Helen Hunt and John Hawkes Star in "The Sessions"
Fox Searchlight Helen Hunt and John Hawkes Star in "The Sessions"

Despite the fact that it’s located less than an hour from my house in Berkeley, I have never actually attended the Mill Valley Film Festival in a serious fashion. 

But this year the Festival seemed unusually festive. Perhaps this was occasioned by its 35th anniversary.  Perhaps because, as we’ve noted before, film festivals are increasingly becoming the default method of distribution in an era when art houses are diminishing (San Francisco’s three-screen Lumiere, built in 1967 and operated by Landmark since 1991, just closed in September).  A film that does well at Mill Valley could be brought back for a regular run at the three-screen Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael or Cinemark’s two-screen Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley, the festival’s major locations.  Or it's another stop on the award season train, trying to reach Bay Area Oscar voters.

Mill Valley would be more appealing to someone who hadn’t already sampled some of its big-ticket items at earlier fests. Festival favorites “Argo” (seemingly moments before its commercial opening, but with the added allure of the presence of Bryan Cranston and screenwriter Chris Terrio), “The Attack,” “Beyond the Hills,” “Caesar Must Die,” “The Deep,” “Holy Motors,” “The Impossible,” “Like Someone in Love,” “On the Road” (with producer Rebecca Yeldham), “Reality,” “Road North,” “A Royal Affair,” “The Sapphires,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Silver Linings Playbook" and “To Kill a Beaver,” all played in Mill Valley. 

I have a friend who is an entertainment reporter for Spain’s largest television network, who grades his impression of film festivals as to how much access he’s granted to movie stars and star directors.  This year at Mill Valley he could have interviewed Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell, Martin McDonagh, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, Ben Lewin, Mira Nair, Dustin Hoffman, Allison Anders, Ken Burns, Matthew Lillard, Billy Bob Thornton, Fisher Stevens, Stevie Nicks and Dave Stewart, among others. That’s a better haul than he made at Toronto. 

The biggest surprise for me was the unannounced onstage appearance of Ang Lee in San Rafael after the closing night film, his dazzling, rather astonishing 3-D “Life of Pi.” (Apparently Mill Valley showed his first film, “Pushing Hands,” “after it was turned down by Sundance,” and the festival mounted a tribute to him in 2007, so they have a special relationship.) The fest told us that the version of “Life of Pi” that showed previously at the New York Film Festival was not “complete,” as this one was, but when asked afterwards what the differences were, we were told that technical difficulties with projection determined that the print showed in San Rafael was the same as the New York Film Festival one. And that the more complete version (“and you could only tell the difference if you worked at Industrial Light and Magic”) only screened in Mill Valley – a real head-scratcher, because to the untutored eye, the projection capabilities of the San Rafael theaters are better than those in Mill Valley.  Whatever.

Mill Valley provided an early look, often in the presence of filmmakers, of a number of movies that are set for distribution, including Ken Burns’ shocking miscarriage-of-justice doc “Central Park Five”  -- I was living in New York at the time of the case, and remember first reading the heretofore-unknown-term “wilding,” being amazed at how quickly they found and arrested the suspects, especially since the victim was comatose – which in itself should have led me, as well as others, to distrust the narrative of the police. 

“The Sessions,” about the sexual education of a real-life polio victim mostly confined to an iron lung, was screened as part of a well-deserved tribute to John Hawkes, modest and diffident onstage, joined by the sassy, sexy, funny Helen Hunt (who gives an equally if not more amazing performance as his sex surrogate, whose real-life counterpart was in the audience), and Australian director Ben Lewin, also disabled by polio.