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For a relatively small film festival, Mill Valley's got a surprisingly high profile

For a (relatively) small-scale, hands-on, audience-friendly film festival, Mill Valley's eclectic mix of indie features, foreign fare, shorts, documentaries, and personal appearances has a surprisingly high profile. This Thursday's opening night includes Out of Time (with Denzel Washington), Sundance favorite The Station Agent, and John Sayles' latest, Casa de los Babys (see Page 51 for a review). Other big-name screenings include Neil Young's Greendale and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Plath biopic Sylvia. Plus, there are in-person tributes to such luminaries as Lili Taylor (Saturday) and Peter Coyote (next Thursday).

For all the glitter of seeing good movies a few weeks before they open at regular theaters, the primary reason to attend a film festival is to screen things you might not see otherwise. Among those are Delphine Gleize's unclassifiable Carnage, which traces the aftermath of a bloody bullfight across several lives, and Joey Curtis' Quattro Noza, an unabashed melodrama set among the young, beautiful, and doomed of Southern California's street racers. A recommended sleeper is Hurt McDermott's Nightingale in a Music Box, an enthralling intellectual puzzler about a mind-controlled industrial spy.

As always, Mill Valley sponsors generous programs of short films (including six of its traditional "5@5" compilations) and documentaries. Prisoner of Paradise by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender is the gripping, dreadful true story of a celebrated star of Weimar Germany and the piece he was forced to make celebrating the Nazi showpiece camp Thereisenstadt. The fest also screens many hard-to-find movies from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, including the uplifting Indian drama The Guardian Spirit of the House, by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, which offers a daring critique of Gandhi's ideals. Finally, pioneering Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang's Springtime in a Small Town went unpreviewed but is still a must-see: It's the first picture in a decade from the maker of the visually stunning The Horse Thiefand The Blue Kite.

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