As you may or may not know, the Seattle International Film Festival is the largest film festival in the world. This year, they screened 435 features and short films from around the globe. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to see everything, so I try my best to curate my personal program wisely. Unfortunately, even an awful film can have a great idea at its core so I am sometimes duped by a promising synopsis. Thankfully, my dance card contained way more great films than stinkers this time around. Here are the best and worst of the 20 or so films I squeezed into the festival’s month-long run:
“The Babadook” – This Australian export, akin to “Rosemary’s Baby”, is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of a widowed mother who questions her own sanity when her behaviorally impaired son becomes obsessed with a morbid children’s book that mysteriously appears on his book shelf. Supernatural though it may be, “The Babadook” also hauntingly examines grief in the face of senseless tragedy. Try not to watch it right before bed.
“Happy Christmas” – Joe Swanberg is one of the founders of Mumblecore, and with every new film, he makes a better case for genre MVP. If you liked “Drinking Buddies”, you will certainly love “Happy Christmas”, which stars versatile minx Anna Kendrick as a hot mess who gifts her brother and his burgeoning family with her post-breakup meltdown during the Christmas holiday. Swanberg also stars alongside his real life baby and the long-underutilized Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures”, “Foreign Correspondents”) as a writer who has put her career on the back burner in order to stay at home with their son.
“In Order of Disappearance” – Comparisons to “Fargo” extend beyond the prevalence of snow, in this Norwegian film from director Hans Petter Moland. Star Stellan Skarsgaard channels Liam Neeson in this humor-speckled revenge drama in which an unassuming snowplow driver systematically hunts down the men responsible for murdering his son.
“Mood Indigo” – However you stand on the work of French director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), you have to admit that he is always innovating. His latest film is his most experimental yet. It’s “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”-meets-“Synechdoche, NY” aesthetic left the entire theater in a surreal daze, as if they had sprinkled shroom dust on the popcorn. It’s not his masterpiece, but it is required viewing for anyone who is remotely interested in experimental cinema.
“Night Moves” – Kelly Reichardt is a true cinematic auteur and her latest film induces a lingering performance from Jesse Eisenberg as one third of a trio of eco-terrorists (alongside Dakota Fanning and Peter Skarsgaard) who are blindsided when they fail to consider the full implications of their actions.
“Skeleton Twins” – Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig are unbelievably brilliant in this black comedy about estranged twins who begrudgingly reunite following simultaneous suicide attempts. It’s entirely possible that this movie would be completely devoid of humor (and sympathetic characters) without the two leads. But because it’s Hader and Wiig (quite possibly the most natural comedic actors on the planet.), you love them and want them to be happy despite their self-destructive idiocy.
“Obvious Child” – I saw this at another festival but I really can’t say enough nice things about Jenny Slate’s killer multi-layered performance in the funniest romantic dramedy about abortion in recent memory.
“Alex of Venice” – I hate to put Chris Messina’s directorial debut in this category, because it’s a masterwork in comparison to my other two Worst of Fest choices, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a very good film. Messina attempts Cassavetes vérité, but the hackneyed dialog betrays him. Performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Don Johnson (going for a late-career dramatic turn a la Tony Danza) are as good as they can be under the circumstances.
“Another” – A large part of me just wants to forget I ever saw this movie. And in time, I’m sure I will. But I am compelled to put out one more warning to stay the hell away from this amateurish, nonsensical, misogynistic pile of poop. It’s not so bad it’s good. It’s just SO BAD.
“Zombeavers”– The title is absolutely the best thing about this failed attempt at b-movie camp. If you like relentless entendres about hairy vaginas, you still won’t like this movie.
“An Afternoon with Laura Dern” – I thoroughly enjoyed this professionally moderated Q&A with one of my favorite actresses following her receipt of SIFF’s Outstanding Achievement in Acting Award. In addition to her immense talent, Dern is lighthearted, humble and as savvy about film as she is enthusiastic. A screening of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” followed the Q&A, featuring one of Dern’s most memorable roles as the sweetly rebellious and philosophical Lula Fortune.
“To Be Takei” – From sci-fi cult hero to nerd national treasure, George Takei has reinvented himself numerous times throughout his career. Jennifer Kroot paints a respectful portrait of a relentlessly optimistic and talented man who has used his charm to advance the LGBT equality movement.
“Venus in Fur” – Roman Polanski’s latest is a compelling, if on the nose, portrait of a self-obsessed director and playwright who doesn’t realize he’s met his match in a seemingly naïve actress auditioning for the lead role in his adaptation of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel. Hyper meta though it is, (it’s a play within a play about a novel within a novel), the story still manages to be fairly straightforward and accessibly clever.
“Willow Creek” – Accurately described by many (including writer/director Bobcat Goldthwaite) as “The Blair Sasquatch Project”, this found footage horror film surpasses its predecessor with compelling characters and story structure, but falters at the very end.
GOLDEN SPACE NEEDLE AWARDS:
Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, swept the Golden Space Needle awards, earning accolades for best director, best actress (Patricia Arquette) and best damn film period. Alan Hicks took home Best Documentary with “Keep on Keepin’ on”; an account of jazz legend Clark Terry’s mentoring of blind piano prodigy Justin Kaulflin. Cody Blue Snider’s “Fool’s Day” took home the award for Best Short.
SIFF is a film festival marathon. It’s exhausting and occasionally painful, but ultimately very rewarding. Thank you to SIFF for another great fest. Time to catch up on my DVR and then start training for next year!