'Women and children first!" is a line from "Titanic," but it neatly suits the Mill Valley Film Festival just north of San Francisco, coming of age this year with a splendid 21st-anniversary program.
Catering to kids is nothing new for the festival, which has included a children's filmfest for the past several years, but this has been newly expanded to serve all members of the family.
While the menu includes plenty of wholesome American fare, it also broadens the horizons of new moviegoers with international offerings, reminding viewers of all ages that pictures made far from Hollywood can be as entertaining as their US counterparts.
A shining example is The Children of Heaven, a delightful Iranian drama about an underprivileged boy and girl whose lives become more complicated when they have to start sharing the same pair of shoes - a small dilemma that sparks a surprisingly strong and touching story.
Other items range from European and African tales to an advance peek at the forthcoming "Rugrats" movie. Best of all, when a foreign-language film is recommended for viewers under 10 years old, the subtitles are read aloud, like a sort of cinematic bedtime story. Few festivals make life so pleasant for their youngest patrons.
Women are another main focus of this year's program, reflecting the strides made by female filmmakers, and stars, as the movie scene makes slow but steady progress away from its male-dominated past.
The festival trumpeted this theme with its opening-night attraction, Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou, the acclaimed poet. Alfre Woodard plays the troubled heroine, who takes her two young children from Chicago to Mississippi in search of family roots all three of them need to get in touch with. Woodard's superb acting is solidly backed up by Wesley Snipes as her Southern cousin, plus a fine supporting cast including Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Loretta Devine, and Al Freeman Jr. The movie is due in theaters Christmas Day, courtesy of Miramax Films.
Another high-powered woman visited Mill Valley on its second day: Helena Bonham Carter, who received a well-deserved onstage tribute for a luminous career stretching from her early appearances in Merchant Ivory productions like "A Room With a View" to more recent successes like "The Wings of the Dove," which this festival premired last year.
The tribute was crowned with a screening of her latest picture, The Theory of Flight, where she gives one of her most creative performances as a disabled woman developing a deep friendship with an unhappy man played by Kenneth Branagh, also at his best.
While these are mainstream productions aimed at widespread audiences, Mill Valley also pays admirable attention to works focusing on complex aspects of life that can't be readily transformed into everyday entertainment. These include Tomorrow and Tomorrow, video artist Dominique Cabrera's diarylike account of her journey from depression to renewed hope, and O Night Without Objects: A Trilogy, by Jeanne C. Finley and John H. Muse, about the dialogue between religion and politics in the lives of diverse people.
Convention-breaking works like these aren't likely to appear in multiplexes, but many other Mill Valley attractions will be traveling to theaters soon.
Living Out Loud, the directorial debut of screenwriter Richard LaGravanese, stars Holly Hunter as a lonely divorce and Danny DeVito as a melancholy doorman who gets a crush on her.
My Name Is Joe, already a prizewinner at the Cannes film festival, is Ken Loach's beautifully acted tale of love between a social worker and a recovering alcoholic. Social concerns play a less thoroughly developed role in One Tough Cop, director Bruno Barreto's melodrama based on the exploits of a real-life New York City cop.
Several other films put a spotlight on show business. Gods and Monsters is Bill Condon's fictionalized look at an aging Hollywood director, James Whale, of "Frankenstein" fame, seeking a last romantic moment in his old age.
Little Voice stars Jane Horrocks as a shy entertainer with an unusual talent. Pleasantville, which closes the festival on Sunday, is the offbeat tale of two '90s teens who find themselves trapped in a '50s sitcom world.
Something for everyone, indeed, proving that this 21-year-old festival remains in the front ranks of American movie events.
* David Sterritt's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org