Under the radar films at Mill Valley Film Festival

Shirley Sun/Staff

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The Mill Valley Film Festival lineup is completely stacked this year, from top to bottom, with Oscar-worthy films (“La La Land”), future blockbusters (“Arrival”) and acclaimed foreign gems (“Fire at Sea”). The film festival’s lineup even competes with the year-end monsters such as Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival and New York Film Festival. Yet, there are also plenty of under-the-radar films that deserve to be seen at the film festival, including the group of films The Daily Californian was able to check out at the festival. Here are the films we saw:

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Director: Barry Jenkins
Grade: A

Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” details the life of Chiron, a young Black man living in South Florida, as he navigates through childhood, teenage years and adulthood. As Chiron grows up he must wrestle with his sense of identity, sexuality and masculinity.

“Moonlight” is the rare film that speaks volumes without saying much at all. The best moments in the film are wordless exchanges, where one look from a character bears the weight of years’ worth of loneliness and heartache. Such subtlety demands quality actors, and Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris and André Holland turn in performances that are career highlights. A simple yet profound score from Nicholas Britell highlights “Moonlight’s” emotional beats, which endows each character with a new layer of depth. This focus on character continues with James Laxton’s cinematography, which is lush and emotive, transforming Florida’s vibrant pastels into a character of its own right.

“Moonlight’s” subtlety, intimate narrative and tour-de-force filmmaking make it the best film of the year, by far.

— Harrison Tunggal

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“The Salesman”
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Grade: A-

Asghar Farhadi is one of the greatest screenwriters and directors working today. The Iranian Oscar-winning director-writer of “A Separation” and “the Past” has made a career of making slowly paced, realistic films that explore the domestic sphere and the complexities of human nature. His newest, “The Salesman,” is no different, as Farhadi won Best Script at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

As a married couple (Cannes Best Actor winner Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) try to successfully mount an adaptation of the classic Arthur Miller play “Death of a Salesman,” Rana (Alidoosti) is brutally raped by a home-invader while Emad (Hosseini) is away.

From here, the film doesn’t hide the reveal of who committed the crime, but instead poses questions of the very nature of vengeance. The way Farhadi parallels the arc of Emad to that of Willy Loman is absolutely masterful. The slow-building, yet entirely devastating conclusion — one that questions who truly loses their humanity in a situation such as this — the film becomes a must see.

Levi Hill

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Director: Antonio Campos
Grade: A-

Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck in a biopic film about the devastating instant that made her famous. Christine lived a quietly pained life of general obscurity as a Florida television news reporter until she shot herself on air in 1974. The film watches Christine lurch through the weeks before her broadcasted suicide, demonstrating the emotional and physical nuances of a person who enforced a dizzyingly harsh rigidity on her life. The movie opens with her running some film on herself to determine whether she nods too empathetically during her on-camera interviews. It suffices to say that the culmination of this movie humanizes Christine more than any objective 1970s headline on her death could possibly have. Thanks to the brilliantly thorough character work of Hall, Christine is no longer solely the removed, austere woman who ended her life on an eerie prediction of the impending sensationalization of journalism. We have seen, at least partially, the painful, thrashing life of somebody who wanted desperately to do what she loved but also to make something of herself in an industry that demands ratings more than humanity.

— Olivia Jerram

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“In Dubious Battle”
Director: James Franco
Grade: D+

James Franco’s Depression-set period drama “In Dubious Battle,” based on a John Steinbeck novel about orchard pickers forming a strike against their greedy boss, is an astronomically boring film. While it does have a deep eye for the period and, in result, fantastic costume and production design, the film is full of the mediocre. Franco continues to prove that he doesn’t really know how to craft a gripping story, as nearly all of the emotional beats fall flat due to a bland progression of narrative and a misfire on what should’ve been rousing action scenes. He also fails the weight of the lead role not only by feeling miscast but also through stale and unconvincing acting. Nat Wolff doesn’t bring anything good to the table, and the people who can actually act — Ed Harris and Vincent D’Onofrio — are wasted. As the story wraps up, it’s really hard to care about anything the film wanted viewers to.

Kyle Kizu

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].