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26th Annual Mill Valley Film Festival

If you live in San Francisco, the East Bay or, especially, the South Bay a drive to Marin to see a movie may seem like a daunting task. But these are no ordinary movies that you can catch at your local playhouse- these are handpicked gems of celluloid offered up as part of the 26th Annual Mill Valley Film Festival. In addition to several must-sees, this year stands out with three tributes: a tribute to Lili Taylor (10/4) showing A Slipping-Down Life, a tribute to local legend Peter Coyote (10/9) showing a clips program of highlights with an onstage interview with Ben Fong Torres and a tribute to Canadian director Denys Arcand (10/11) with a onstage interview with Michael Fox followed by a screening of a new print of The Decline of the American Empire. Another highlight will be a Calypso concert (10/8, 10/7 is sold out) featuring the legends Lord Crazy, Lord Superior and Lord Relator.

Another aspect that sets this festival apart from the rest is that it shows three Opening Night films. This year you have your pick from: Out of Time, The Station Agent and Casa de los Babys. Below are my picks:

Casa de los Babys (Director John Sayles)- Opening Night
What Sayles does best is present to you very complicated ideas through inter-connected narratives without any easy explanations or neat and tidy endings. Life isn't neat and neither are his films. An all-star ensemble cast in which each and every single actor nails their role: Lili Taylor, Rita Moreno, Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen and Susan Lynch, brings the story to life. Six white women, only one of whom can actually speak Spanish, travel to an unidentified Latin country to adopt babies. Due to some bureaucratic scheme, they are forced to stay there, all together in a hotel like some kind of bizarre summer camp, for an average of two to three months while their paperwork is processed. As the days go by, under the pressure of living in a foreign country and on the verge of motherhood, the women fall to vicious gossip as they wile away their days blind to the socio-economic-cultural differences of the country and peoples surrounding them.

The Barbarian Invasions (Director Denys Arcand)- Closing Night
It's difficult to blend political critique, philosophical discourse and treatises on the meaning of life without an end product that seems heavy-handed and pretentious; however, Arcand manages to do it smoothly. The terminal illness of Remy (Remy Girard), a hedonistic retired professor, brings the characters from Decline of the American Empire together once again as they reminisce about the good old days where you could have as many lovers as you wanted and the world was yours to deconstruct. Remy reconciles with his son and makes peace with the process of aging in this poignant farewell.

Afghanistan Unveiled (Director Brigitte Brault)
After being "freed' of the Taliban, women were allowed, once again, to leave their homes and pursue their careers. Free of oppressing burkas, the camera follows fourteen female journalists as they venture out into the countryside to explore and shine light onto the condition of women in their country. This emotionally moving documentary shows not only the wrenching abuse so many women and peoples had suffered under the Taliban rule, and continue to suffer to this day, but also the inspiring strength and courage (of both the journalists and the women they interview) with which they continue to live.

Calypso Dreams (Directors Geoffrey Dunn & Michael Horne)
If you love calypso music then this is the movie for you. Shot with a digital camera, it brings a decidedly homegrown feel to an art based in the roots of the community. Every major player in this music form, a mixture of African oral tradition, indigenous beats and folk lore and practiced predominantly in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, is interviewed and they all respond with an infectious passion and enthusiasm.

Girl with Pearl Earring (Director Peter Webber)
This quiet yet moving visual adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's novel of the same name, is a gorgeous example of art imitating art. Inspired by the famed and enigmatic painting by the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, it tells the tale behind the portrait of a young girl. The darkly handsome actor Colin Firth plays Vermeer and the equally mystifying actress Scarlet Johansson plays Griet, the daughter of a disabled tile-maker who is forced to become a maid in the residence of the painter. The two strike up an intimate yet non-sexual relationship that disrupts the balance of a power in a household consisting of an ever-pregnant wife, a domineering mother-in-law and neglected, bitter children.

Japanese Story (Director Sue Brooks)
At first this movie may seem like a comedy but be very clear that it is not. Toni Collette is a geologist stuck with the laborious task of driving a mysterious and taciturn Japanese client, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), around the Australian outback. The two find themselves at odds, kept apart by language barriers and cultural stereotypes, until they get stuck in the desert. The first half of the film is very different from the latter half; this difference is accentuated by Collette, who churns out a heartbreaking performance that leaves you with a palpable sense of travesty, and the haunting score of traditional Japanese music.

Shattered Glass (Director Billy Ray)
What was Stephen Glass thinking? This biopic on Glass (played by Hayden Christensen, who does a significantly better job here than he does in Star Wars Episodes I and II playing Anakin Skywalker) explores the years during which he was the rising star of the journalism world, being the youngest writer- at the ripe old age of twenty-four- on staff at The New Republic, and his great fall as he is discovered to be a forger and a liar. Hayden portrays Glass as an insecure, whiney ass-kisser who feigns humility to gain the upper hand in the Łber-competitive environment of magazine publishing. His co-workers, including Caitlin (ChloŽ Sevigny) and Amy (Melanie Lynskey) eat it up; however, his editors, played with great flare by Hank Azaria, as Michael, and Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck the man who unravels the mystery, don't quite buy the act. Ray utilizes great control in creating a tension-filled story that grips you all the way to the end.

Tupperware! (Director Laurie Kahn-Leavitt)
You know you have at least one piece in your cupboards. Don't deny it. Tupperware is a kitchen staple and this fun doc explores the history of the company, from its humble origins to the international business it is today. But, like the company itself, the foundation of this tale depends on the people involved such as Brownie Wise, the visionary executive (and one of the first high-level females executives in this country) who developed the idea of home-based selling, i.e. Tupperware parties, and the many women who took a chance on a wild idea to become distributors and salespeople in order to bring in more income for their families. The production values of this lively film are high- using archival footage, photos and interviews to paste together the story behind this phenomenon.