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By Kimberlye Gold

The Mill Valley Film Festival marked its 25th anniversary in the storybook town of Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Known for championing independent films, the festival reprised several classic films, such as Strictly Ballroom, which had its US premiere ten years before at the MVFF. Director Baz Luhrman appeared to a standing ovation, as did actor Edward James Olmos, who showed up at the screening of Stand And Deliver, originally released in 1987.

The four films premiering this year ranged from the "hyped" to the "hip". White Oleander, based on the novel by Janet Fitch and starring the blonde quartet of Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellwegger, Robin Wright Penn and newcomer Allison Lohman, fell into the former category. Personal Velocity, a trio of dark short stories about crisis-bound young women, written and directed by Rebecca Miller (Arthur's daughter), personified the indie-film genre. Anything with Parker Posey in the cast is bound to be edgy, and this proved no exception. Frida, starring Selma Hayek as legendary painter Frida Kahlo, and Merci Docteur Rey, a quirky French comedy starring the versatile Dianne Weist, rounded out the selections.

One of the Five@five short film series, Ernst Gossner's Bar Time was a somber study in choices and consequences. Ryan Kennedy's Control displayed a flair for the futuristic, or a future in commercials and music videos. Sally Clark's Cowgirls opened for Beth Harrington's Welcome To the Club - The Women of Rockabilly, both celebrating the struggle of women to excel in male-dominated arenas. Adding to the fun after this screening was a musical evening led by "Rockabilly Filly" Rosie Flores, who was instrumental in resurrecting the careers of pioneers like Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin, known as "the female Elvis."

There were several fine tributes. Phil Bronstein, Executive Editor of The San Francisco Chronicle (and "Mr. Sharon Stone") conducted an on-stage interview with outspoken activist and actor Ed Asner. Asner revealed his most embarrassing moment in Oliver Stone's JFK: "I beat the hell out of Jack Lemmon's face - with a rubber gun!" He bemoaned ageism in Hollywood and claims it affects everyone, even directors and writers. At the reception, he graciously held court, chatting with everyone and posing for photos. Seated at Asner's table: comedian Don Novello - Father Guido Sarducci from the original "Saturday Night Live."

The high point of the festival was the tribute to Academy Award-winning actress, Dianne Wiest, hosted by former Senior Editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Ben Fong-Torres. After viewing the first series of clips, Ms. Wiest got an uncontrollable case of the giggles, claiming she couldn't remember doing parts of those scenes. The more Fong-Torres attempted to reign her in, the wilder it got, and the audience was in stitches right along with her. Whether it be hanging out with real Avon ladies for her role in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands or investigating agoraphobia in last year's I Am Sam, Wiest seriously researches every role. She attributes her film career to Woody Allen, who "cast me in roles no other director would have ever considered me for." The congenial Ms. Wiest also graced the closing night festivities, after the premiere of Merci Docteur Rey.

California Film Institute Executive Director and Mill Valley Film Festival founder Mark Fishkin claims this 25th anniversary represents a time of introspection. "People look to film as the art form of the 20th and the 21st century. The events of 9/11 have demonstrated this more than ever. People are seeking much more than just escapism now."

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