Pass the Remote: Sonoma film fest, movies from Mexico

Thomas Napper’s “Widow Clicquot" with Haley Bennett is the perfect opening night selection for the Sonoma International Film Festival. (Courtesy Vertical Entertainment)

The secret about Sonoma having one the Bay Area’s finest film festivals has been uncovered. It’s a cinematic treasure, worth the drive from wherever you reside. This week, we look at the 27th annual Sonoma International Film Festival, running March 20-24. 

We also shine a spotlight on an exciting Mexico movie series opening this week at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and dish out savory details regarding a hailed documentary about an iconic food writer.  

Sonoma film fest programmers outdid themselves in selecting one of the best, most appropriate opening night selections, given the region’s vintner cred. 

Director Thomas Napper’s “Widow Clicquot” delves into the life of a French Champagne legend. A mesmerizing Haley Bennett plays the enterprising real-life figure Madame Clicquot (born Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin), who, in the late 18th century, bucked the odds and sexism of the times to create a Champagne industry. Her legacy lives to this very day. 

In 90 engrossing, focused minutes, Napper and screenwriters Erin Dignam and Christopher Monger cover a lot of territory and topics: mental illness, familial ties, complicated relationships, sexuality, and corseted views about what women could and couldn’t do. The team used Tilar Mazzeo’s 2008 biography as their basis. 

Some of the film’s strongest sequences are flashbacks that elaborate on the passionate but volatile arranged marriage of Barbe-Nicole and Francois Clicquot (Tom Sturridge, in a heartbreaking performance). He was the mercurial and troubled son of a wealthy textile business who also had a small vineyard. 

The sensual scenes (this is hardly a boring, prim biopic) between the lovers evolve into something unstable and concerning, eventually leading the resourceful Barbe-Nicole to defy constraints. Her resolve to chart a fresh direction for her business and personal world makes you want to stand up and cheer at the end. What a great opening night film. Producer Christina Weiss Lurie and author Mazzeo will be in town for the screenings, at 6:30 p.m. March 20 in Veterans Hall No. 1 in Santa Rosa and the same time at the Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma.   

“Extremely Unique Dynamic,” getting its world premiere, is a charmer about two best friends making a movie over a pivotal weekend. (Courtesy Sonoma International Film Festival)

Another highlight from the slate of 43 narrative features, 16 documentaries and 48 shorts is the sassy Asian American buddy pic “Extremely Unique Dynamic,” in its world premiere. 

Ivan Leung and Harrison Xu star in (and cowrote, co-produced and co-directed with Katherine Dudas) the irresistible, low-budget meta-meta comedy. The actors play off each other well, as 20-year-old boyhood friends spending their last weekend together in Los Angeles before Ryan (Xu) zips off to Canada with his fiancé. Unbeknownst to Ryan, Daniel (Leung) harbors a secret that he’s gay and has a bit of a crush on his bestie. That revelation, and more, get blurted out during the guys’ attempt to shoot a meta movie, which is not so loosely based on themselves. Stocked with fun film references and buoyed by energetic performances, “Extremely Unique Dynamic” suggests these two filmmakers are on the path for bigger pictures. Screenings are at 7 p.m. March 21 at the Sonoma Community Center, followed by a party with host James Cameron Mitchell of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (tickets are $85) and 1 p.m. March 23 at the same location (tickets are $20).  

Luc Besson’s wild ride “Dogman” closes the Sonoma International Film Festival. (Courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment)

Other highlights include Ethan Hawke’s Flannery O’Connor biopic “Wildcat” starring his daughter Maya Hawke (6 p.m. March 23 and 10 a.m. March 24 at Sebastiani Theatre); the action-packed closing night feature “Dogman” from Luc Besson (4 p.m. March 24 at Sebastiani Theatre); and underrated filmmaker Goran Stolevski’s LGBTQ-themed family drama “Housekeeping for Beginners” (1 p.m. March 22 at Sebastiani Theatre and 7 p.m. March 23 at Sonoma Community Center). Also, a tribute and presentation of the SIFF Lifetime Achievement Award to Beau Bridges, and conversation with the actor, follows a screening of “The Fabulous Baker Boys” at 4 p.m., March 22 at the Sebastiani Theatre. Tickets are $50.  

For the full schedule and tickets, visit  

At the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, film and media professor Nicolás Pereda curates a terrific series, the seven-film program “Nicolás Pereda Selects: Recent Films from Mexico,” running March 20 through May 20 and featuring conversations with some of the filmmakers. 

“Prayers for the Stolen” screens in Berkeley in “Nicolás Pereda Selects: Recent Films from Mexico,” a seven-movie series. (Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive)

It opens with Tatiana Huezo’s “The Echo,” a documentary peeking into the lives of three families living in a village outside Mexico City. Huezo is slated to attend, then return March 22 for the presentation of her 2021 feature “Prayers for the Stolen,” which was Mexico’s Oscar submission that year. It’s a unique coming-of-age story about three resilient girls living in the shadows of a drug cartel. 

Other titles include: Lila Avilés’ tender “Tótem,” about a young girl observing preparations for her terminally ill dad’s birthday party, on March 30; “Short Films by Nicolás Pereda,” showcasing four of his celebrated works, on April 6; Natalia Almada’s somber drama about feeling alone in Mexico City “Everything Else” on April 12, with the director attending; Juan Pablo González’s sensational character study about a tequila businesswoman confronting adversity, “Dos Estaciones” on April 18; and Yulene Olaizola’s colonialism-themed drama set in the 1920s Mayan jungles, “Tragic Jungle” on May 2. For more details and tickets, visit

Few writers could so poetically and eloquently describe their personal culinary adventures with the beauty of the late M.F.K. Fisher. In “The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher,” San Francisco director Gregory Bezat sprinkles passages from Fisher’s writing into a lovely broth that simmers with observations from top chefs Alice Waters, Jacques Pepin, Ruth Reichl and others. The Berkeley Documentary Film Series at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St., Berkeley, screens the Bay Area favorite at 7 p.m. March 21. Be sure to stay for a conversation with Bezat, co-producer Gary Meyer, narrator and actor Mary Dills, food and travel writer L. John Harris and Bay Area book publisher Jack Shoemaker. Tickets are $15 at  

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