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Hanging with the chic riffraff at the 25th anniversary Mill Valley Film Festival

The chic riffraff sipping merlot in Ralph Lauren corduroys are an essential part of the Mill Valley Film Festival ambience. Then again, so are social-issues films from the U.K., no-frills stories from Iran, and soulful documentaries from around the U.S.

Many of the hottest international titles in the current fest -- including Mike Leigh's All or Nothing and The Crime of Father Amaro, the Mexican tale of a morally conflicted priest -- open later this year. Nonetheless, the U.S. premiere of Ken Loach's devastating domestic drama Sweet Sixteen and the attendance of the brilliant young Scottish director Lynne Ramsay with Morvern Callar are strong lures. And since István Szabó's moral conundrum Taking Sides and the cynical, gifted Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (which also closes the Arab Film Festival next month) are the kind of complex, nuanced films that distributors tend to avoid, they offer further incentive to cross the big orange bridge.

More reasons come from abroad. Gagooman (The Twilight), receiving its U.S. premiere, parlays the distinctively Iranian technique of re-creating real events with the original participants into a marvelous portrait of prison compassion. Let's Talk, by Indian director Ram Madhvani, delivers a nervy, intimate portrayal of a marriage in crisis that's a spiritual descendant more of Bergman and Cassavetes than of Bollywood.

Mill Valley's track record with American indies has been spotty, but The Slaughter Rule, featuring David Morse as a Montana amateur football coach with designs on Ryan Gosling (The Believer), captures the creepiness of small-town life. Big-city anomie drives Rodger Dodger, starring Campbell Scott as a cocksure Manhattan copywriter who learns the painful way that tag lines don't get you through life. Meanwhile, documentary high notes are sounded by Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a pair of music flicks that will get greater play in coming months, and Lost in La Mancha, a movie that tracks Terry Gilliam's thwarted efforts to make Don Quixoteinto a film.

Mill Valley's glamour quotient is filled this year, its 25th, with tributes to Edward Asner (Lou Grant), Milos Forman (represented by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and a pair of The Making Of documentaries), Robin Wright Penn (White Oleander, one of the opening-night attractions), and Dianne Wiest (adrift in the inept farce Merci Docteur Rey, world-premiering on closing night). Whether any of today's stars can match Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart, on view in the new restoration of Joseph Mankiewicz's 1954 The Barefoot Contessa, is a question best debated over a glass.

 
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