Pass the Remote: Mill Valley Film Fest shines on the big screen

Many films need to be experienced in a theater, not only because what you’re watching needs to be fully appreciated by viewing it on the biggest screen imaginable but also because it needs to be watched without interruptions. 

Such is the case with the bulk of the titles in the always-impressive 44th Mill Valley Film Festival, kicking off Thursday and running through Oct. 17.

This week’s and next week’s Pass the Remote recommends a few choice cuts from the 117 titles that are set to screen during the fest’s run at three locations: the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, the CineArts Sequoia theater in Mill Valley and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Some titles will also be available to stream online.

If you plan on attending, you need to meet these requirements: Showing your proof of vaccination or proffering proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test, and wearing a mask.


While many flock to the fest to catch the notable celebrity appearances, tributes and spotlights, there are many under-the-radar gems tucked into the program, which this year features women filmmakers for 55% of the titles.

The opening night selection is a musical adaptation of the classic “Cyrano” story that stars “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage. The closing night feature is Wes Anderson’s latest, “The French Dispatch,” with a vast cast.

Here are five worth seeking out:

Berkeley native Mike Mills directed and wrote the tender and compassionate “C’mon C’mon,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman. (Photo courtesy A24)

No other film in the lineup will make you smile and tear up — often at the same time — more than Berkeley native Mike Mills’ empathetic contemporary drama, “C’mon C’mon.” It’s shot in striking black-and-white and is a gentle and quiet film about a beautiful relationship that develops between a radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) and his quirky but adorable nephew (Woody Norman). It’s never overly sentimental, just true and caring as it reminds us of how utterly fragile we all are and that we need to carve out the time to really understand and appreciate each other. It’s a beauty. (Oct. 12 at the Smith Rafael Film Center, Oct. 13 and Oct. 14 at the CineArts Sequoia)

Former porn actor Mikey (San Francisco native Simon Rex) discovers there’s truth to the adage you can’t home again in “Red Rocket,” co-starring Brittney Rodriguez. (Photo courtesy A24)

What a thrill it is to watch a Bay Area-born actor slug a performance out of the ballpark as if he were the acting equivalent of San Francisco Giants’ Salvador Perez. Simon Rex does that, nailing every convincing second as the rascal Mikey, a chewed-up and washed-up porn star who revisits his Texas hometown and stirs up more trouble. Director/writer Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” is his best movie (“Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” are musts) yet, not only featuring one of 2021’s most electrifying, pitch-perfect performances but also ranking as the best film I’ve seen so far this year. (Saturday at the Smith Rafael Film Center)

Teen Naima (Novera Rahman) outsmarts those who get in her way of helping her father in “Rickshaw Girl.” (Photo courtesy Sleeper Wave Films & Half Stop Down)

Berkeley author Mitali Perkins will be attending the North American premiere of “Rickshaw Girl,” a YA-appropriate drama based on her beloved, much-honored 2007 book. Suitable for ages 11 and up, director Amitabh Reza Chowdhury’s take on the resiliency and spirit of a budding teen artist (Novera Rahman) in Bangladesh and her journey to help her ailing father by heading to the big city and impersonating a male rickshaw driver is an indie treasure. The uplifting story is stripped of gooey sugarcoating as Naima stands up to sexism and witnesses the divide between rich and poor. (Saturday and Monday at the CineArts Sequoia)

Simu Liu and Lorenza Izzo star in “Women Is Losers,” an indie find set in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival)

Speaking of resiliency, Celina (Lorenza Izzo) — the protagonist in director Lissette Feliciano’s feisty feminist statement “Women Is Losers” —knows how to triumph over adversity and sexism by pushing back on ridiculous cultural and societal attitudes about a woman of color in ’60s and ’70s San Francisco. Feliciano grew up in the Mission District, and that explains the sassy dance number in the Mission at the film’s start and ability to capture the S.F. of that era. Watch for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’” Simu Liu in a strong performance as an inappropriate bank boss, one of the men — along with Celina’s veteran husband (Bryan Craig) and abusive dad (Steven Bauer) — who attempt to hold the independent-minded Celina back from realizing her dreams. (Friday at the Smith Rafael Film Center, also available to stream)

If you’re a Bay Area music fan, you shouldn’t miss “Song for Cesar,” a documentary on the music, art and stage works that were inspired by the achievements of activist/labor leader Cesar Chavez, a jazz music aficionado.

Chock full of interviews with Bay Area musicians and featuring a performance recorded at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios, directors Abel Sanchez — of Pinole — and Andres Alegria — of Visitacion Valley — cram in a lot in their 85-minute feature, which receives its world premiere. On Oct. 15, there’s also a live music event at Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley, coinciding with the screening. (Oct. 15 at the CineArts Sequoia, Oct. 16 at BAMPFA)

To purchase tickets and check out the entire program, visit

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