If you’re reading this, it’s after 9 a.m. Wednesday, May 3; which means film journalists across the city are freed from the chains of a grueling 15-hour embargo, and the SIFF-ening is upon us.
Member tickets and passes are now on sale for the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival, which will begin May 18 and run through June 11. Sales open to the general public tomorrow, May 4. The festival will feature a nice, round 400 films, split across 161 features, 58 documentaries, 14 archival showings and 163 short films. Actor spotlights will celebrate the work of Anjelica Huston and Sam Elliott.
Executive Director Sarah Wilke emphasized that the 2017 festival’s selections were doubly focused on diversity. The China Stars programming returns for its second year, and the African Pictures program has expanded for the year. Films were selected to “reflect changing borders, wars, politics and technology,” she said, an oblique acknowledgement of Seattle’s currently tense relationship to national politics, characteristic to the festival (as was the case with 2016’s opening film, Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society”).
But the year’s film list seem to speak for itself as the product of an earnest attempt by festival officials to tap into Seattle’s collective unconscious. One of the most prominently featured films is a biopic about the father of socialism, for God’s sake.
But let’s dig in, shall we?
What SIFF played up for the press
The Big Sick
SIFF’s opening night gala at McCaw Hall will feature “The Big Sick,” an Amazon Studios-produced semi-autobiographical film about Pakistani comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s early relationship with his wife Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay. Interim Artistic Director Beth Barrett called it “funny and heartbreaking in the same scenes,” and the trailer bore that out. The story seems to focus on Nanjiani’s early relationship with Gordon (played on-screen by Zoe Kazan), a break-up brought on by his family’s push for an arranged marriage, and their tenuous reconnection after she becomes ill.
Our Take: Outside of some “eh” laugh lines from Ray Romano (as Gordon’s father) this looks like it will be fantastic. Nanjiani is a brilliant deadpan comic who is criminally underutilized as an actor. He lights up every supporting or guest role he takes on, from “Broad City,” to “Portlandia,” to “Silicon Valley,” but he’s never had a major leading role, outside his gig as co-host of “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail.” All the better that it’s directed by Michael Showalter, who has differentiated himself from fellow “The State” alum David Wain by directing comedies that are more personal than slapstick (see 2015’s “Hello, my Name is Doris”).
The Young Karl Marx
The festival will close with “The Young Karl Marx,” a biopic of the philosopher, economist as a 26-year-old man (played by August Diehl) developing his friendship with “Communist Manifesto” co-author Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske). Significantly, it’s directed by Raoul Peck, who made waves this year with the release of “I Am Not Your Negro,” his documentary of James Baldwin.
Our Take: Oof. Peck’s certainly having a moment as a filmmaker, and Marx’s troubled, anti-authoritarian life provides plenty of material for drama. But the trailer (which includes handsome Engels turning to handsome Marx to deliver the line “You… [dramatic pause] are a genius”) makes the film look positively overwrought. Is “cautiously pessimistic” a thing? I'm making that a thing.
The Little Hours
A comedy about foul-mouthed, oversexed and abusive nuns in a Middle Ages-era convent, “The Little Hours” hilariously bills itself as an adaptation of the 14th Century Italian novella collection “The Decameron.”
Our Take: Great! The trailer glories in its sense of raunch, contrasted against a pastoral religious setting. It’s helmed by Jeff Baena, the writer of “I Heart Huckabees,” and the cast is a who’s who of comic gold, including Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly, Nick Offerman and Fred Armisen. If the film turns out to be a miss, it will be because the premise turns out to be a one-note joke. But, with this much talent, it’s unlikely.
Mustachioed, sonorous cowboy actor Sam Elliott plays a mustachioed, sonorous cowboy actor who comes to terms with his mortality, his ailing career, and the bridges he’s burned with family. Krysten Ritter plays the actor’s estranged daughter, and Laura Prepon a new friend who comes into his life.
Our take: Hard to tell. The trailer plays things close to the chest. But you can’t go wrong with Elliott, and Ritter is likewise a fantastic actor.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
This documentary by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana watches musicians discuss the influential role of Native American artists, and their fear of self-identifying as Native American.
Our Take: This reviewer doesn’t typically pursue music documentaries, but this one looks like it will be a hard and intriguing examination of the relationship between identity, racism and success in the performing arts. Moreover, it seems perfect for Seattle at this moment in time. The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock protests thrust the agency and rights of Native Americans back into the national spotlight, and Seattle activists led the charge for the city to divest from the pipeline’s financiers. Further, the federal government’s final decision in 2015 not to recognize the Duwamish tribe has since invigorated activists to expose First Nations people’s erasure from the physical and historical landscape.
A Dragon Arrives!
This Iranian film, about a police inspector who investigates a death on a Persian Gulf island, is billed as a “mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.”
Our Take: I can’t make heads or tails of that trailer, which seemed to combine spooky dramatic fiction with documentary stylings. But it looks really goddamned cool.
The Paris Opera
This documentary follows the collaborators of the Paris Opera for an entire season of production.
Our Take: I went almost the entire run of the trailer before I realized this was not a dramatized take on the subject matter, which speaks volumes about the production values of the film and the level of access the filmmakers enjoyed. It’s also the type of thing that raises questions about the authenticity of the slice of life being presented, but such doubts have always plagued the “fiction unlike any other.”
An Irish dramedy about a rugby-averse boarding student (Fionn O’Shea) who is forced to board with the school rugby star (Nicholas Galitzine) and strikes up an unlikely bond. Andrew Scott (of BBC “Sherlock” villainy) plays a tough-but-inspirational teacher.
Our Take: This looks like a heartwarming story of young friendship, and it is really difficult to accept Moriarty as a “Dead Poets Society”-esque mentor who isn’t actively planning Benedict Cumberbatch’s death.
May God Save Us
A Spanish thriller directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen about two tortured police inspectors who race to find a serial killer before he murders again.
Our Take: The movie looks gorgeous, but the trailer hit all the points we’re used to from these stories: the race against time, the self-loathing heroes, the separated wife, the neglected child. It’s tempting to watch “May God Save Us” for no other reason than to find out what’s new.
A teenager in ungentrified Brooklyn questions his sexuality while remaining desperate to fit in with macho peers.
Our Take: The above description could only be written with the assistance with Google, because the trailer to Eliza Hittman’s film was impenetrable: a series of shots that linger on Harris Dickinson’s torso and arms as he performs biceps curls, before the screen cuts to Dickinson and two others standing barechested in front of the ocean. In context, the eroticization of form makes sense and promises a visually arresting exploration of sexual identity. But I wonder if it will add up to something other than “Moonlight” with a white cast.
Meatball Machine Kodoku
In this Japanese splatterfest comedy, the villainous Necro-borg mutate humans into violent monsters that tear apart everything in sight.
Our Take: The trailer for this film was virtually nothing but bloody dismemberments and gratuitous nudity, and I was laughing the entire time. Those with open minds and iron stomachs should be in for a ride.
Other films that caught our eye
Black Code: Big Data meets Big Brother in this startling exposé outlining how governments around the world are controlling, manipulating, and monitoring the Internet and digital communication, challenging our ideas of citizenship, privacy, and democracy to the very core.
Brigsby Bear: When a sheltered, immature 25-year- old (Kyle Mooney of “Saturday Night Live”) discovers the surprising truth about the end of his favorite children’s TV show, “Brigsby Bear’s Adventures,” he attempts to film his own adaptation in this bizarre and hilarious tale of arrested development.
Crazywise: Western culture treats mental disorders primarily through biomedical psychiatry, but filmmakers Phil Borges and Kevin Tomlinson reveal a growing movement of professionals and survivors who are forging alternative treatments that focus on recovery and turning mental “illness” into a positive transformative experience. World Premiere
A Date for Mad Mary: After 20-something “Mad” Mary McArdle is denied a plus-one to her friend’s wedding on the grounds that she doesn’t have one, she becomes determined to find a date, leading to an unlikely relationship that helps heal her troubled past. Winner of Best Picture at the Irish Film Awards.
The Door: A working-class auto mechanic discovers a magical door to an alternate world in which his life choices made him a wealthy playboy who seemingly has it all. Fantastical comic moments lead to self-reflection as he discovers that cross-dimensional existence has its problems.
Ethel & Ernest: Based on the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs ("The Snowman"), this humane and funny animated tribute to his parents Ethel (Brenda Blethyn) and Ernest (Jim Broadbent) charts their tender love story from the 1920s to the 1970s.
The Feels: A lesbian bachelorette weekend goes awry when one of the brides admits she's never had an orgasm. Constance Wu ("Fresh Off the Boat") stars in this funny and raunchy, yet poignant and real, reflection on trust, love, and the journey every woman shares.
Ghost Hunting: Director Raed Andoni assembles a group of Palestinians detained in an Israeli prison to dramatically reconstruct their experiences, confronting their shared past and starting the path toward healing. Winner of Best Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival. US Premiere
Going to Brazil: In this feminine French “Hangover”-style misadventure, four childhood friends reunite for a wedding in Rio, only to find themselves on the run through the Brazilian countryside after accidentally killing an attacker at a drug-fueled party.
Gook: Two Korean brothers spend the day hanging out in their father’s South Central shoe shop on the first day of the 1992 Rodney King riots in a racially charged indie comedy that blends the social commentary of Spike Lee with the visual and comedic style of “Clerks.”
Infinity Baby: Nick Offerman and Kieran Culkin lead a remarkable ensemble of hip comic actors in this absurdist, droll black comedy from Bob Byington (“7 Chinese Brothers”) about a company who farms out three-month old babies who will never age due to a freak pharmaceutical side effect.
Kills on Wheels: Two physically disabled young men stumble into Budapest's underbelly of gangsters and gunfights after they become involved with a wheelchair-bound hitman who seems to come straight out of a comic book in this inventive, action-packed coming-of-age fable.
Prom King, 2010: Young, gay, and yearning for the same fairy-tale romance seen in classic Hollywood films, Charlie navigates the New York City dating scene of icky online encounters, seedy back rooms, and cute freshman boys who “aren’t really out” in an effort to find his own love story.
Pyromaniac: Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg (“Insomnia”) returns with a slow-burn psychological thriller based on the true story of a fire chief’s son of who terrorizes his rural community with a series of increasingly dangerous fires over the course of a long, hot summer.
Quest: The 10-year journey of a "progressive and proud" African-American working-class family in North Philadelphia illuminates issues of race and class in Jonathan Olshefski's outstanding documentary, a testament to love, healing, and hope.
The Reagan Show: Made up entirely of archival news and White House footage, this captivating you-are-there documentary captures the pageantry, absurdity, and mastery of the made-for- TV politics of the original performer/president, Ronald Reagan.
Time Trap: A group of students become trapped inside a mysterious underground cave that is the gateway to a rift in the space-time continuum, causing thousands of years to pass on the Earth’s surface in this inventive and enthralling science-fiction adventure.
Wallflower: The tragic Capitol Hill massacre of 2006 is the basis for this harrowing fictional drama about a man planning to commit a mass shooting who is befriended by an eccentric group of ravers and finds himself conflicted about his intentions.