SIFF 2019: Final Weekend, Final Thoughts

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (USA 2019, 115 min)

Digital Screener, Sat 6/8 and Sun 6/9

Despite plans to see multiple movies over the final weekend of SIFF, I ended up seeing only one film, at home, and fell asleep for half of it (note: I fell asleep because I was tired and the music in this documentary is wonderfuly soothing, not because of the quality of the film). So I watched the part I’d slept through the following day.

Using talking heads, voice-over, archival video, rhythmic cutting of archival photos, and the music of Miles Davis throughout, this is a wonderful documentary and celebration of the man who changed the face of jazz several times. By focusing on his life, loves, and music, this is as rounded a portrait of the man and his craft as you could want. Don’t be surprised if you want to go out and buy his albums afterwards. A great documentary.

Final Thoughts on SIFF 2019

The Year of the Screeners

In past years, I’ve occasionally grabbed a screener for films I couldn’t see due to my work schedule, but nothing like the number of screeners I saw this year. Out of the 25 films I saw, nine were screeners (for comparison, I saw seven press screenings), and several of them were films I could’ve seen on-screen, but was too lazy or too tired to make the attempt.

Best of SIFF 2019

Best Actor: Rady Gamal, Yomeddine

Playing a man afflicted with leprosy as a young man, Rady Gamal gives a great performance as Beshay, helped by a good script and strong supporting work from multiple people. I did feel the dream sequence which shows him looking in a mirror and seeing a healthy-looking man was a cheap way to show that the actor isn’t disfigured, especially since the performance would’ve been great, either way.

Best Actress: Damla Sönmez, Sibel

Like Gamal, but to an even greater extent, no one came close to Sönmez in this category. In Sibel, she plays the titular character, communicating through a whistling language. If I were to nominate a supporting actress award, however, it’d be for Elit Iscan, who played her younger sister Fatma, and almost did as much without words as Sönmez did.

Guilty Pleasure: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers

To be fair, this was my only guilty pleasure movie during the Fest, but it earned its guilty pleasure status as a whacky, over-the-time, 80s infused Japanese musical that was also surprisingly good in terms of having a solid narrative structure, proving that director Makoto Tezuka might’ve been young when he made it, but he was also incredibly talented.

Best Music: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Yeah, it’s really hard to have a soundtrack better than what Davis did on his seminal work from the 1950s through the 1980s. I even went out and bought Birth of the Cool after seeing this movie.

Best Cinematography/Best Archival: I Am Cuba

Yomeddine had some great visuals for the non-archival films, but nothing was going to touch the justly-famous cinematography of this movie. If you ever want proof that film is primarily a visual medium, watch this film, preferably on the largest screen possible. It also was the best of the archival films I saw.

Best Script: 3 Faces

No one film stood out for its script (and the best lines were in the Molly Ivins documentary, which wasn’t scripted). While Non-Fiction has the most intelligent script, it also was a vehicle for ideas rather than the people speaking them (and see the point above about film being a visual medium). Yomeddine was a strong contendor, but in its use of humor and its naturalness, director Jafar Panahi’s latest gets my vote. Written by Panahi and Nader Saeivar.

Best Documentary: Maiden

From its editing to its music to its research, this films knows exactly what it’s about and tells a story worth telling. Best to watch if you know nothing about Tracy Edwards, The Whitbread Around-the-World Race, or sailing.

Best Director: Ying Liang, A Family Tour

Like Maiden, everything about A Family Tour is top-notch, though unlike Maiden, you’re not noticing as you’re watching it how great the individual components are because they all work together so well as a whole. How it can be so subtle and yet so bold is one of the joys of this film, and is a tribute to how seemlessly Ying Liang directs everything.

Best Narrative Film: A Family Tour

A Family Tour could’ve shown Non-Fiction a thing or two about burying ideas in a film, instead of burying a film in ideas. Plus, you never forget that the actors onscreen are people, rather than points of view. The fact that Liang could make such a personal film and yet not let the autobiographical elements overshadow the narrative is an accomplishment: the fact that it’s so good is an even rarer achievement.

Best Overall: Maiden

Maiden was only the second film I saw during the festival, but it made such an impact on me that it remained my favorite film throughout, even though I saw some really great movies later on. It’s one of those documentaries where you think it can’t get any more thrilling or emotional, and then it tops itself.

Final Thoughts on 10 Seattle International Film Festivals

The spread at this year’s press launch

Best Guilty Pleasures 2010-2019: Comrade Kim Goes Flying (2013), The Astrologer (2015), Bad Black (2017), Legend of the Stardust Brothers (2019)

Best Overall: The Astrologer

The sweetness of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, the zaniness of Bad Black, the cohesiveness of Legend of the Stardust Brothers: none of them can compare to the side-splitting, WTF did I just see concoction that is The Astrologer. “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” is one of my favorite lines from any movie.

Best Archivals 2010-2019: 25th Hour (2010), La Dolce Vita (2011), The Pawnbroker (2013), The Apu Trilogy (2014), The Marseille Trilogy: César (2017)

Best Overall: La Dolce Vita, The Apu Trilogy (tie)

So many great films in this category! All are favorites of mine, but I saw a restored print (yes, I said “print!”) of La Dolce Vita on Memorial Day at the Harvard Exit and sat enraptured for 3 hours, while I took a day off from work to see all three movies in The Apu Trilogy. The other films on this list are also masterpieces, but these two viewings offered something that transcends cinema.

Best Documentaries 2010-2019: Garbo the Spy (2010), How to Survive a Plague (2011), The Act of Killing (2012), Tower (2016), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), Maiden (2019)

Best Overall: How to Survive a Plague

All of these films are great, and The Act of Killing is astonishing, but if I had to pick one film from this list, it’d be How to Survive a Plague. Using mostly VHS recordings taken around the time that the AIDS epidemic reached its height in the U.S., the film is informative, entertaining, emotional, and expertly edited. It also has the distinction of laying claim to the best post-film Q&A I’ve attended out of all 10 festivals.

Best Narrative Films 2010-2019: The City of Life and Death (2010), The White Meadows (2011), Wolf Children (2012), Boyhood (2013), Our Little Sister (2016), Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018), A Family Tour (2019)

Best Overall: Wolf Children

Like La Dolce Vita, this film was on film when I saw it on a lazy Saturday morning at the Uptown. I recently rewatched it on Blu-ray, and while nothing beats watching it projected on 35mm on a huge screen, the film is still a masterpiece.

In Conclusion…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through 10 film festivals. Looking back, it amazes me how much I wrote on the previous 9. Time and interest has often dictated how long and in-depth my posts are, but even in the shorter entries, I hope I’ve given you a good idea of the films I’ve seen and the experience of attending, working at, and volunteering for SIFF.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a rundown of how many features and shorts I’ve seen:

2010: 12 features, 0 shorts, 1 volunteer appreciation feature

2011: 18 features, 0 shorts, 1 volunteer appreciation feature

2012: 20 features, 0 shorts

2013: 34* features, 2 shorts packages (18 shorts total), 1 TV pilot

2014: 30 features, 2 shorts, 1 shorts package (4 shorts)

2015: 48 features, 0 shorts

2016: 30 features, 1 shorts package (8 shorts)

2017: 22 features, 1 shorts package (8 shorts)

2018: 19 features, 2 shorts packages (8 shorts, 15+ found footage groupings), 4 VR exhibits

2019: 25 features, 0 shorts

*My SIFF 2013 wrap-up says 37 features, but I believe that erroneously counts the shorts packages and the Twin Peaks pilot as features.

While I’ve missed seeing shorts in other years, this year is the first year I didn’t attend any screenings with Q&As, nor did I attend Q&As separately (which is one of the reasons I did the interview via email with David Shields — my first interview for any of the festivals). This also means I took fewer photos than in past years. And, since I only did capsule reviews for the films I saw, I decided not to include movie stills in those posts. Therefore, as this is my final post from this year’s festival, I’m leaving you with some of the photos I did take.

SIFF 2019: A decade of the Seattle International Film Festival

As mentioned in my final post from SIFF 2018, this year’s festival will be the tenth I’ve attended. Since moving to Seattle in late 2009, I haven’t missed a festival, starting with my first one (and first film festival ever) in 2010, where I volunteered at the Neptune Theatre, back when Landmark was the biggest independent movie chain in Seattle, and the Uptown Theatre was run by AMC. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this would be the last festival where almost everything was projected on film, and digital copy meant “DVD.”

Neptune Theatre, SIFF 2010

After festival that year, the Uptown would close, only to be officially reopened the following year (on October 20) as the first year-round theater run by SIFF (previously, they’d used McCaw Hall’s Nesholm Lecture Family Hall to show movies on a limited basis throughout the year). Before the reopening, however, I attended my second festival as a volunteer. STG had taken over the Neptune Theatre by that point and converted it into a live performance venue, but they allowed SIFF back in for a second year. The first week, we used folding chairs for seats! By the second weekend, the Sundance Film Festival had donated seats for us (possibly the same ones that were originally there). I later found out that much of the insulation had been stripped from the walls, which is why, even with a new sound system, the sound was awful that first weekend. This was also the first year where DCPs and other digital formats (such as HDCam) started to appear, though many movies were still shown on film. That would change in the ensuing years. Except for the rare film donated from someone’s personal collection, all the films from the last few years have been projected digitally, and DCP has become the dominant format.

2012 was the first year I worked the festival as a paid employee, and the first year the Uptown was open as a SIFF venue (and not just a satellite location) for the festival. To say there were growing pains would be an understatement, but the festival has since become a well-oiled machine.

In 2013, I dedicated my festival posts to the late Roger Ebert, who had passed away the previous month and had inspired me to write about SIFF, following his lead in Cannes and elsewhere. I also worked the press screenings, freeing up my nights for movie-watching.

Meeting Roger Ebert, Ebertfest 2011

In 2014, I applied for and was granted my first press pass for the festival and worked my second (and last) press screenings. SIFF acquired the Egyptian that year and bought the Uptown outright, the latter thanks to a generous donation from David and Linda Cornfield. I also retired my point-and-shoot camera in favor of a DSLR, which resulted in better pictures (though when I didn’t have it handy, I ended up taking shitty photos with my phone). Oh, and did I mention SIFF celebrated their 40th festival that year (though, in the interest of full disclosure, there was no 13th festival)?

The following year, I asked for and was allowed to work a few shifts at the Harvard Exit, which Landmark had exited and which is now the Mexican Consulate. The last movies shown there were the ones shown during the festival. I applied for another press pass, but was rejected (not that it affected my coverage one bit).

2016 saw the press screenings move from the Uptown to AMC Pacific Place. There was a tribute to Dan Ireland, one of the founders of the festival, who had passed away a mere two years after coming back to celebrate the 40th SIFF Festival and show (in 35mm!) his movie The Whole Wide World. It was also the first (and so far, only) year that I bought a Secret Festival badge and attended the movies there. And though we didn’t know it at the time, it was also the final festival for SIFF’s longtime Artistic Director, Carl Spence.

I didn’t bother applying for a press pass that year, nor the next year. In fact, I didn’t cover the festival at all in 2017, though I did attend.

Last year I applied for and received a press pass and announced my glorious return to the blogging ranks, though I only made it to one press-only screening, since the other ones occurred on days that I worked.

Every year I’ve covered the festival, I’ve found ways to vary my coverage. Some of the coverage has been dictated by time constraints, others by review embargoes (though I think they’re bullshit, they do ensure that I post movie reviews past festival, even when my main coverage has ended). Certainly I wrote longer and more in-depth posts when I worked less and watched fewer movies. I also used to write out all the Q&As during the Q&As I attended, a practice I ended in 2015.

This year, most of my posts will be from festivals past. They’ll be unchanged, except for new introductions. The plan is to write at least five posts from this year’s festival. And who knows? Maybe I’ll even sneak in a post from SIFF 2017 (you don’t think I didn’t take notes, did you?). Posts about working at the festival will be kept to a minimum, since 1.) not much changes year-to-year, and 2.) this is my seventh year working the festival, so I’d prefer to focus on the movies I see and the events I attend versus how long the concession lines were. Since I write for myself and not for SIFF, this’ll also prevent people from confusing me as some sort of spokesperson for either the festival or the organization, of which I am neither.

So, are you ready to take a journey with me through nine years and ten festivals? Tonight, the press launch. Tomorrow, the press screenings. In a couple of weeks, the world.