SIFF 2019 Field Notes: Week 1

Well, it’s that time of the year again. The Seattle International Film festival has been up and running for the last week and Seattle cinephiles have been scrambling to arrange their schedules to squeeze in as many films as possible during these few weeks in mid-May and early-June. This year’s festival features more than 400 films (features, documentaries, and shorts) from 86 countries. While I know I won’t be able to see films from each of those 86 countries, it’s excited to have such a variety of options.

It’s my second year with a pass – last year I splurged on the Platinum Pass and had guaranteed seating for any screening. This year I decided to reduce my expenses and go for the general series pass, which gets me into most screening – dependent on available seating. So I’m doing my best to really strategize my days at the festival – sticking to screens that are close to one another, packing my lunch and dinner for the day, and hopping right back in line as soon as a screening ends.

As always, opening night was a delight. The party’s always fun and they usually screen a crowdpleaser as the opening night film. While last year’s film wasn’t all that great, this year’s offering was one of the best in years. And it was a treat to have director Lynn Shelton and actor Marc Maron introduce the film and discuss it afterwards.

And while there were a handful of disappointments, the first twelve films I’ve seen have been surprisingly good. I’ve been sharing out my thoughts as I’m able, but if you’re looking for a quick digest of my thoughts on this first week’s viewing – here you go!

Sword of Trust
Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust is a delightful comedy about the perniciousness of conspiracy theories and white liberals’ complicated relationship to the legacy of racism within their own families. Filled with sharp dialogue and brilliant character studies, it’s one of the most satisfying comedies I’ve seen in a long while.

Alejandro Landes’s Monos is a cinematic gut-punch about the dehumanizing effects of violence, indoctrination, and oppression. There are shades of LORD OF THE FLIES (with a guerrilla warfare twist), and it’s filled stunning imagery from beginning to end.

Good Kisser
Wendy Jo Carlton’s Good Kisser has a few really nice moments, some decent performances, and a handful of solid laughs, but the narrative’s much too obvious and cliched. The editing rhythms are uneven and the supporting performances fall flat in a way that consistently took me out of the movie.

The Sound of Silence
Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence has an intriguing premise, great performances, and a poignant air of melancholy and regret. But the film centers on a very male, intellectual fantasy of finding a universal theory to explain the world and mythologizes the protagonist’s deep dysfunction.

The Phantom of the Opera
Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera is a lavish, moody, and eerie work of silent horror with a surprisingly ineffectual male hero and a heroine who – more often than not – has to rescue herself. The live score by The Invincible Czars was electrifying and made brilliant use of audience participation.

Banana Split
Benjamin Kasulke’s Banana Split is a refreshingly honest comedy about the fraught nature of teenage friendships and female sexuality. It does briefly dip into tired cliches about catty teens and blames male dysfunction on our female protagonist, but it pulls back from its more problematic elements and is filled with perfect comic timing and crackling dialogue.

The Nightingale
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is an unrelentingly brutal (and unexpectedly moving) revenge film about the ways in which gender, class, and race interact, pitting oppressed groups against one another. Kent masterfully holds the film’s poetic imagery, horrifying violence, and tender character beats in perfect tension.

Note: The Nightingale does include potentially triggering content, including rape, sexual violence, and racially motivated acts of violence.

Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti’s Sibel is a captivating portrait of an isolated Turkish community and the role of women in a repressive society. One part ethnographic study, one part traditional outsider narrative, it’s anchored by a brilliant central performance and powerful ending that overcome its more cliched tropes.

The Sweet Requiem
There’s an exceptional movie somewhere in Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s look at Tibetan refugees, The Sweet Requiem, but the more profound examinations of trauma and loss are buried by its conventional thriller trappings that never quite coalesce.

3 Faces
Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces is one of those quiet and subtle, brilliantly constructed films with so many layers in its exploration of Iran’s past, present, and future and I’ve only just begun to scratch its surface. There’s an incredible blurring of fact and fiction, a wealth of unexpectedly delightful humor, and the best use of vertical video I’ve seen on screen.

Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart is a gorgeously shot art-house horror film that’s a throwback to Italian giallo films with a heavy dose camp comedy and ‘70s sleaze. It dabbles with ideas of LGBTQ+ oppression and erasure, but doesn’t take itself seriously enough to have anything to say or be particularly scary.

American Factory
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory is a sharply observed look at culture clashes between the Chinese supervisors and American workers in an auto glass factory. It’s an incredibly strong, if standard, documentary that I wish had a little more nuance and subtlety.

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