At some point the numbers are overwhelming. This is the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival, a marathon that lasts 25 days across 15 venues (Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline included), with around 400 feature-length and short films from 80 countries. There are gobs of panels and festivities and visiting filmmakers.
It seems churlish to be a movie lover and complain that SIFF is too big, especially when the city seems to love it so much. It is, undeniably, a vast and glittery party, and every year it brings necessary gems and some lovely out-of-left-field experiences. Still, I can’t help thinking there’s a splendid 10-day festival to be carved out of this unfocused sprawl.
This year’s big-ticket events include in-person tributes to Anjelica Huston and Sam Elliott, plus the gala opening night featuring The Big Sick (released, coincidentally or not, by Amazon Studios). There are distinct emphases on Chinese and African films and another promising spotlight on virtual-reality advances. SIFF has admirably bulked up its Festival Forums this year, so there are many chances to hear filmmakers and other experts in informal conversation. You can get all the details at siff.net.
The following is a personal scramble through a bunch of titles, chosen according to what was available for preview and the directors’ track records. So far, this year’s rule of thumb seems to be: the crazier the better.
Bad Black You hope that at its core a film festival will provide proof of the continued health of cinema. I am not at all being facetious when I say that this crudely plotted, bargain-basement action flick from Uganda is the best evidence I’ve seen thus far that movies are still alive and kicking. The wild plot focuses on a woman who seeks a Dickensian revenge plan against a local criminal, conveyed with cheapjack special effects and a narrator who guides us though the action with hilariously excited—and almost uninterrupted—interjections. See Nabwana I.G.G’s film at a midnight screening, if possible.
Afterimage This passionate yet lucid study of a Polish artist/professor holding his ground during the early Communist era—when the idea of personal art, or any abstract art, was relentlessly quashed—is a strong story from a cinematic master. It’s the final film by Andrzej Wajda, who died last year at 90 after having himself weathered the vagaries of the Soviet era as an artist.
A Dragon Arrives! I would love to claim I understood this uncharacteristically nutty film from Iran, but I didn’t—its references to Persian culture were too fast and furious. However, the sheer unpredictability is fun to watch and its musical soundtrack glorious to hear, as director Mani Haghighi purports to investigate a mysterious disappearance at the site of a mid-1960s film shoot.
Heal the Living To say this is about organ donation is to underestimate how much director Katell Quillévéré’s film delves into the bittersweet stuff of life and death (its opening 15 minutes constitute one of the year’s most rapturous sequences). It tilts a little too far toward New Age-iness toward the end, but the mix of melancholy and medicine is wonderfully balanced.
After the Storm Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda (scheduled to attend this weekend) made one of my favorite films of last year, Our Little Sister. This new one continues his gentle style in a tale of a divorced, middle-aged screw-up (Hiroshi Abe, a tall Gregory Peck type) whose attempts to connect with his son culminate during a typhoon. Even the storm barely ruffles the surface of this very modest character study.
Pyromaniac Come for the Norwegian scenery, stay for the house fires: This tale of a small-town firebug is lush with landscape and suspiciously in love with the visual appeal of flames eating up wooden structures. Director Erik Skjoldbjærg made the original Insomnia, and he maintains a fine eye and steady beat, even if this film never becomes more than a one-note case study.
Yourself and Yours Korean director Hong Sang-soo has a unique ability to create relationship comedies that are both charming and puzzling. In this fetching example, we can never quite be sure whether those really are two lookalike women or just a single whimsical one—but either way it’s all part of the lesson a man needs to learn about lecturing his girlfriend on her drinking.
The Fixer A French TV crew wants to interview a teenager recently rescued from human trafficking; it’s up to an abrasive “fixer” to get them through the Romanian bureaucracy. The process becomes another exploitation of the abused girl, as Adrian Sitaru’s tough, thoughtful film makes clear.
Paradise Off the top of my head, Andrei Konchalovsky is the only filmmaker to adapt a Chekhov play and make a Stallone picture (Tango & Cash), a range that really ought to make his films more interesting. This one is a Holocaust story featuring an exceptional performance by Julia Vysotskaya—an often-forceful drama made gimmicky by having three main characters directly address the camera.
Endless Poetry Quintessential cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), now a robust 88, completes another unexpectedly entertaining memoir/film. Watching it is a little like getting kidnapped by a troupe of mimes and puppeteers, but at some point Stockholm Syndrome sets in and you end up liking its utter insanity.
Landline SIFF’s “Centerpiece Gala” is an American indie from the director and star of Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate. Not as daring as that abortion rom-com (a very narrow subgenre), this one has Manhattan sisters Slate and Abby Quinn sorting their own problems while their parents (John Turturro, Edie Falco) go through a rough patch. It plays like a mid-’90s Woody Allen picture with the lingo of a shock comedian.
The Net A North Korean fisherman drifts across the southern border, setting off an international incident. What’s interesting about Kim Ki-duk’s compelling drama is how unsparing the South Korean director is about his own side of the border, as interrogators decide they’ll torment this man into being a spy, whether he is or not.
High on my to-see list: My Journey Through French Cinema, Bertrand Tavernier’s essay film; Searchers, Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk’s Arctic chase picture; and Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici, a restored 1916 silent film starring ballet legend Anna Pavlova.
And for local connections, keep an eye out for SJ Chiro’s Lane 1974, a coming-of-age tale that was well received at South by Southwest, and Jagger Gravning’s Wallflower, the world premiere of a locally produced account of the Capitol Hill shootings in 2006. SIFF, May 18–June 11. siff.net.