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How to find your way around SIFF’s 435 films

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By Robert Horton
Herald Movie Critic
Launched in 1976 with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a handful of foreign films, and a great deal of moxie, the Seattle International Film Festival continues to drive people into the dark every spring. If that seems counterintuitive, so be it; I stopped bellyaching about how nice it would be to have a February festival at least 10 years ago.
A cinematic marathon, this year's SIFF runs from May 15 through June 8 and claims 435 films in its roster. That becomes more manageable if you know that 163 of those are shorts, but it's still a beast.
Here are some thoughts on ways to categorize, manage, or otherwise think about this film festival. The fest shows across multiples theaters in Seattle, Kirkland, Renton and Bellevue.
Along with some of its usual venues, such as the SIFF Uptown, Harvard Exit and Pacific Place, the festival is dusting off the Egyptian theater, which has been closed as a movie house for some months and was SIFF's home and flagship for many years. Unlike recent years, there's no SIFF leg in Everett, alas.
Given its size, SIFF can seem intimidating. It needn't be. Yes, you have to know which line to stand in outside the theater (pass holders? ticket holders? ticket buyers?), but other than that you don't have to be an insider to divine how to make this thing work.
Approach wisely, however. With 435 films in play, some of these things are duds. There are fest-goers who will seek out movies based on country of origin or subject matter and won't particularly care about quality. But it's not a bad idea to survey online reviews from reliable sources before you choose.
SIFF also arranges its line-up according to “Moods,” which has always struck me as an odd way to organize. But somebody must like it.
On the other hand, if you like to roll the dice, SIFF has 20 features making their world premieres here (and another 29 making their North American or U.S. premieres), which adds some agreeable mystery to the mix.
The fest is also a fine opportunity to see filmmakers talking about their work. Check the description for information about visitors (sometimes this info is confirmed late, so keeping on online eye on this sort of thing is a good idea).
Along with those opportunities, there are also chances to see the filmmakers at panel events or special tributes. This year's panels and forums include topics such as film music, documentary, “The Emergence of Native Filmmaking,” and the future of film criticism. I hope that last one doesn't take place on an upper floor, because I do hate to see people jumping out of windows.
The marquee tributes go to actors Laura Dern and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Dern, one of the gutsiest performers of her generation, will be around for screenings of “Wild at Heart” and the new “Fault in Our Stars.” Ejiofor, fresh from his Oscar-nominated turn in “12 Years a Slave,” will present his new film “Half of a Yellow Sun.”
There will also be a special event devoted to the musical genius Quincy Jones, whose ties to Seattle will be renewed with a SIFF Lifetime Achievement Award and a screening of his new film “Keep On Keepin' On.” The fest will also have a retrospective screening of “The Pawnbroker,” the somber 1964 film for which Jones contributed the score.
SIFF offers a few specific spotlights this year, notably an energetic attempt to draw together films from Africa. There's also a group of “New Spanish Cinema” offerings and the usual big slate of Asian movies.
If you like to walk on the wild side, the midnight movie selection is on tap again. These can sometimes be junky, but this year's batch actually has some interesting-sounding entries, including an acclaimed Aussie film called “The Babadook” and a Sasquatch horror-comedy directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, “Willow Creek.” There is also a film about zombie beavers. It is entitled “Zombeavers.”
The first thing I look at every year is the archival selection, and SIFF has improved its slate this outing. A new print of Nicholas Ray's wonderful 1952 film “The Lusty Men,” with Robert Mitchum, is promised. That will actually be on 35 mm film—you know, that once-popular format now eclipsed by digital — as will a restored print of “Last Year at Marienbad,” the 1961 classic by the late Alain Resnais.
Digital presentations include Abel Gance's silent epic “J'accuse” (1919) and Frank Capra's gem “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936). There'll also be a screening of “The Stunt Man,” a 1980 film that was discovered by Seattle audiences and vaulted into national prominence; director Richard Rush will attend.
The Films4Families slate provides kid-friendly options from around the world, and the “Secret Festival” continues its long run as a showcase for movies that, for one reason or another, cannot be talked about. A vow of silence is taken at each session.
There's a huge slew of documentaries (60 features, at last count) if that's your thing. With filmmakers often in attendance, this can be an interesting way to delve into the subject at hand.
Things officially kick off Thursday night with a splashy opening presentation at McCaw Hall. “Jimi: All Is by My Side” is a new film about Seattle's own Mr. Hendrix, directed by the man who just won an Oscar for writing “12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley.
Closing night on June 8 brings “The One I Love,” a comedy starring Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass. That's at the Cinerama, with a closing night party at the Museum of History and Industry to follow.
Ticket window
You can purchase festival passes or individual tickets. Packages of tickets are also available. For more on how that works, and for the sprawling line-up of titles, go to for information.
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