Rewarding and off-the-radar Mill Valley Film Festival picks
FILM You could drive (or if you have the time, public transport) to the 34th annual Mill Valley Film Festival solely for movies like period drama Albert Nobbs, which is already generating Oscar buzz for Glenn Close. Hot tip, though: anything with the words "Oscar buzz" attached to it, or "critically acclaimed" (including believe-the-hype entries Martha Marcy May Marlene and Like Crazy), will likely arrive in San Francisco over the next few months.
However, Mill Valley also offers a huge schedule of films you haven't heard of yet, like Bill Couturié's Thumbs, a zippy doc about swift-fingered teens battling to win the 2010 US National Texting Championships. Before you shake your head in disbelief, Grandpa, note that the top finishers rake in major skrilla (first place: $50,000). Thumbs, which owes much to earlier competition docs like 2002's Spellbound, has already taken aim at its target demographic by airing on MTV, but it holds up beyond the small screen. Kids will dig the wholesome protagonists: the punky small-town girl who argues with her mother via text; the soft-spoken swim-team standout. But anyone who doesn't hang with the class of 2014 will find Thumbs an eye-opening (and surprisingly positive) peek at high-school society in the digital age.
Using technology in a completely different way is Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, acclaimed documentarian Pamela Yates' follow-up to her 1983 doc about the Guatemalan civil war, When the Mountains Tremble. "How does each of us weave our responsibilities into the fabric of history?" Yates wonders in her introspective voice-over. When a human-rights lawyer working to charge Guatemalan military leaders with genocide asks Yates for her Mountains outtakes, the filmmaker scours her archives, digging for evidence and eventually becoming deeply involved in the case. Granito is a legal thriller, but it's also a personal journey, for Yates and, most potently, survivors still traumatized by Guatemala's years of repression and violence.
On the lighter side is Smokin' Fish, a low-key profile of wry businessman Cory Mann (who also co-directs). Born in Juneau, raised in San Diego, the half-white, half-Native American ("For a long time, I thought I was Mexican!") puts his mail-order company on hold for a few months every year to catch and smoke salmon using traditional methods in rural Alaska. More than a character study, Smokin' Fish is also a portrait of what it means to be an "authentic Indian" in the 21st century, in a world where you can spend one day tangling with the IRS and the next trading fish for fresh moose meat.
A far less gratifying tradition is the subject of The Forgiveness of Blood, the sophomore effort from Maria Full of Grace (2004) director Joshua Marston. The Los Angeles-born, internationally-minded Marston travels to Albania for this fictional drama about the decades-old conflict between two rival families — and the devastating impact the eye-for-an-eye feud has on the younger generation. Already tapped as Albania's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars, Forgiveness is definitely gonna be one of those MVFF films you'll be able to see theatrically. Make sure you don't miss it.