Festivals Previews Reviews

Orcas Island Film Festival: We Have to Go Back to The Island

In this year’s SIFF wrap-up, I sung the praises of the smaller, intensely-focused film festival as a counterpoint to the multi-week sprawling buffet of our city’s major spring film marathon. Well, it’s that  time again: film lovers should hop on the nearest seaplane, state ferry, or private yacht and get themselves to this weekend’s impressive Orcas Island Film Festival.

I attended for the first time last year after chatting with OIFF’s creative director Jared Lovejoy and chief curator Carl Spence and was totally smitten with the event and immediately eager to return. It’s a great opportunity to simultaneous catch up on some of the most buzzed-about movies that you’ve been hearing about on Film Twitter while also seeing them well in advance of most mainstream audiences. And all in our relative back yard.

From Thursday’s opening night with Chef Flynn vs. What They Had  to Monday’s final can’t-miss screening of Roma, the event will screen more than thirty films — many of them high-profile awards-contenders fresh from other major festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Telluride, and TIFF — at two venues in the incredibly charming village of Eastsound.

I’ve managed to see a handful of this year’s offerings in advance and these three are easily among my favorite movies of the year:

  • Free Solo captures Alex Honnold’s superhuman attempt to summit Yosemite’s legendary El Capitan. Walking into this movie at Telluride, I naively imagined that climbing a 500-foot summit was itself the impossible challenge. But I quickly came to understand that Honnold was going to try it alone. Without any climbing ropes. The ensuing 90 minutes are among the most anxious I have ever been in a movie theater. The only things that kept me from fleeing the theater to avoid a massive anxiety attack were a beer and the knowledge that (spoiler) Alex at least survived to be in town to promote the film. Aside from the stunning footage documenting his preparations and climbs, co-directors Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi also capture his budding relationship, friendships with other climbers, and interrogate the ways he weighs the very serious risk of certain death that would result from one missed step. It is an utterly thrilling film and deeply satisfying to watch with a crowd. ☆☆☆☆☆
    (Saturday, 3:00 pm, Orcas Center).
  • Shoplifters Kore-eda Hirokazu won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes with a deeply compelling investigation of the meaning of family. The film opens with a father-son duo performing a cute-ish bit of supermarket thievery to supplement the menu back home in a very crowded multi-generational household on the outskirts of Tokyo. Things become more interesting when the group rescues an abandoned young girl from the neighborhood on a cold evening. In turns meditative, insightful, and surprising, the humanistic portrait is ultimately a revelatory achievement. ☆☆☆☆☆
    (Sunday, 8:30 pm, Sea View Theater)
  • Roma: Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical recollection of his nanny in a well-off home in the titular district of Mexico City is shot-for-shot the most cinematically gorgeous movie of the year. Although this is one of Netflix’s showiest acquisitions and may soon be available on your televisions, it deserves the biggest screen (and most exceptional sound system) you can find. Working without his usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón shot the film himself in lustrous black and white and each frame bursts with life, both from the compositions and from the tremendous performances (in particular from newcomer Yalitza Aparicio. Roma closes the festival on Monday night ☆☆☆☆☆ (8:30 pm, Sea View Theater); make whatever arrangements you can to stay over.

If you’ve already seen Shoplifters or can’t get in, Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Sunday, 8:30 pm, Orcas Center) is a very good consolation prize: Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the title siblings, mercenary assassins tracking Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed across the northwest in the midst of the 1880s gold-rush milieu in a Western that’s funny, brutal, tender, and occasionally beautiful. ☆☆☆ Also worth a look, Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction (Saturday, 8:30 pm Orcas Center), a Very French series of vignettes among a set of artists, actors, publishers, and writers, confronting through conversation the meaning of the modern media landscape. It was fascinating at times, but it was the last show of the night one long day in Telluride, so I can’t attest to it beyond my ongoing fondness for Assayas’s style and for Juliette Binoche in almost anything. ☆☆☆½

Aside from those recommendations, I’m personally most excited about seeing Stephen Loveridge’s MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. documentary that I kept missing at SIFF this spring; Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and go-to sadboy Lucas Hedges as a mother and son in the midst of the opioid epidemic; Sorry Angel, Christophe Honoré’s intertwined portrait of gay life in 1990s France; and Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to Ida, following two musicians in post-war Eastern Europe. Also on the foreign front: Happy as Lazzaro (best screenplay, Cannes), Birds of Passage, and Capernaum (jury prize, Cannes), and Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, a psychological drama starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem at a family wedding.

In addition to all of the films, the festival’s guest list includes Jean Marc Valée (for a third year) — this time DJ’ing an evening reception and conducting a morning masterclass centered on his impeccable work in fusing memory, mystery, and mood in this summer’s outstanding HBO mini-series Sharp Objects. There’s also a youth filmmaking workshop, a 360/Virtual Reality Storytelling Lab, and a handful of parties and mixers.

The full schedule is available for print; and full series passes ($200+) and advance tickets ($12+) are still available.