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SIFF 2019: Closing Weekend Roundtable

Josh: So, SIFF is heading into its last days … before we dive into the closing weekend, a quick check-in: how’s the festival treating you?

Tony: I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s been a pretty good SIFF for me so far. I haven’t seen quite enough for this year to feel as cohesive as SIFFs past for me, but overall I can’t complain much. My pledge for next year is to carve out more time to immerse myself more fully.

Morgen: I definitely agree with Tony, I’ve really enjoyed myself this SIFF and I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot more films than in past years. It gives me the opportunity to think more on a broader scale, though I’m still a complete sucker for movies so I’ve also tried to look at films more critically now that I have a lot more to absorb. I haven’t been surprised or excited about more than a few films, but I’ve been entertained by nearly everything I’ve seen, I call that a win.

Chris: I think this has been a good SIFF overall, too. I don’t know if I’m getting better at selection or SIFF is getting better at programming, or I’m just not venturing too far outside of my comfort zone, but I have had very few disappointments, and nothing that I truly loathed (there were two movies I truly could not stand from last year that aren’t worth mentioning again).

Josh: Same for me. I worry that I’m not challenging myself enough — I’ve had a pretty good if maybe only slightly-above-average festival. Plenty of good movies and nothing terrible enough to walk out or rail against at parties (which, to be honest, is kind of a disappointment). Then again, I was out of town for much of the last week; so I’m doing my best to squeeze in enough movies during closing weekend to get a respectable tally out of this year’s festival.

The Good: What’s the Best Film You’ve Seen Since The Last Roundtable

Lynch: A History, courtesy SIFF

Josh: With all of our sunny dispositions in mind, then, let’s start with the high points. What are some of your best SIFFs since we last chatted?

Tony: I’ve seen 9 films since the last roundtable, and I’m glad I saw them all, even the disappointments. The best new movie I’ve seen in this stretch has undeniably been Lynch: A History. It’s being described as a documentary collage, and that’s a fairly apt blanket description. But it works on a lot of levels.

Josh: You stole my pick! This was one that I was most excited to see since we first perused the schedule so many moons ago. I was thrilled that it stood up to my expectations.

Tony: It’s a bang-on biography of ex-Seahawk Marshawn Lynch and an incisive analysis of Lynch’s partly accidental activist status, told entirely through video clips. Director David Shields weaves a strong narrative that interweaves the stories of  black athletes and their activism (Muhammad Ali, the 1968 Olympics, Colin Kaepernick, etc.) with the broader picture of civil rights strides and setbacks over the last century. In theory it sounds ponderous as hell, but Shields keeps the pace moving and the narrative fluid.

Josh: I liked how Shields cast Lynch among the titans of progressive and revolutionary activism springing from Oakland, California and interspersed the clips with relevant quotes springing from this broader history. The most facile comparison is to Raoul Peck’s (superior) I Am Not Your Negro, which I’d recommend wholeheartedly to anyone intrigued by this style of documentary.

Tony: One of Lynch’s great strengths is how Shields places Lynch’s media persona (and sometimes, his deliberate absence of one) in the broader context of the subversive trickster figure in cultural mythology.

Josh: If I have one complaint about this movie that I liked very much, it was the use of pages from The Cat in the Hat pages to play up this mythology, but to each his own. Nevertheless, I thought that one of Shields’s more ingenious moves was the way that subtly built up a case for the specificity of Lynch’s reluctance to participate in a particular kind of media. In the popular imagination, he was a sphinx with legendary one phrase press conferences (“I’m just here so I won’t get fined” the most memorable and meme-able of them all), but this documentary reminds us that in other contexts, there are no shortage of him speaking his mind in serious interviews or just goofing off on his favorite late night talk shows.

Tony: Actually Josh, your comment re: The Cat in the Hat riff sorta registers with me too: It’s one touch point that doesn’t need to be there. That minor caveat aside, this is one of the most biting, absorbing, and subversively witty documentaries I’ve seen in awhile–and I’m coming at this from the standpoint of  a dude who normally gives approximately zero fucks about sports.

Josh: I came to Seattle giving extremely few fucks about sports, but somewhere along the line, I developed an ambient admiration of the Seahawks as their recent era of woke personalities (R.I.P. Legion of Boom) coincided with the team getting good again. To my own surprise, I soon found myself clutching a fair-weather fan ticket just as the Seahawks bandwagon was leaving the station. I even bought and wore jerseys (multiple jerseys — R.I.P. Hauschka/Ryan era). And occasionally tune into the Seahawks Twitter firehose eagerly awaiting @Cable_Thanos_ videos. (Younger me would be so deeply perplexed about what I have become).

So, yes, I felt warm and fuzzy revisiting the clips of Super Bowl victory celebrations in the streets (complete with crosswalk discipline). However, Shields’s inclusion of repeated footage — from multiple angles, from the telecast, from fan reactions — of the nightmarish closing seconds of Super Bowl 49 was a stark reminder that the emotional wounds of Russell Wilson’s intercepted pass in place of a handoff to Marshawn Lynch for a half-yard, game-winning carry may never heal.

The Long Haul, courtesy SIFF

Chris: For me, I think The Long Haul: The Story of the Buckaroos was my favorite movie I’ve seen since our last roundtable. I talked about this a little bit in my interview with the film’s director, Amy Enser, but this locally-made documentary about male strippers turned out to be the movie I needed when I watched it. It was like an IRL version of The Full Monty, but with a more familiar backdrop.

Morgen: Since I didn’t get a chance to add my two cents in for the last round, I’ll talk about some of my favorites from the overall fest (but leave some fun ones for “best of”). Afterlife was a late entry into my list of “must see”. Dealing with death is a difficult subject, especially as a comedy, but they pulled it off beautifully. I liked the premise a lot and the film itself had a harsher reality feel than I expected, but with the whimsy of Amelie or, more closely related, Pushing Daisies (a television series, but still). The young lead, Sanaa Giwa, brought a depth to her character that was surprising and touching. Being a Dutch flick, I didn’t expect it to be so cheeky, if it had been American it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well so that’s a big win. Now that I’m talking about it, I really want to see it again.

Them That Follow, courtesy SIFF

Chris: One movie that I think I enjoyed but will continue to process for the remainder of my life is Them That Follow. I might be mistaking personal discomfort for greatness, I can’t be sure. I don’t think anyone else caught it, but it’s sure to get a wider release later this summer so maybe we can revisit it if there’s any interest. It’s about a weird, snake-handling religious cult and the drama that ensues when free-thinking son of true believers (the parents are played by Jim Gaffigan and Best Actress Olivia Colman) knocks up the preacher’s daughter. There are two things that really disturbed me, one is the logical extension of what happens when prayer is used as a substitute for medicine, and the other is that there’s a central character that looks like a younger Ted Cruz.

Josh: I didn’t process it at the time, but that explains why I immediately distrusted that character from the jump and why the heel turn was maybe less of a surprise than it should’ve been! That guy is played by Lewis “son of Bill” Pullman, who should definitely try to capitalize on scoring any rolls for Senate-set horror stories. It really is a star-studded cast: aside from The Queen Olivia Colman taking an Appalachian turn, there’s also Thomas Mann (the “me” from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Kaitlyn Denver (the co-lead of the hilarious Booksmart — which people may have missed under the SIFF avalanche), and Walton Goggins (Justified), who was born to play the role of a snake-charming preacher. I’m not sure that I bought every element of the story and it really spins out of control, but the autumnal isolation and escalating tension as religious fervor confronts the inevitable consequences of repeated snake handling really worked as the film built to a pulse-pounding finale.

Tony: Ted Cruz in his pre-Grandpa Munster face is a pretty horrific concept to kick around, for sure. But I was glad to have gotten a look at a genuine (and genuinely fun) horror movie that didn’t emit Ted Cruz smarm triggers. Nightmare Cinema is a horror anthology sporting segments by five different horror directors, and damned if the thing isn’t super-entertaining. Like any omnibus feature, some stories land better than others, but all of them work. And I cannot help but hold love in my heart for a movie that manages to wedge slasher-movie tropes, parasitic alien spiders, botched plastic surgery, demonic possession, nuns and priests with swords, killer kids, body horror, post-apocalyptic Carnival of Souls references, and Mickey Rourke into its two-hour run time.

Sibel, courtesy SIFF

Morgen: One other that I simply can’t get out of my head is Sibel. This was a big hit with the festival crowd as well and luckily I arrived quite a bit earlier than I normally do to get a spot in line, because the cut off was about 5 people behind me. I absolutely love strong female characters that aren’t made that way because they’re told to be, they choose to be strong when they simply could have followed along behind dominating male role models. Sibel, while an outcast to most of her village, loved fiercely and wanted more than anything to get the approval of her father… but didn’t give up her sense of self to do it. This story is tragic and beautiful and empowering.

Tony: The SIFF 2019 archival gem that formally knocked me out since last roundtable was I am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov’s singular 1964 masterpiece swaddled in propagandist’s clothing. It failed to find an audience in Cuba or Russia at the time for myriad reasons, partly because it’s far more complex than just the commercial for socialism that its Soviet and Cuban backers had hoped for. It’s a ravishing day in the life of early ‘60s Cuba, shot in gorgeous black and white, pulsing with life, occasionally powerfully moving, and lensed with a visual ingenuity that remains astonishing some 55 years later. This was a total left-field surprise for me, and I’m beyond elated that I saw it on the Egyptian’s giant screen.

SIFF also presented a screening of Rene Laloux’s 1973 animated sci-fi classic, Fantastic Planet, with a soundtrack of Flaming Lips songs curated by DJ NicFit. Laloux’s magnum opus is still a visual wonder, and his well-chosen soundtrack selection brought home the depth (and strength) of the Lips’ catalog.

The Misses: Some films are less amazing than others

Josh: It sounds like we’ve all had a fairly good time with SIFF, but they can’t all get five stars. Any minor misses along the way?

Tony: A sorta-disappointment I saw this last week was Ten Years Thailand, a sci-fi omnibus showcasing four shorts by four different Thai directors. Glass half full: The first two segments (a gently-observed love story/mediation on censorship and a legit spooky sci-fi/horror vignette, respectively) are genuinely great. The third segment starts oddball and interesting, only to wear out its welcome a lot quicker than it ends; and the fourth and final segment is literally not quite as fun as watching paint dry.

Morgen: I honestly can’t say I saw a “bad” movie this year. Again, I am a sucker for nearly anything film, but I have my limits, they just weren’t pushed this year; I’m a pretty happy camper. So… instead if I had to choose one film where I had really high hopes and ended up disappointed it was Go Back To China. I enjoyed myself, I laughed a bit, but it felt like there was a lot of room for more story, that there were things missing and too much was left on the editing room floor. The director had pulled the basis of this story from her own life and it’s complicated, really complicated. There are some family issues in there I would never know how to deal with. The complexity was there but it stayed swimming under the surface, so to keep it a lighter comedy she left most of that pain and anger out of it. I can understand why, especially because it hit so close to home, and the premise of the story (fish out of water, princess coming home to understand her roots, etc) is a funny one, but there’s a lot of room for an incredible story that really digs into the Chinese American culture and its relationship to China… but she didn’t take that on in this one.

Chris: One movie I found disappointing was Ms. Purple, the new film from Justin Chon. The plot centers around a young woman that works as a karaoke hostess and she absolutely refuses to put her father in hospice despite the recommendation of pretty much everyone. There was a great performance in the lead from Tiffany Chu, and I liked the interplay between Chu’s Kasie and her brother Carie, but the film also seemed heavy-handed at times. I wonder if I would’ve liked it more without seeing The Farewell, a grossly superior Asian family drama about nominally about what to do with a dying relative.

Tony: After reading Chris’s interview with director Don Millar, I was genuinely hoping to like Botero, Millar’s documentary on Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Botero’s lived a fascinating life, with an ongoing zeal to create that’s definitely inspirational. And as a puff piece about the octogenarian painter and sculptor, I reckon this doc serves its purpose for the already-converted.

But the movie possesses the overbearing pushiness of an infomercial. The strenuous huzzahs from Botero’s fold actually had an entirely unintended reverse effect on my appreciation of the man’s art: His portraiture (marked by tiny faces embedded in large, plump Rubens-esque bodies) is distinctive and executed with a masterful sense of shading and color, but the work begins to look one-note when so many examples are presented in short order over the course of 90 minutes. After awhile, I felt like I was viewing the art-world equivalent of those Funko toy effigies of geek culture icons: Singular in style, not without their pockets of fun, but hard to swallow as great art. I feel like Evil Bad-Guy Film Critic for even feeling like this, but the movie stuck in my craw uncomfortably.

Enormous, courtesy SIFF

Josh: I could maybe quibble with Enormous: the Gorge Story. I actually liked hearing about the origins of the Central Washington amphitheatre that grew from a place to host a winery’s grand opening to the home of some of the region’s largest festivals (R.I.P. Sasquatch, but Watershed and Paradiso live on). But beyond the humble origins, the primary story is that the venue is (1) beautiful and (2) far from everything else — props to Steve Miller for calling out what a hassle it is to get there and how the lack of facilities or nearby hotels is a real drag for a touring band. Ultimately, this isn’t a lot to hang a story on, so the already slim movie is padded with stories of one of the venue’s first photographers, a Dave Matthews superfan with a sad story (cancer), and another Dave Matthews superfan named Jason Mraz with a happy story (getting super famous via playing the satellite stage). I hate to pick on a nice little movie with some very lovely footage, but I really wished for more, maybe because my primary association with the festival is years of tromping up and down those hills with bags of camera equipment during Sasquatch.

Chris: I agree with you, Josh. I didn’t entirely love Enormous, and felt a little bad because I wrote a short, and only somewhat positive review of the movie and got an e-mail from the producers asking me to check out their movie. I couldn’t bring myself to respond with my lukewarm coverage. Still, there was nary a Grohl to be seen!

Tony: Yeah, I didn’t get out to see Enormous because it struck me as the kind of enjoyable but insubstantial doc that’d be fun to catch on Netflix on an off-night, but not really (spectacular Gorge footage aside) worth seeing on a theater screen.

Josh: Oh, I agree, this’ll play well on streaming services. Despite my quibbles, I hope at least one of them picks it up so fans can get a look (and hear the nice acoustic performances recorded in the vineyards for the movie).

The Meta: Tidbits from around the festival

Josh: The little cinema guessing-game bumpers are very cute, but we’re well past the point in the festival where I really wish they’d made more than four of them.

Tony: …Though I was/am impressed with the use of stereo depth on those guessing-game bumpers. It wasn’t until my fourth viewing of one that I realized that it was the bumper’s soundtrack, and not actual people in the audience, yelling out answers! Kudos, Sound People.

Morgen:  Same here Tony! Though, I did yell out Priscilla the first time I got it… it was the ping pong balls that gave it away. I have to admit though, the into video was stellar this year, I never once rolled my eyees at it and every year prior I absolutely did by the third week. I even sang along with it most of the time “Salsa Shark!”

Chris: One thing I noticed is that there doesn’t seem to be the same star power as SIFFs in the past, and I think it has made things for the better. Regina Hall and Marc Maron are probably the most well-known guests, and they’re great. I think I just enjoyed that there was more of an opportunity for discovery when not everyone was chasing after the same interviews.

Tony: You did get us quite a few interesting and varied filmmaker interviews, Chris, so that definitely bears out your observations about discovery–one of the most joyous things about a big film festival is discovering something unexpected that really sticks. And what my SIFF 2019 has lacked in cohesion, it’s more than picked up in terms of pleasant, left-of-center surprises.

Morgen: I agree with Chris here, as the photographer I’ve always been so excited for red carpets in past years like Ewan McGregor at the Egyptian, Kumar Nanjiani at the Opening Night Gala, Angelica Houston for the lifetime achievement award… it’s been an embarrassment of riches in the past and I was a little crestfallen at the lack of glamorous cameos.

Josh: It’s definitely been a bit less flashy, but SIFF does manage to bring a lot of people to town, which is a great opportunity for both the filmmakers showing their work as well as to crowds eager to hear from them in Q&As (and excellent interviews).

With that in mind, let’s all get out there and see a few more movies before SIFF evaporates, Brigadoon-like into the mists of memory. Hope to see you at the big closing night party at MOHAI when after the final credits roll.

Keep track of the SunBreak’s ongoing SIFF coverage on our SIFF 2019 page, plus news, updates, and micro-reviews on Twitter @theSunBreak.