Someone should total up the number of seats at all the theaters for all the screenings that have happened at the Seattle International Film Festival since it bowed in 1976.
Actually, no, nobody should do that, because my point here is that SIFF has served up an unthinkable number of movies over the years. It’s the largest and longest film festival in the United States, a busy behemoth that not only features movie screenings but also panels, workshops and a gala tribute — which this year goes to actress Regina Hall, who gave my fave performance of 2018 in “Support the Girls.”
The 2019 edition of SIFF, which will spill out of Seattle and into Shoreline and the Eastside, boasts an interesting-sounding “Works-in-Progress” series (four not-yet-locked features, screened for feedback from industry pros), the annual Indigenous Media Lab (intensive classes for indigenous filmmakers), and dozens of visiting directors, producers and actors.
Included in the latter group will be Lynn Shelton and comedian Marc Maron, the director and star, respectively, of this year’s opening-night film, “Sword of Trust.” The spritzy, partly improvised comedy from Seattle filmmaker Shelton is set in Alabama, where a rare Civil War artifact sets off an opportunity for some funny people to riff their way through a farcical set-up.
Opening night is tonight, and the festival wraps on June 9 with “The Farewell,” a comedy starring “Ocean’s 8” scene-stealer Awkwafina. In between are over 400 movies (features and shorts) from 86 countries. That’s too many movies to expect a really consistent level of quality, but SIFF’s formula has been to cast a wide net and fill its niche programs — foodie movies, music documentaries, Asian-movie fans, etc. — with the faithful.
I’ve taken a peek at a cross-section of titles from around the world, and here are some recommendations — and maybe a couple of warnings.
“The Nightingale.” An absolutely searing tale of violence and revenge in colonial Tasmania, from the director of “The Babadook,” Jennifer Kent. This is blunt-force filmmaking, but somehow the approach is suited to the era we’re enduring right now — even if the story is set almost 200 years ago.
“Blinded by the Light.” I hereby declare this movie critic-proof: It might be cornball and cliched, but this tale of a Pakistani teen whose frustrated life in late-1980s England is transformed by his discovery of Bruce Springsteen is very difficult to resist. Wall-to-wall Bruce songs, needless to say, and the film totally geeks out on them. Director Gurinder Chada (“Bend It Like Beckham”) and leading man Viveik Kalra are scheduled to attend.
“Non-Fiction.” A wonderfully witty French comedy set in the world of writing and publishing, where there’s a great deal of conversation about the digital future. Plus lots of extramarital affairs. A great director, Olivier Assayas, isn’t necessarily at his top level here, but the film is very enjoyable. Juliette Binoche leads the cast.
“Swinging Safari.” A noisy Aussie comedy (from “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” director Stephan Elliot) that goes way, way overboard on the 1970s kitsch. (It’s very hard for me to have too much ’70s kitsch, so this is really saying something.) Good actors like Guy Pearce and Radha Mitchell get lost in the clamor, and the movie has no teeth that would give its comedy any kind of edge.
“Between the Lines.” A more accurate 1970s vision comes from the re-discovery of this likably scruffy 1977 comedy from director Joan Micklin Silver, in which a weekly newspaper fights to keep itself independent. Great cast at the beginning of their careers, including Jeff Goldblum, Lindsay Crouse, John Heard and Bruno Kirby.
“The Sound of Silence.” A modest indie that finds a good role for Peter Sarsgaard, as an acoustical “house tuner” who finds the hidden rattles and hums that might be making people unhappy in their lives. A cool movie to listen to, and the spacey Sarsgaard is well-matched with the more down-to-earth Rashida Jones.
“The Fall of the American Empire.” The French-Canadian director Denys Arcand (“Jesus of Montreal”) can be counted on to be pretentious and wryly funny in equal measures; his latest offering is no exception. But this heist film is entertaining, and Arcand manages to get in his digs about modern society at the same time he builds suspense.
“Wild Rose.” A knockout performance by Jessie Buckley (impressive in last year’s “Beast”) fuels this rags-to-riches story about a Glasgow ex-con who stubbornly sticks to her ambition: to be a country singer in Nashville. The story might sound familiar, but Buckley and director Tom Harper resist sentimentalizing this situation — and this distinctive, flinty character.
“3 Faces.” Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was arrested almost 10 years ago and barred from making films, has made another film. It’s a strong one, about a trip to the countryside that results in dramatic and whimsical encounters. Panahi and a popular Iranian actress, Behnaz Jafari, play themselves.
“The Hitch-Hiker” and “The Bigamist.” Revival of two films (both from 1953) directed by Ida Lupino, one of the few female directors allowed to work in (or at least near) the Hollywood system. “The Bigamist” actually isn’t one of her better movies, but “The Hitch-Hiker” is a gripping little film noir with some authentic unpleasantness going on.
“A Family Tour.” Despite a somewhat puzzling lead performance, this Chinese film creates a powerful mood. It’s about the separations between people from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, all caused by political heavy-handedness — and all playing out during a filmmaker’s visit to a Taipei film festival.
“Volcano.” A tough if sometimes mystifying Ukrainian film, about a military inspector whose mission to the countryside goes seriously amiss. It might’ve been stronger with a real actor in the lead role; leading man Serhiy Stepansky is a sound engineer making his performing debut here.
“Crystal Swan.” Potent coming-of-age film from Belarus, about a young woman in mid-1990s Minsk who wants to get a U.S. visa — if she can survive the bureaucracy. This is the kind of film that, given the right marketing, ought to be a big arthouse hit over here.
“Spies.” If you’re curious about the best film at the 2019 festival, I can at least settle that question: Get thyself to this revival of the German maestro Fritz Lang’s 1928 silent masterpiece, a wildly imaginative and sinister gem that vaults from one breathtaking sequence to the next.