The Mill Valley Film Festival is half over, but you still have an opportunity to catch several good movies. I'm waking from my slumber, somewhat tardy since the festival started Thursday, because there's one film in particular that I want to recommend, and there are still two chances to see it if you live in the Bay Area. Even if the tickets sell out, you can show up at the theater an hour or so before the movie and stand in the rush line. In most cases, your chances of getting in are pretty good.
But first some overall flavor. My favorite thing about the Mill Valley Film Festival is the small-town feeling you get from the employees, volunteers, and attendees. After the push and shove of larger festivals, the easier pace of a festival nestled in redwoods is a nice change of pace. And the programmers usually manage to program more than a handful of gems. The trick is to find them.
On the other hand, for such a small festival, MVFF always feels a little too propped up by middlebrow Hollywood fare. This year alone sees at least seven major studio films in the lineup, each one scheduled to receive a wide national release in just a few weeks: The Queen, Catch a Fire, A Good Year, Breaking and Entering, The Last King of Scotland, Babel, and Little Children.
Forest Whitaker of The Last King of Scotland
and Juliette Binoche of Breaking and Entering
appeared together last year in Abel Ferrara's Mary
, although I'm not sure they actually shared any scenes.
Quick impressions: The Queen
is thoroughly absorbing, and I'd never given the British royalty five minutes of thought before this film. (I'm often asked for my impression of the queen.) Babel
is the first of Alejandro González Iñárritu's films in which the characters outweigh the structural ingenuity. (I'm often asked about the weight of structural ingenuity. Answer: heavy.) And Catch a Fire
is a well-intentioned but somewhat simplistic examination of terrorism and activism and the circumstances that can lead to either. (Discuss?) Breaking and Entering
and The Last King of Scotland
both feature some great performances, which is probably faint praise relative to the films' ambitions; the first is a bland, silly, and inconsequential soap opera and the second is a tense spectacle whose grainy, caught-on-film appearance, energetic pace, and riveting performance by Forest Whitaker
make it highly watchable, even when things get grizzly, but the movie as a whole is not particularly revealing. All five of these films are better than Ridley Scott's Russell Crowe vehicle A Good Year
which is terrible for so many reasons I won't go into them here. I haven't yet seen Little Children
, but I thought Todd Field's previous movie, In the Bedroom
, was pretty good, so I'm looking forward to this one.
But really, I wouldn't waste a festival slot on any of the big movies if I were you. Here's what I'd see instead:
The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez
One of my favorite documentaries of the year is so timely that I'm saddened to learn that it still hasn't been widely distributed in the States since I saw it in January, even though it seems to fill a void in the public debate. Did you know that the first US soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom was not an American citizen at all but an immigrant from Guatemala? Heidi Specogna's wonderful film tells the story of that soldier and how he found his way from the streets of Guatemala to a battlefield in the Middle East, and while it's a conventional documentary in many ways, the film's brilliance is in the way it artfully blends the particular and the general. Gutierrez is one of many people who've followed a similar but less celebrated arc, so telling his story sheds light on countless others that remain untold, and yet at no time does Specogna coerce the details of his life into symbolism. And notice what she does with the parts of his journey that weren't captured on video: she shows us other people who are in similar straits, people planning to slip across the southern border of the United States as the last best hope for helping their families. So: the general story fills out the particular story as much as the particular fills out the general.
This movie is not about the Iraq war. This movie is to some degree about immigration, and homelessness, and determination. But mostly this film is about a young man named José Antonio Gutierrez who was ambitious and loved, who was brought down before his potential was realized, and who lived his short life in the blind spot of a socioeconomic system that functions — if we can say that it functions — because of his sacrifice. No shallow tribute, Specogna's film explores a politically charged topic with honesty and respect for the life at the center. It's a great film, and if you're in the Bay Area you have a chance to see it. As of this writing, tickets are still available for both screenings. Even if they sell out, you can arrive early and wait in the rush line.
Update: 12 October 2006
If you don't want to take my word for it, here's David D'Arcy writing a Park City Dispatch for GreenCine back in January:
Another look at a life taken away from a young man is The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez, a documentary by the Swiss filmmaker Heidi Specogna. José Antonio Gutierrez was a Guatemalan immigrant and a marine who became the first American to die in the war in Iraq in March 2003. When his body came back, the motivational official story came out from the Bush administration that Gutierrez fought adversity to be an American, and that he died giving something to his country.
From this film we get the real story from those who knew Gutierrez.
Several people have told me that they think The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez is the best film of the festival [Sundance 2006]. It's surely one of the best. Heidi Specogna has reconstructed an inconspicuous life, the kind of life that used to be called "minor," without a single interview with Gutierrez, few records, and the recollections of those who knew him.