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Best Five Documentaries at the Mill Valley Film Festival: Local-Heroes Edition

Here's what not to miss at this month's annual movie fest. 

"Approximately Nels Cline" screens at the Mill Valley Film Festival. 

Sure, this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 4-14) has its usual share of prerelease peeks at fall highlights, festival-circuit hits from overseas, and famous people in attendance. Yes, there’s a special 35th anniversary screening of Star Wars episode I (aka episode IV, depending on when you were born). That’s all great, but the festival also has some less obvious, locally relevant highlights. Such as:

1. Approximately Nels Cline
“I’m trying to avoid playing anything that might sound like music,” says the Wilco guitarist early on in his Berkeley hangout with Oscar-winner Steven Okazaki. What follows is, yes, a movie full of noodling, but one that’s very judiciously not even half an hour long. Cline can’t help but be tuneful, of course, and Okazaki’s attentive camera gives an intimate sense of alt-rock royalty in the ecstasy of free association. 

2. Rebels With a Cause

Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto’s doc is hereby recommended for anyone who’s ever crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and nearly wept with gratitude for whatever blessed benediction has allowed all those gorgeous rolling acres to remain unmolested. As Rebels With a Cause reveals, your fealty is due not to gods but to a sort of special-ops team of conservation activists, whose gutsy crusade kept the Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area perpetually safe from urban development.

3. Elemental
Speaking of uphill ecological battles, consider these. In India, a government official gone rogue to rescue the too-polluted Ganges. In Canada, a young mother striving to clean up a 50,000-square-mile splotch of heavy crude oil. In Australia, a San Rafael-based naturalist seeking funds for an invention he contends can slow down global warming. Elemental, a locally based production, brings this power trio of iconoclasts together, and brings real hope for the world being made a better place.

4. Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
Here’s what’s been missing from so much bloggy blather about the cultural longevity of comic book characters. Local filmmaker and SF State alumna Kristy Guevara-Flanagan looks at how, at least since the 1940s, media portrayals of female strength have revealed much male anxiety. This might sound like a stuffy academic treatise, but bear in mind that it also traces a certain Amazon warrior princess’ long journey to the inaugural cover of Ms. magazine and way beyond.

5. To Chris Marker: An Unsent Letter

Emiko Omori’s searching appreciation of the film-essay pioneer Chris Marker, who died in July at age 91, gathers warm testimony from local movie luminaries including David Thomson, Tom Luddy, and Janet and David Peoples, who adapted Marker’s masterpiece (and Vertigo homage) La Jetée into Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. For Omori, the broader project is tracing the conduits of artistic inspiration, or as the maestro himself would have it, “things that quicken the heart.” There are many.