If you play it right, the Seattle International Film Festival is an opportunity to be as surprised as possible. Here are some gentle suggestions:
1. Skip all English language films. If they're any good, they'll get a regular release later. Even if they're bad, they may get a regular release later. Especially avoid anything that Showtime, HBO, or any other cable channel had a hand in, or anything featuring a TV star—it'll be crap. Sure, there are exceptions, but damn few and you don't have time to waste. And anything with even a lame-ass star will get released later. If you're the sort of person who gets off on seeing a hip film months before anyone else, fine. Go see it. You can then tell everyone how great it is, and by the time they see it they'll either be disappointed because you built it up so much or you'll be so over it you'll just piss on their enthusiasm. Go to the Secret Festival instead. There's a chance you'll see something really exceptional and you'll be forced to keep your mouth shut about it; then you have the double pleasure of being ahead of the curve and having a special secret to hold in your smug little heart.
2. Skip anything that sounds interesting in a sound bite kind of way. If it can be reduced to a catchy blurb, it probably has a strong American influence and, worthy though it may be, won't be as different an experience as something that sounds either incomprehensible or boring. Particularly boring; if the subject matter isn't immediately grabby, that usually means the filmmaking itself is something to see. Foreign films have to leap many more hurdles than American ones to get here. Few people will put in that effort unless the movie means something to them; if it means something to them, it might mean something to you.
3. We are living in what may be a golden age of documentaries. They get weirder and more imaginative all the time. And yet Hoop Dreams, the highest-grossing documentary of all time, was seen by fewer than 2 million people. See at least one documentary, you won't regret it.
4. See more than one film from a given country or region. The concept of "Scandinavian cinema" was invented for marketing; there's a world of difference between Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier, and Aki Kaurismaki. Comparing two different movies from Taiwan can be as surprising as seeing one from Iran and one from Argentina. Get a taste of the breadth of other cultures without having to worry about noxious insects or a lack of plumbing.
5. Remember: The film festival is a big gamble anyway; the bigger the risk, the greater the thrill when it pays off.