensive interviews with Walker, rare photographs, and archival media footage (as well as a bit of newly shot fly-on-the-wall material) make up most of the film, but you also get an impressive collection of talking heads, ranging from Walker's family and friends to celebrity colleagues and admirers, including the late Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Sapphire, and crew and cast members from the film version of The Color Purple: Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg. Recommended.

All is Lost (10/12 at the Rafael, 10/13 at the Sequoia): Robert Redford makes a literal splash with this late-career showcase for his acting talent. Directed by up-and-comer J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), All is Lost is all Redford, all the time, a calculated gamble that pays off (unless you hate Robert Redford, in which case, move along). Redford plays a man—on a solo sailing journey in the Indian Ocean—who runs into trouble that tests his survival skills and his psyche as he stares death in the face. A survivalist adventure-drama and an understated allegory for dealing with aging and the inevitablity of death, All is Lost beats the odds to make the nearly dialogue-free 106-minute film mostly mesmerizing, though there are times you may grouse that, far-reaching metaphors aside, it's basically 106 minutes of a guy getting into trouble on and around a boat. Recommended.

Dallas Buyers Club (10/10 at the Rafael): The movie where Matthew McConaughey gets scary-skinny has finally arrived, and it's not just about the weight loss. Yes, Dallas Buyers Club is classic "Oscar bait," and arguably falls into some common traps. Like the long history of black stories told through a white protagonist, this one can be seen as a presumptively gay-centric story—an AIDS crisis drama—told through a straight protagonist—whose sidekick is, oh boy, a drug-addicted transgender woman, played by Jared Leto (the fact-based drama plays it fast and loose). Still, on its own terms, Jean-Marc Vallée's film doesn't lack for potent drama, and McConaughey and Leto mesmerize. Lively, funny, and scary, Dallas Buyers Club bristles with the most compelling drama of all: the grasping will to live and make it count. A toss-up.

Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (10/7 at the Century Cinema Corte Madera): If you've never seen Return of the Jedi on the big screen, you'd be nuts to miss this opportunity, at an event sure to have some surprise guests. From the Golden Age of blockbusters, this one's got Harrison Ford in his prime, spectacular set pieces (the skiff opening, the redwood-forest speeder-bike chase), and wild aliens (yes, Ewoks). Though the least of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi is still a classic action movie that provided closure to a classic franchise. One thing's for sure: kids love it, and so do those overgrown ones called fanboys and fangirls. And, really, if a movie with characters called Jabba the Hutt, Bib Fortuna, and Salacious Crumb is wrong, I don't want to be right. Highly recommended.

Zaytoun (10/12 at the Sequoia, 10/13 at the Rafael): Eran Riklis, the director of Lemon Tree, returns with Zaytoun, an unfortunately ridiculous tale set in 1982 Beirut. In a bit of unlikely casting, Stephen Dorff plays an Israeli fighter pilot captured by the PLO and sprung by a fiesty Palestinian refugee kid (Abdallah El Akal) who needs an escort home. Neither Nader Rizq's screenplay nor Riklis' direction (and certainly not the uneven performances) can sell the idea of these characters bonding so cheerily, even after a period of sniping. And you'll feel every one of the film's 110 minutes as the blindingly obvious "message picture" predictably plods along. Skip it.