Over the years, and there have been many, I have heard the

Over the years, and there have been many, I have heard the mandarins of SIFF say “We’re slimming down the schedule” or “We’re trying to make the fest more manageable.” And during the past recession, there was a little bit of belt-tightening. But somehow the Seattle International Film Festival always swells back, with more titles (now some 260 features and docs), more panels, more oddly named categories (“To the Extreme!”), more visiting filmmakers and talent, more venues (this year reviving the Neptune and Harvard Exit), and more hoopla. (How many galas can there be before the word loses its meaning?)

For the newbie or casual filmgoer, SIFF can be intimidating. Uniquely among Seattle’s major arts fests, SIFF, which runs May 14–June 7, has its own quasi-national character. The regulars know the protocols and customs; they speak a lingo of their own. The savvy veteran pass-holders appear to have memorized the entire schedule in advance and cherry-picked all the best screenings, which tend to sell out early. (As ever, siff.net is your best guide to tickets and schedule.) The ranks of friendly volunteers are drawn from SIFF’s most loyal year-round patrons; there’s a self-perpetuating culture, a clannishness that stops just short of cult-hood.

Though the country’s largest film festival, averaging around 150,000 attendees, SIFF is equal parts democracy and walled city-state. You almost need a passport—well, one of those lanyard-dangling passes—to enter this peculiar foreign land. But SIFF citizenship is still worth having, if only for one month of the year. And there visitors will encounter the following.

Our Top Critic’s Top PicksA look at the (likely) best of a very long fest, from Gore Vidal to Electric Boogaloo. By Robert Horton

The Week 1 Overview, Starring Melissa McCarthy and Jason StathamWhat we’ve seen, liked, loathed, and other thoughts. By Brian Miller

Meet the Seattle Techie Who Pulls the Strings Behind Stephen TobolowskyHow a first-time film director from Belltown connected with the most unlikely leading man in Hollywood. By Sean Axmaker

Yes, Wild Hogs Were Harmed During the Making of This DocumentarySeattle documentary filmmakers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands talk about their hog hunt in Texas. By Brian Miller

Local Director John Portanova’s Sasquatch Massacre!A young local director turns folklore into low-budget horror, with no winking or tongue in cheek. By Mark Rahner

Hot Summer Lovin’, Ballard-Style!Ballard auteur Erik Hammen describes an idyllic summer-movie-of-the-mind. By Brian Miller

SIFF Week 4: From Early Grunge to The Killing Fields. By Brian Miller

SIFF Week 3:Docs featuring Evel Knievel, the Black Panthers, and Mexican drug cartels. By Brian Miller

Week 2 Highlights at SIFF Richard Gere as hobo, and a heroin addict becomes an actress. By Brian Miller

Ear Supply A new SIFF doc takes us inside the Van Cliburn piano competition. By Gavin Borchert