How to Find Your Way Through the Overwhelming Offerings at SIFF

There’s a kind of madness at loose here, from the sheer number of films (something in the neighborhood of 250 features this year, from 85 different countries) to the variety of events involved.

The Seattle International Film Festival long ago embraced its role as a kind of floating civic carnival. For 25 days—25 days—the fest spreads itself out over multiple venues, luring people indoors during what I have been told is a beautiful time of year. There’s a kind of madness at loose here, from the sheer number of films (something in the neighborhood of 250 features this year, from 85 different countries) to the variety of events involved: visiting filmmakers, tributes, panel discussions, live music events, sing-alongs, and many parties. People spend their vacation time to attend the nation’s largest film festival, bagging as many movies as they can according to some staggering mathematical algorithms (most movies are screened two or three times). Inevitably, the films range from good to bad to indifferent, and given a festival this size, there are a discomfiting number of indifferents. Can we make some generalizations about the behemoth that is SIFF 2016?

Geographically, SIFF’s dedication to bringing festival movies outside the downtown core is as ambitious as ever. So if you’re in Shoreline or Columbia City or Renton, the Eastside or Ballard, you get the festival at your doorstep. I always thought part of the appeal of the film festival was that it offered the fun of actually going to Capitol Hill or Uptown, even if those weren’t your neighborhoods. But there’s no denying the commute is much better if you happen to live near one of the outlet locations.

SIFF’s opening-night film this year is Woody Allen’s Café Society, the film that opened the Cannes Film Festival last week. The new Woody is one of seven festival titles released by Amazon Studios, a hometown connection that could pay some very intriguing dividends for SIFF in years to come. After the opener, the deluge commences, with a variety of special programs rolling out. SIFF is pointing to a newly branded “cultural exchange” called China Stars, embodied by five Chinese features. More impressive is another year of African Pictures, a slate supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which brings a collection of African films (with their creators) that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks.

SIFF returns some of its regular programs, including the Secret Festival (you will sign an oath never to reveal the titles of these legally unmentionable movies), midnighters, and family-friendly films. The big newcomer this year is SIFFx, a “festival within the festival,” which concentrates on Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and 360° Cinema, most of which I don’t understand but which sound incredibly exciting to explore (according to experts in this stuff, the technology of VR is breaking through to mind-boggling standards). The events, June 2–5, take place around Seattle Center, including the Pacific Science Center. Yes—the place where they project laser shows to Pink Floyd albums will be back on the cutting edge.

The big-ticket in-person tributes this year go to Viggo Mortensen (a genuinely interesting renaissance man), whose SIFF entry Captain Fantastic was shot all over Washington, and gifted comedian Molly Shannon, who, like most gifted comedians, has impressive dramatic chops. A raft of locally made films will get their shot, led by the world premiere of Megan Griffiths’ The Night Stalker, a study of California serial killer and avowed Satanist Richard Ramirez (Lou Diamond Phillips plays the role).

My own approach to SIFFfting (the pun is hard to avoid) begins with scanning filmmakers I admire and circling their titles. So hey, here are new ones from Terence Davies (Sunset Song), Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Our Little Sister), André Téchiné (Being 17), Jia Zhangke (Mountains May Depart), and Gillian Armstrong (Women He’s Undressed). That’s a start. Mixing in documentaries, you have your choice of almost every subject in existence, so winnow according to inclination; my proclivities lead me to start with a feature-length study of a deadly Internet meme (Beware the Slenderman); an update to Streetwise, that filmed-in-Seattle homelessness documentary classic (Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell); and “Story of Film” director Mark Cousins’ love letter to a city, I Am Belfast.

SIFF doesn’t spend much bandwidth on older movies, but this year’s “Archival Films” section presents some tasty restorations. The Bitter Stems (1956) is a film noir—much lauded by those who’ve seen it—from Argentina. There’s Dragon Inn (1967) a classic kung fu epic by the wonderful King Hu, and Chimes at Midnight (1966) an authentically great Shakespeare film by Orson Welles. And for those who have never seen Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) or Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), do not miss these films if you have an interest in bliss.

There’s a live music David Bowie Glam Rock party because, well, it’s SIFF. A 1935 Chinese film, The Big Road, gets live music from the excellent pianist Donald Sosin. A couple of the Mystery Science Theater guys will be on hand to gag their way through a midnight screening of Ed Wood’s semi-autobiographical cross-dressing docudrama Glen or Glenda? (which is actually an interesting movie if you get past the sheer ineptitude, but never mind).

Beyond these landmarks, you could pick a country, a genre, or a theater. It may be hard to scratch the surface of SIFF, but there are many ways to access it, online or otherwise. The whole thing goes full steam through June 12’s closing-night gala for The Dressmaker, a tale of a successful fashionista (Kate Winslet) who returns to her tiny Australian hometown. Various packages and passes are for sale, and you can also just show up and buy a ticket—but make sure you check availability first.

This is the first festival since the April death of Dan Ireland, SIFF’s co-founder and longtime co-director (and later a director and producer in Hollywood). A “celebration” is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on the closing day of the fest, at SIFF’s longtime heart, the Egyptian Theatre. Ireland’s playfulness—which extended even after death when news outlets dutifully reported his age as a suspiciously young 57 (meaning he would’ve founded SIFF when he was 17—nicely played, Mr. Ireland)—and enthusiasm still inform the shape and spirit of SIFF. One expects nothing less than a huge party. Seattle International Film Festival, multiple venues, Thurs., May 19-Sun., June 12.