The 2023 Mill Valley Film Festival showcases an eclectic mix of Oscar-bait and indie films from around the world, including The Promised Land, National Anthem, Fancy Dance, The Teachers’ Lounge, and more.
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The annual Mill Valley Film Festival in Marin County, California is both a showcase for Oscar-hopeful films and a more eclectic mix of excellent indie and foreign films, many of which don’t appear elsewhere on the fall festival calendar. In particular, the festival’s Mind the Gap program, a showcase for films by women directors, means the festival regularly programs great films that skip the major fall festivals after an early prestigious premieres. Many of these films have featured on our best films of the year lists, but tend to fly under the radar. And ever since the beginning of the pandemic, the festival has offered a selection of films to view online in California and the US — usually, these more under-the-radar films.
Among the festival’s more eclectic selections were two recent films by the great Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, Charlatan and Spoor. Her new film, Green Border, is surprisingly not at the festival despite screening at Venice/TIFF/NYFF. The festival also has a knack for programming comedies and crowd-pleasers, often from Berlin and Cannes, that other fall festivals usually ignore. Past highlights have included Sally Potter’s star-studded The Party, Caroline Vignal’s mid-life crisis film My Donkey, My Lover & I, and Yngvild Sve Flikke’s graphic novel adaptation Ninjababy.
Most impressively though, MVFF has screened several films that made our list of the Best Acquisition Titles at TIFF (i.e., films still seeking distribution), giving them one of very few other platforms before they disappeared or faded into security. That included our #9 film of the 2010s, the charming comedy about life under oppression, Sergio and Sergei. The film follows a Cuban professor and ham radio enthusiast who befriends the last astronaut on the MIR just as the Soviet Union is falling. They also screened the Iranian drama Bandar Band, which documented the massive floods that hit Iran in 2019 in a light-hearted film about a band trying to make their way to a concert. It’s still seeking US distribution though it is on VOD in Canada.
Under-the-radar films at MVFF
Among this year’s crop of must-see under-the-radar films at the festival are Erica Tremblay’s debut feature, Fancy Dance, starring soon-to-be-Oscar-Winnner Lily Gladstone. The film follows an Indigenous woman (played by Gladstone) and her niece ( ) as they go on a road trip in search of her missing (and possibly murdered) sister. It was one of our favourite films at Sundance (you can listen to our discussion here), and features another great Gladstone performance.
Five to see at MVFF 2023
Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet, France)
Justine Triet became the third woman director to win the Palme d’Or this year with Anatomy of a Fall, a smart autopsy of a relationship starring the amazing Sandra Hüller. It was a major highlight at TIFF.
Anatomy of a Fall will be released this month.
Fancy Dance (Erica Tremblay, USA)
One of the best films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Erica Tremblay’s debut feature Fancy Dance stars soon-to-be-Oscar-Winnner Lily Gladstone as an Indigenous woman who goes on a road trip with her niece in search of her missing (and possibly murdered) sister. The film pairs well with Rustic Oracle, a film about missing and murdered Indigenous women from a Canadian perspective, and Ivan Sen’s forthcoming Limbo, which looks at the issue from an Australian perspective.
We went deep on the film during our Sundance Podcast Season.
Fancy Dance is still seeking North American distribution.
National Anthem (Luke Gilford, USA)
After giving one of the best performances of 2016 in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete (a film we loved so much we wrote a book on it), Charlie Plummer returns to the American West in Luke Gilford’s feature debut film, National Anthem. When twenty-one-year-old Dylan (Plummer) gets a job as a dayhand at a New Mexico ranch that’s a haven for the queer community, his world opens up. Having spent his life in a masculine, heteronormative and even highly homophobic society, he suddenly discovers the queer rodeo circuit and a group of openly queer people, including drag queens.Gilford celebrates the queerness of the community, outfitting the group in colourful and extravagant costumes and showing us how the group communicates through touch and sex.
A quiet kid stuck raising his younger brother because his mother is too immature to do so, Dylan has never found his place in the world or had the chance to explore his sexuality. When he first spots Sky (the incredibly compelling Eve Lindley), she’s riding a horse in a colourful gown that looks like it belongs at a high school prom. It’s a romantic image of the West and someone (a transgender woman) who isn’t usually welcome into this culture of cowboys. Lindley is so full of light and warmth that Dylan and we fall head over heels for her, even though it’s a doomed romance. But it’s through their connection that he discovers the queer rodeo circuit and develops the confidence to take charge of his life.
National Anthem is still seeking North American distribution.
The Pigeon Tunnel (Errol Morris, USA)
Errol Morris’s The Pigeon Tunnel is a work of creative nonfiction filmmaking in which Morris interrogates John le Carré about the inspirations for his world-reknowned spy fiction — particularly The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Morris favours Dutch angles, as befits a spy novelist, rather than his usual head-on interrotron interviews. Morris illuminates their discussions with a mix of archival footage, clips from screen adaptations of le Carré’s work, and original recreations. As a le Carré fan, I enjoyed it as a curio, but le Carré is cagey about a number of topics which make the film less illuminating than one might hope.
The Pigeon Tunnel will be released in late October before streaming on Apple TV.
The Promised Land (Nikolaj Arcel, Denmark)
In Nikolaj Arcel’s (A Royal Affair) Danish western, The Promised Land, former military captain Ludvig (Mads Mikkelsen) tries to turn a plot of harsh terrain into a farm while fighting against his mustache-twirling nobleman neighbour’s (Simon Bennebjerg) attempts to stop him. Set in the nineteenth century, it’s a roaring good time with gorgeous sweeping landscapes. Mikkelsen plays Ludvig as a man trying to live with integrity against a world that makes this problematic. His missteps make him compelling, even if, as we must expect, good triumphs (mostly) in the end. There’s also excellent supporting work from Amanda Collin as Ludvig’s maid-turned-lover, Kristine Kulath Thorp (Ninjababy) as his erstwhile paramour, and Gustav Lindh (Queen of Hearts) as the kind-hearted priest.
The Promised Land will be released by Magnolia Pictures in late 2023 or early 2024.
The Teachers’ Lounge
Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge was one of my favourite films out of the Berlinale and is now Germany’s entry for the Best International Film Oscar. It’s the story of a well-meaning middle-school teacher, a Polish immigrant, who thinks she catches a student stealing from her in the teachers’ lounge. Her recriminations land her in increasingly hot water as she discovers the situation is more complicated than she’d like. What she has started quickly slips outside of her control until she starts making things worse for everyone. The more she tries to course-correct, the more trouble hse gets herself into. It’s a harrowing look at how the worst thing you can do as a teacher is to get involved to make things better because you’ll only get penalized for it and may not even solve the problem.
The Teachers’ Lounge will be released in 2024 by Sony Classics.
You may also like our reviews of other films like Freestyle which also star Benjamin Voisin…
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