Festivals Roundtables SIFF

SIFF 2019: “Wrap Party” Roundtable

Josh: Well, Film Team, it looks like we made it through another year of Seattle’s ultimate cinematic marathon. Along the way we’ve dished on highlights and stumbles and lauded our favorites. Before SIFF fades into memories, let’s convene for another debrief. We haven’t always had a chance to talk about everything that we saw during the past 25+ days; so how about a full disclosure scorecard?

 Everything We Saw at SIFF

  • The Farewell
  • Late Night
  • A Faithful Man
  • Lynch: A History
  • The Art of Self-Defense
  • Running With Beto
  • Sword of Trust
  • American Factory
  • Sauvage / Wild
  • The Days to Come
  • Non-Fiction
  • Banana Split
  • The Dead Don’t Die
  • We Are the Radical Monarchs
  • The Nightingale
  • Knife+Heart
  • Monos
  • This Is Not Berlin
  • Them That Follow
  • Greener Grass
  • Ghost Town Anthology
  • Blinded By The Light
  • Meeting Gorbachev
  • The Death of Dick Long
  • X&Y
  • Watch List (Maria)
  • Enormous: the Gorge Story
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Yesterday
  • To The Stars
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • Lynch: A History
  • I Am Cuba
  • ☆☆☆☆
    • Sword of Trust
    • Knife + Heart
    • Kifaru
    • Shorts Fest Opening Night
    • Fantastic Planet w/DJ NicFit
    • In Fabric
    • Nightmare Cinema
    • The Awakening of the Ants
    • The Nightingale
    • The Legend of the Stardust Brothers
    •  Botero 
    • Ten Years
    • Thailand 
    • Roll Red Roll
    • What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
    • ☆☆☆☆
      • Sword of Trust
      • The Nightingale
      • X: The eXploited
      • Kifaru
      • Banana Split
      • The Long Haul: The Story of the Buckaroos
      • International Falls
      • Pigeon Kings
      • Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins
      • Watch List (Maria)
      • The Farewell
      • We Are the Radical Monarchs
      • Botero
      • Them That Follow
      • Ghost Fleet
      • Stories of Us: Camp Second Chance
      • Who Let the Dogs Out
      • Making Coco: The Grant Fuhr Story
      • Fight Fam
      • We Take the Low Road
      • Enormous: The Gorge Story
      • David Crosby: Remember My Name
      • Brittany Runs a Marathon
      • Ms. Purple
      • Anthropocene: The Epoch
      • Running With Beto
      • El Ángel
      • Firecrackers
      • Aurora
      • Remi, Nobody’s Boy
      • Tel Aviv On Fire
      • Sibel
      • Sons of Denmark
      • Afterlife
      • Funke
      • ☆☆☆☆
        • Crystal Swan
        • Top End Wedding
        • Knife + Heart
        • Retrospekt
        • Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia
        • Cold Sweat
        • Driveways
        • Sune Vs Sune
        • Le Chocolat De H
        • International Falls
        • Sword of Trust
        • Go Back To China
        • Sonja – The White Swan
        • Chef’s Diary
        • Pigeon Kings
        • Cities of Last Things
        • The Sound of Silence
        • Emma Peeters
        • Blinded By the Light
        • Non-Fiction

        Chris: Ranking the films was proving somewhat difficult for me because I enjoyed pretty much most of the films I saw. I feel confident my top four are the best four movies I saw this SIFF, but I don’t know if there’s a lot of space separating number five and twenty.

        Josh: Oh, same. I’m reasonably confident on my top few, but it’s pretty arbitrary beyond that. And I only really put a couple in the one-star bin to be provocative.

        Tony: As I addressed before, my SIFF experience was a largely positive one. Again, I didn’t catch an enormous amount of stuff, so my SIFF wasn’t as cohesive and all-encompassing as it has been in the past for me.  

        Morgen:  I saw more films this year than in any prior and I really think it gave me perspective. I had to slow down a little because of other things pulling me away from the fest or I would have seen several of the big winners that I sadly couldn’t catch. Overall, I think they did an incredible job choosing a real variety of films. I’m not a huge documentary fan, so I wasn’t drawn nearly as much to those as the general audience is (escapism seems to be my sweet spot), but I found myself watching more and more narrative films that reflected the pains of real life and I think that’s where we are as a people right now… we can’t escape reality even when we want to. Rough.

        Josh: I had been feeling like my festival wasn’t quite offbeat enough, but squeezing Greener Grass, The Death of Dick Long, X&Y, and The Dead Don’t Die  into one weekend really remedied that situation completely.

        Tony: Mainlining The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, In Fabric, and Cities of Last Things in short order had a similar effect on me, to be certain and, just maybe, revealed a bit of a recurring theme in my SIFF: Surrealism. That is borne out by most of the movies I saw, especially the last three.

        As has been discussed in our previous recommendations, I was genuinely excited to see In Fabric. Peter Strickland’s latest movie involves a killer dress (as in, literally, a dress that kills), so eccentricity is part of the deal. Even with that in mind, I’m still digesting it. There’s much amazing stuff in it, and it showcases Strickland’s now-signature visual succulence, but I’m holding off on an opinion ‘til I see it again.

        As far as other stuff I saw, I also caught the 1985 oddity that is Legend of the Stardust Brothers, and ‘oddity’ is the operative term. The movie follows two guys, Kan (the rebel rocker) and Shingo (suave new-wave singer), who become the frontmen for a pre-fabricated pop band, The Stardust Brothers. The execution of this story is likely the key reason it flopped on arrival, and also likely why it’s become a cult movie. The visual design’s pure, bright, silly pop-art, but director Macoto Tezuka (son of Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka) hurtles zombies, robots, pro wrestlers, bizarre musical numbers/videos, animated interludes, and more into the mix at breakneck speed, cohesion be damned. The end would be flat-out dark if the movie weren’t so damned amusingly insane. I kinda loved it.

        The final mind-fuck of a movie I saw in SIFF’s final days was Cities of Last Things, a Taiwanese film noir with subtle sci-fi shadings. Structurally, it’s essentially Memento, only over a character’s entire life.  Jack Dao is terrific as the middle-aged iteration of the lead character–his hangdog face and sense of weariness already speak volumes about his character, even as the reverse-chronology gradually unpeels the layers of romantic disappointment and poor life choices that illuminate the film’s opening shot. Director Ho Wi Ding handles it all masterfully, pacing it well and generating enormous empathy for the movie’s flawed hard-luck protagonist. The only liability (and it may not be one for some viewers) is the movie’s dark tone: This is one very tragic story, and Ding’s structuring of it steers the already-palpable sense of melancholy into some very  harrowing emotional waters.

        Final Gripes: Exploring the Bottom of the Scorecard

        Josh: I always feel like you aren’t trying hard enough if you don’t have some gripes …

        Tony: Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your view), I’ve already written about the two least favorite movies I saw: Botero and Ten Years Thailand.

        Josh: I was really beginning to worry that I wouldn’t find a movie to loathe at this year’s festival, but then “magic” struck on closing night with Yesterday. I went in very skeptical, but I usually fall for whatever Danny Boyle throws down, for better (and sometimes) worse. But somehow, until the end credits rolled, it had escaped me that it this musical fantasy was written by Richard “Love Actually” (strong contender for worst movie of all time) Curtis, a writer who’s stuck gold over and over again by mining the toxic idea that the most romantic thing a person can do is ignore someone for years and then publicly embarrass them with a dramatic and disruptive profession of love once that other tortured person has finally moved on to a healthy relationship with a partner who actually appreciates them. Anyway, Yesterday explores what would happen if one un-telegenic indie rocker with a great voice was, due to a bicycle crash that coincided with a global electrical anomaly, the only person on earth to remember the Beatles.

        I can’t deny Himesh Patel’s gifts as a singer or Lily James’s heroic efforts to make something out of her deeply under-developed role as a lovestruck manager who sticks with her day job as schoolteacher rather than hitch herself to Himesh’s rising star. These actors have many gifts, but building credible romantic chemistry out of a friendzoned relationship isn’t one of them. As the film progresses, there are funny performances from Kate McKinnon as a predatory record company exec and Joel Fry as a hapless roadie/assistant, but the neglected foundation crumbles in the endgame as film makes a series of unforced errors, falling flat on its face over and over again with just the most terrible choices. But the audience on closing night was singing along as the credits rolled; so I’m sure that people are going to love it, actually.  

        Tony: “From the talent that brought you Love Actually” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement from this corner either. Josh, we can both sit on our fold-out chairs in our cineastes’ front yard and growl at the Love Actually fans to get off of our cinematic lawn.

        Chris: Josh, that sounds fucking awful. I saw the trailer several times and had so many questions. Questions like, how could anyone buy that the Beatles would have any ubiquity in this era if their songs were heard for the first time today. I think they are the greatest non-ABBA pop group of all time, but no one is buying records now like they were when Sgt. Pepper came out.

        Josh: To its credit, the film kind of addresses that point! At first, no one really thinks much of the songs beyond saying that they’re awfully pretty. The lead character gives his parents the chance to be the first people in alt-timeline’s Earth to hear “Let it Be” and the number of interruptions and general disinterest becomes a punch line. He languishes on the circuit for a while, playing these songs to disinterested audiences, but then they drop the conceit about halfway after Ed Sheeran (actually pretty good, in a self-effacing performance) catches him on a Suffolk public access channel, shows up at his house, and invites him on tour to the former U.S.S.R. (can you guess which selection is a hit?). From there, unspecified social media reacts occur, and the whole world recognizes the immutable genius of these songs. But the whole thing, aside from an embarrassing digital media montage, is deeply anti-modern. There’s barely a note of tinkering from the record company beyond one silly lyrical edit to the title of “Hey Jude” and some comedic stabs at managing his decidedly un-popstar image.

        Morgen:  I’ll let Yesterday lick its wounds and tear a bit into another film with a similarly sweet storyline. This’ll be an unpopular opinion, I’m sure, but I think the worst film I saw was Blinded by the Light. I can’t pick out exactly why I disliked it so much other than the storyline felt so weak. We’ve all been the outcast at one point or another and looked for someone or something that made us feel connected, and that’s what this film lacked for me… connection. I like Bruce Springsteen just fine, but an entire musical dedicated to his music was a bit much for me. I was intrigued to see a new take (especially one that wasn’t all anger and pain) on being an outsider/foreigner in England in the 80’s. It’s hard to make a sweet movie out of such a hateful situation but they did it and its commendable. I just couldn’t connect, it felt too light, too breezy and by the end I was happy to get out of there. Also, the most famous version of “Blinded by the Light” wasn’t the original by Springsteen, it was the top 100 Billboard hit cover version performed by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. That’s been bothering me a lot, why choose that one as the title? Maybe I’m missing a profound connection there that would change my mind completely.

        Josh: I wish I could tell you why I loathed Yesterday but was won over by the scrappy earnest appeal of Blinded by the Light. In part, it may be because so much of Springsteen wears its heart on its well-worn denim sleeves, but at some point I just accepted the goofy retro valentine as it told the inspired-by-biography story of a struggling young writer having his life changed by a cassette tape being pressed into his life by a new friend. Plus, there’s a healthy degree of skewering of 80s school radio snobs. I admit that the whole thing is ridiculous, but I just bought into the contrivances of musical theater and went with it.

        Enough about us, how about them? Reaction to the audience awards

        Josh: We’ve blathered on enough about our hits and misses. What about the other tens of thousands of attendees? What of their opinion? Luckily, we have some quantitative indicators!

        Throughout the festival, all filmgoers are encouraged to rate films by tearing through a paper ballot on a scale of one (worst) to five (best). Volunteers tirelessly tally these votes, along with write-in nominations for directing and acting accolades, and at the end of SIFF, the Golden Space Needles are born. Separately, an unofficial passholder organization tracks their filmgoing on a very cool parallel schedule and online balloting system. These result in the “Fool Serious” list of favorites. I always find it interesting to see how these rankings do (or don’t agree with each other).  

        Golden Space Needle (Audience Awards)Fool Serious (Passholders) Favorites
        Best Film (Narrative)
        Tel Aviv on Fire
        Sink or Swim
        Official Secrets
        Blinded by the Light
        Most Liked (Narrative):
        The Invisible Witness
        The Fall of the American Empire
        Remi, Nobody’s Boy
        Official Secrets
        Minuscule – Mandibles from Far Away 
        Sons of Denmark 
        One Last Deal
        Best Documentary
        We Are the Radical Monarchs
        Our Bodies Our Doctors
        Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins
        Patrinell: The Total Experience
        Most liked (documentaries)
        Raise Hell: the Life and Times of Molly Ivins
        For Sama
        Q Ball
        Director: Ulaa Salim, Sons of Denmark
        Actor: Julius Weckauf, All About Me
        Actress: Damla Sönmez, Sibel
        Director: Sons of Denmark
        Actor: Yomeddine
        Actress: Sibel

        Cinematography: Volcano
        Script: Invisible Witness

        Josh: Pretty striking difference of opinion between the general ballot-tearing audience and the unofficial passholder ballot, especially on the narrative side!

        There’s a closer consensus for documentaries, with with Maiden and Raise Hell earning high-likability marks from both camps. Interestingly in the individual achievements,  Sibel was the pick for best actress across the board and Sons of Denmark was singled out by both groups in the best director category.  

        Morgen: This is a good place to mention a film that I still haven’t fully digested, Sons of Denmark. I saw it on a whim when I had time before the midnight showing of Knife+Heart (which I adored for so many reasons). It absolutely wrecked me. It not only brought to stark life the world in which we live, but the danger that Middle Eastern men, women, and children are all facing and how helpless we sometimes feel in the face of such anger and violence. It also brought the humanity of us all into question. What is right and wrong never has a clear line or definition and the decisions we make now will possibly haunt us for the rest of our lives. It was intense and I won’t soon forget it.

        Chris: I am not surprised at We Are the Radical Monarchs winning Best Documentary, as I predicted it would be one of the most beloved movies by the end of SIFF. It was a great movie that had everything a “woke” audience would want. I didn’t hear much buzz for Tel Aviv on Fire so I was surprised it was Best Picture.

        Josh: Of these I only saw We Are the Radical Monarchs, about an Oakland-based organization that takes the Girl Scout experience and centers it around young women of color, awarding badges for social justice issues along the way. Had I not made the home-team pick of Lynch for best documentary, this probably would’ve gotten my vote, too. It’s incredibly feel-good while also remaining grounded in the lives of these girls (many of whom have incredibly on camera presence)  and clear-eyed about the enormous time and financial requirements incurred by the two women who launched the organization. At first you’re shocked that there aren’t dozens of troops in every woke city, but the documentary shows their care in startup and the time commitment, and the slow rollout makes a lot more sense.

        Enough about the people, how about the experts?

        Josh: In addition to giving audiences their due, SIFF also invites panels of experts to convene juries in a series of competitions. These are their picks:

        OFFICIAL CompetitionHouse of Hummingbird
        NEW DIRECTORSThe Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia
        NEW AMERICAN CINEMAInternational Falls
        IBERO-AMERICAN COMPETITIONThe Awakening of the Ants
        FILMS4FAMILIESWe Are the Radical Monarchs
        FUTUREWAVECarmen & Lola

        Josh: Although I failed in my effort to watch everything in the Official Competition and found that category remains a really stimulating pathway through the SIFF programming. The selections were a diverse survey of style and approach. I saw Ghost Town Anthology (creepy meditation on death set in rural Quebec), The Days to Come (a somewhat improvised investigation of the effects of an unplanned pregnancy that benefitted from intimate access to a real life couple), Them That Follow (about the limits of faith among a rural snake-handling cult), Watch List (Maria) (overly melodramatic-for-my-taste, but nicely shot immersion into the corrupting drug war in the Philippines), X&Y (two artistic narcissists enter a soundstage, cast actors to play extreme versions of their personalities, and transgressions ensue).  However, I missed Twin Flower, The Announcement, and the jury’s winner, House of Hummingbird, so I guess I have some catching up to do.

        Tony: Of all the award/prize winners, I only saw The Awakening of the Ants, which I liked a lot. Plenty of wish-I-caught-’ems in the Winner’s Circle, though…

        Morgen: Like Tony I sadly only saw a couple of the award winners. I have a feeling I’ll be compelled to see a lot more films at SIFF Cinema throughout the year to catch the ones I missed. I only saw two of the winners from the list above,  International Falls and The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia. I definitely enjoyed them both, but neither of them were my absolute favorite. International Falls was more telling of the comedy industry than anything else and it was almost painful for me to go through what I already knew about the people who chose that life: that it’s painful and sad most of the time, even when you’re really good. Journey of Celeste Garcia was really sweet, but there was a twinge of sadness in this one too and there was an underlying story about refugees and fleeing to a better and exciting place. I really did love this film, but the way it ended broke my heart even though it was supposed to be uplifting and sweet… it’s hard to love a film like that even though I want to love it because of that.  

        Closing Thoughts?

        Morgen: Maybe it was the films that I went to see (as a freelancer, I was able to catch daytime films when a lot of the general public couldn’t) but it felt like there wasn’t a mad rush for more than one or two this year. Sibel was difficult to get into, as was one or two others, but it seemed that the viewership was either down a bit or just more spread out. Did you all feel like the crowds were a bit thinner this year? Think it was due to fewer big names? Or, again, maybe I just wasn’t amidst the crazy crowds due to timing.

        Chris: I try to talk to as many filmmakers as I can, a mixture of local and visiting directors, but this was something I hadn’t done before. The press office asked if I’d do a sit-down interview with the director and guests for Pigeon Kings on the red carpet before the World Premiere of their movie. It was the first time I had ever done an interview like that, so public – even though it was a little out of the way behind the escalators at Pacific Place.

        Josh: Same comment every year: SIFF is too damned long. From opening to closing night it runs longer than Sundance, Cannes, and Telluride combined. It’s hard to argue against too much of a good thing … and the festival atmosphere brings out a set of filmgoers that fill houses for movies that would struggle to sell ten tickets during the year, but by the end it feels like way too much.

        Morgen: I’m gonna have to argue with you a bit on this Josh. I’m thrilled it’s so long. When we get started it’s fun and fresh and we’re excited, but even the platinum passholders are starting lose momentum a little by the third week so there’s more opportunity to see films that, if there were only two weeks instead of four, would be filled to the brim and difficult to see anything highly regarded. Sibel was really the only film that I almost didn’t see due to demand and it only had two showings (surprising because it had so much buzz). What I can agree with is maybe too many films; I’d prefer one or two more showings of each and less overall films in the fest. It’s a difficult job to choose what does and doesn’t get into a fest, but there are always a few I feel like they could have left by the wayside. It’s hard to keep a balance between finding that overlooked film that will bring attention to the fest and the already acclaimed works that other fests have shown but bring in the viewers because of it.

        Tony: I must admit, I likewise appreciate having 3 weeks for SIFF. The movie obsessive in me enjoys how immersive a longer festival can be. It also gives me the opportunity to see a wider variety of  films over a longer period. That said, it’s a marathon not a sprint, and marathons can be tiring.

        Josh: Luckily, SIFF took a well-earned breather after closing night. But starting this weekend, there’ll be a chance for all of us to catch up on some of those audience favorites as part of this weekend’s “Best of SIFF” re-programming.

        Friday June 14 sees the return of Carmen & Lola (Futurewave), Sink or Swim, International Falls (New American Cinema Competition); Saturday June 15 has We Are the Radical Monarchs (Golden Space Needle, Documentary), Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, Top End Wedding, and Official Secrets; Sunday June 16 gets another screening of The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia (New Directors), Shortsfest Audience Award Winners; Monday June 17 has Vai and the Awakening of the Ants, (Ibero-American Competition); Tuesday June 18 gets Yuli and the Shortsfest Jury Award Winners; Wednesday June 19 plays the overall Golden Space Needle winner Tel Aviv On Fire and Q Ball (Documentary Competition); and the program closes  on Thursday June 20 with The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.

        With that list of films to fill our next week, let’s call this roundtable a wrap! As always, it’s fun SIFF-ing with all of you.