October is Film Fest Season in the Bay Area

Big-name features, shorts, documentaries, and foreign films — this month has it all.

And now, October comes with its usual plethora of film festivals. What once was a movable Bay Area-wide fiesta of startling and rare films, drink lines, pass-wrangling, and celebrity elbow-rubbing — “My God! You. You’re James Urbaniak!” — is gone. Imagine a matching shot: the vapor of steam trays under a mess of canapes gives way to blasts of heat radiating from remote server farms. The dozens of film festivals, regularly scheduled for this busy month, have all retreated online.

The 43rd annual Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 8-18, in tandem with the postponed DocLands. While mostly a streaming affair, opening night will feature nine screenings at a pop-up drive-in by the lagoon at the Marin Civic Center.

One of these live screenings marks the 40th anniversary revival of The Empire Strikes Back — best of the original Star Wars trilogy by a mile, with its suave Bogie and Bacall-style romance between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Kate Winslet’s new one, Ammonite, is also playing here.

Opening night will also feature a new version (by British theatrical director Edward Hall) of Blithe Spirit. Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann, and Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey are the triangle that’s the focus of Noël Coward’s my-wife-and-my-dead-wife comedy. This was perfectly adapted in 1945 by David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), but this rendition stars Judi Dench as the addled psychic in the role that made Dame Margaret Rutherford’s name — not a bad swap. 

Like Winslet, Dench is among a number of guests to be seen online over the course of the festival. Others include the Oscar-, Tony-, and Emmy-winner Viola Davis, and Irish actress Clare Dunne in the new film by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia). Spike Lee is interviewed by his star in Da Five Bloods, Oakland-based actor Delroy Lindo. 

Discussing her art is Sophia Loren, now 86 and starring in her son Edoardo Ponti’s The Life Ahead. The superb Regina King (of The Watchmen and If Beale Street Could Talk) is bringing her directorial debut One Night in Miami, about a 1960s party hosted by Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) in his pre-Muhammed Ali days. He celebrates a fight with a few of his friends: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), sweet soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).  

And Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is typically politically punchy material, a feature film version about the federal trial of political agitators who came to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Sasha Baron Cohen, soon to be reprising his role as Borat, plays the political prankster Abbie Hoffman.

Among the documentaries at virtual Mill Valley: Yael Bridge’s The Big Scary ‘S’ Word is a rousing, well-edited study about the possibilities of democratic socialism. Conservative apologists enjoy reminding Democrats that the GOP began as an anti-slavery party. They tend to forget the party, founded in Ripon, Wisconsin in the 1840s, was originated by socialist immigrants. Ol’ Abe himself corresponded with Karl Marx when the latter was writing for the New York Herald.  Interviewees include Cornel West, Eric Foner, and a roster of professors — many of them descendants of slaves, who experienced the power of unfettered capitalism. ‘S’ Word includes invigorating footage of the great teacher’s strike in Oklahoma. Another subject is Lee Carter, now the majority whip in the Virginia House of Delegates. This socialist ex-Marine, who still keeps his red hair in a high and tight cut, drives Uber to make a buck. He has little fear of being commie-bated: “I was born in 1987, I don’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall…”  

Mill Valley this year has a host of local filmmakers. Playing at the MVFF’s drive-in is Martin Shore’s follow up to his Take Me To The River: Take Me to the River New Orleans, profiling Crescent City musicians from the Neville Brothers to Ani DiFranco. Documentarian Roko Belic (of Genghis Blues) directed Trust Me, about the political manipulation of social media. Filmmaker Don Hardy followed actor Sean Penn on a humanitarian trip to Haiti (Citizen Penn). Alexander Schwartz observes the vanishing of The Last Glaciers in Yosemite. And Dick Ogg: Fisherman is Cynthia Abbott’s profile of a longtime Bodega Bay professional fisher.

The 11th annual Silicon Valley African Film Festival runs online, Oct. 9-11. Screenings include Musa (Cameroon) about a Muslim commoner in love with a princess. Egypt’s When We Were Born concerns a male prostitute in love. Egypt used to have a tradition of Hollywood-style musicals in the 1940s, with suave tuxedoed crooners and bright-eyed female singers. This one is something closer to the social protest of Rent. And Nigeria’s Wede is about the fight against female circumcision. 

Oct. 3-10, the 17th annual San Francisco Greek Film Festival offers seven free features for downloading and several short films. Among the features is My Name is Eftihia. It’s a biopic of Eftihia Papagiannopoulou, one of those grandmotherly, long-lived female singers — analogous to Mistinguett in France or Chavela Vargas in Mexico — who seem to represent something deeper to their nation than flags or armies. Siege on Liperti Street is about the fight against the austerity crisis that’s rattled Greece. It takes place in Cypress, where the UN has for decades held the line that keeps Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the capital city of Nicosia apart.   

Cinequest, San Jose’s oldest film fest, was cancelled by the epidemic. Rebranded as Cinejoy (Oct. 1-14) it offers a new downloadable film every night. Documentaries include profiles of the late singer Helen Reddy and the much-mourned John Lewis. Among the features is Take Out Girl, about a Chinese food delivery person in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood.

The Center for Asian-American Media (CAAM) is going forth with a three day CAAMfest Forward, Oct. 14-18, with a two day stand at a pop-up drive-in at Fort Mason. The festival’s opening day honors the Philippines, with Broadway star Lea Salonga seen in a concert film with the Sydney Philharmonic. She’s double-billed with San Lorenzo-raised rapper Rudy Ibarra telling her story in 7000 Miles: Homecoming. 

Oct. 15 is an evening of Hong Kong features: A Simple Life (2010) stars Andy Lau as a film producer who slows his career down to take care of the maid (Deannie Ip) who raised him as a child. My Prince Edward by Norris Wong is the United States premiere about a big fat Hong Kong wedding that goes south.

The new Wayne Wang film Coming Home Again also makes it’s American debut online during CAAM. The San Francisco-based Wang should need no introduction, but he’s created more than a dozen sharp and introspective films, including a pair in collaboration with Paul Auster. In 1997, Wang made the particularly touching Chinese Box about the end of Hong Kong as an independent city, witnessed by a dying British expat (Jeremy Irons).  

Wang’s Coming Home Again, which played at Toronto last year, is based on an autobiographical essay in the New Yorker by San Francisco’s Chang-Rae Lee. It’s subject matter that must have seemed all the more viable after The Farewell was a hit. In this, Lee (Justin Chong) arrives back in the city to tend his touchy, moribund mother. 

Oct. 9-18 is the San Francisco Independent Short Film Festival, featuring some 150 short films to be chosen from. It is followed on Oct. 22 by the San Jose International Short Film Festival

Oct. 15-25 is one of the most rewarding film fests in the nation, the Palo Alto-based UNAFF. The United Nations Association Film Festival’s theme this year is “The Power of Empathy.” The UNAFF is sponsored by a non-profit that aims to further the goals of the United Nations. It’s fascinating documentary-heavy roster of short and feature films takes on controversies without fear. This year’s picks include The Boys Who Said No! about resistance to the war in Vietnam.  

There’s an old song of coded advice to the fleeing slave, Follow the Drinking Gourd… it tells a fugitive heading North to watch the skies for the fixed star Polaris, pointed at by the handle of the “drinking gourd,” the Big Dipper. East Bay filmmaker Shirah Dedman’s Follow the Drinking Gourd studies the way some activists and urban farmers are dealing with the problem of the food desert in African-American neighborhoods.  

And Jennifer Newsom — the First Partner of our state — directs The Great American Lie, about the problems of a society built on accumulation, debt and consumption.

A busy month, to be sure. May God have mercy on your Roku.


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