June 16, 2008

Wrapping Seattle 08.

Seattle International Film Festival That great American marathon, the Seattle International Film Festival, has wrapped; Sean Axmaker has the award-winners, a few reviews and an annotated list of his festival favorites. Updated through 6/20.

Some end-of-the-fest statistics: 191 narrative features and 57 documentary features were screened over the 25 days, and 170 short films were screened through various packages concentrated over a single weekend (a kind of shorts festival within SIFF). 69 countries were represented. 70 percent of this year's films entered the festival with no US distributor. About half were by first or second-time directors. The more surprising and heartening statistic: about a third of the films are from women directors.

Despite the best efforts festival programmers, there were no Eastside venues this year. One of Bellevue's major cineplexes, the Galleria, shut down earlier in 2008, leaving the existing downtown screen real-estate a little too valuable to give up to SIFF, according to Festival Director Carl Spence. But the Cinerama stepped in to offer three days of screenings on the final weekend (giving up valuable screen space that would have gone to Indiana Jones which is no small sacrifice for an independent theater of such enormous size and accompanying overhead) and Benaroya Hall welcomed SIFF-goers for "An Evening With John Waters" and four performances of Alexander Nevsky. The newly-restored presentation of famed photographer Edward S Curtis's In the Land of the Head Hunters screened at the Moore Theatre, where the shot-in-Washington production (a staged documentary that, among other things, influenced Nanook of the North) originally premiered in 1914.

Before getting to my festival wrap and final reviews, here are the festival prize winners.

Juried Awards

Em Grand Jury Prize winner in the New American Cinema Competition is Tony Barbieri's Em. The accompanying jury statement reads: "In Em, writer-director Tony Barbieri tackles the timely and original subject of love and mental illness, with the help of his two excellent leads, Stef Willen and Nathan Wetherington. It's a sweet, sad, scary movie that feels completely contemporary."

And more from the jury: In the words of the jury: "The New Directors Showcase Prize for director of a first or second feature goes to Yves-Christian Fournier from Quebec, Canada, and his film Everything Is Fine, for its skillful avoidance of the nihilistic clichés in its treatment of contemporary youth. The jury would also like to commend the outstanding performance of Marie Turgeon in the role of the mother."

The Grand Jury Prize winner in the Documentary competition is Isaac Julien's Derek, "for the strength of both the subject and the filmmaking."

The FutureWave Jury Award was given to Disorder, directed by Rose McAleese. And the SIFF and IndieFlix 2008 MyFestival Winners, which were streamed online and voted on by the viewers are Perfect Sport, directed by Anthony O'Brien (for feature film) and Robbie's Withdrawal, directed by John Burish (short film). One of the prizes for these winners is a theatrical screening in one of the fest's final screening slots.

Audience Awards

The Golden Space Needle awards are voted on by the audience. This year, over 70,000 ballots were cast. And the winners are:

The Wrecking Crew

The complete press release, with winners and runners up and more jury statements, can be found on the Seattle International Film Festival website here.

For a different perspective, here are the top vote-getters in the "Fool Serious Awards," an independent poll run by and limited to the Full Series Passholders, which gives a fan's eye take from the more obsessive members of the audience. Over 150 ballots were collected, counted and run through a program to get the film's "Likability Rating." And in what may be a festival first, the most liked film from the Full Series voters mirrored the audience award: Doris Dörrie's Cherry Blossoms – Hanami. The first few runners-up include Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven (which won the Fool Serious Awards for Best Director and Best Script), Dorota Kedzierzawska's Time to Die, Abdullah Oguz's Bliss and Courtney Hunt's Frozen River.

All the familiar jokes about Seattle weather aside, it has been an unseasonably dreary June this year. That should have made it more attractive to go inside and watch a movie or three, but after two weeks straight of gray, overcast days and chilly temperatures, it tended to sap my motivation at a time when the exhaustion of unending screenings and too many mediocre movies takes its toll. I saw just over 50 films at SIFF this year, an all-time low for me. Partly that was due to having to drop out for four days to move, and then skip screenings to catch up with assignments, and partly it was due to the huge decrease in coverage from my paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In fact, both the usually supportive P-I and Seattle Times (a festival co-sponsor) drastically cut back coverage. Where the P-I once had bragging rights to the most comprehensive coverage and largest number of films reviewed, it was the Seattle Weekly and the Stranger that took the honors among the print media this year, while such online venues as Siffblog and Prost America challenged them in terms of quantity (if not always quality).

Jolene The acknowledged wisdom of veteran SIFF-goers: when you see "American Independent" and "World Premiere" in the same listing, look elsewhere. Not all such films are necessarily bad, but they tend to be films that were passed over by Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca and SXSW. There are exceptions, of course: Julia Sweeney and Dan Ireland chose to premiere their respective films, Letting Go of God and Jolene, in part because of their history with Seattle. Sweeney is a Washington State native and longtime Seattle resident and Ireland is, of course, the co-founder of SIFF. Then again, Letting Go of God is less a film than a straightforward performance recording, while Jolene is a rather disjoined character study without a sense of purpose.

Adapted (and, one assumes, greatly expanded) from the short story by EL Doctorow, Jolene (played by newcomer Jessica Chastain, making her feature debut) tells the story of a modern Candide, an orphan banged around the South Carolina foster system until she becomes a 15-year-old bride to a sweet and stupid child of a young man. Then she gets banged around some more by a succession of dubious lovers and bad situations. We're supposed to feel for her ordeals and admire her resilience, and Chastain does a great job of igniting Jolene's mix of street-wise survivalist instinct and romantic soul. Her performance anchors a film that has no solid grounding and her voice-over is spoken with a candid bluntness, the toughened, unsentimental honesty of hindsight with just a wistful trace of regret - but after a while I was merely shaking my head at her nearly fatal bad judgment, which does not improve with time or experience.

It's one thing to watch a vulnerable 16-year-old fall for the sexual confidence and the romantic words of her childish husband's skeezy uncle (Dermot Mulroney), but the self-aware narration and street-smart insights don't fit with blind leaps into marriage with a suspicious tattoo artist (Rupert Friend) or an "eccentric" scion (Michael Vartan) of a rich Tulsa family. At least Friend (unrecognizable from his performance in Ireland's previous film, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont) has attractive moments of romantic passion (however brief), but the third act stops dead at the unlikeable arrogance of Vartan's character, a sheltered rich guy who lives every moment with a sense of unthinking entitlement. Vartan's mannered performance makes him unpleasant enough, but it's not like there's anything remotely human under the blindly self-centered behavior and appalling personality even as scripted. All the voice-over in the world can't convince us he's anything more than a potential psycho just waiting to be unleashed on our eternal victim, which despite it's intentions is exactly what the film turns Jolene into by the end.

I saw too few films to go trend-spotting, but Jolene did spark a recognition of a tendency in films in general and American indies in particular (especially adaptations) at SIFF to frame and explain their narratives with voice-over narration. (Allow me to thank friend and festivalgoer William Kennedy for helping me focus my ideas and offer a few of his own on the subject in a pre-screening conversation.) In the Brazilian Elite Squad, the voice-over explains the complexities of the culture of police corruption and the criminal control of the slums of Rio de Janeiro and at times the self-righteousness serves as a bitter irony (the systematic destruction of an idealistic young cop's humanist beliefs is celebrated not simply as a necessary evil for survival, but as the only proper code in policing the violent streets).

Choke In Choke, Clark Gregg's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, the voice-over sardonic commentary on a bizarre trip into the world a sex addict and offbeat con artist (Sam Rockwell) who goes around choking on food so that total strangers can have the honor of saving his life (our hero has a way of making them pay for the privilege with cash donations). The witty scripting and detours into off-the-wall observations turn this narration into an entertaining counterpoint.

In the trifling The Great Buck Howard, a pleasantly unmemorable piece of character study fluff starring John Malkovich as a once famous stage magician and longtime Johnny Carson guest now reduced to playing small town civic centers, the narration by Colin Hanks (who, as Buck's new road manager, bears the brunt of the performer's mercurial behavior) serves as sugar sprinkled over a day-old pastry.

In The Mysteries of Pittsburg, Rawson Thurber's adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel, the first-person narration drags the film down with the lifeless droning of mundane observations and bland language. Not that there is much there to drag down. The dreary coming-of-age drama follows a blandly inert college grad (a non-descript performance by Jon Foster) through a final summer of freedom before he steps into a professional life he dreads. His idea of freedom turns out to be braindead work at a discount bookstore, but his summer is livened up when a beautiful young musician (Sienna Miller) and her unpredictable, low-level gangster boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) invite him into their lives for no apparent reason. Sarsgaard is the film's sole interest, playing his character close to his chest yet exuding a genuine affection for Foster's inert character, and his easy confidence is such a convincing front that we don't realize just how badly his life is spiraling into disaster until it's too late for damage control. Miller is pretty much a walking sex fantasy and even Nick Nolte, who plays Foster's crime boss dad with a stony paternalism, fails to inject any menace into his role. I haven't read the novel, but Chabon's other works are so alive with character and place that it's hard to imagine this film is based on work by the same author. By the time Thurber is done with it, it's almost indistinguishable from any other portrait of the aimless American male who is jolted from passivity to action by a reckless pal.

So what did I like? Of my 50+ screenings, my top films were:

  • Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, a sad yet affirming and triumphant story of life and death and characters whose paths cross and lives connect without their awareness of the patterns. Like Akin's previous Head-On, the issue of identity among Turkish Germans is central, but more important is the humanity revealed in and odysseys between the two countries. And it's always a joy to see Hanna Schygulla in a role that brings out her compassion.

The Secret of the Grain
  • Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain, the meandering story of a 61-year-old Tunisian immigrant fired from his shipwright job who decides to turn an abandoned ship into a floating restaurant that serves his ex-wife's fish couscous. The film loses itself in conversations around dinner tables or over drinks on the sidewalk tables of a hotel bar, which carry on and on beyond the simple task of relaying the story. The complicated relationships of the extended family and the neighborhood inhabitants arise from the textures and details.

  • Audrey Estrougo's Ain't Scared which I wrote about in Dispatch 3. It's startling and alive and it's all the more impressive that it comes from a 24-year-old woman who never went to film school and told me in an interview that she learned to direct from "watching bad movies."

On the more eccentric side, I was taken with Tomas Alfredson's juvenile vampire tale Let the Right One In, a young love horror film set in the snowy winter of a dreary little suburb of Stockholm; and Baghead the second feature from Mark and Jay Duplass. The mix of romantic comedy, indie character piece and horror movie manages to begin as a spoof of each genre and then slip seamlessly into the real thing - no mean feat.

Brillante Mendoza proved himself a burgeoning talent with both Slingshot and Foster Child, two perspectives on the slums of Manila with radically different styles but shared sensibilities. And I can't understand why My Effortless Brilliance was so disliked by audiences; I've heard it described as shapeless and dull, but I was riveted by the tensions in the character relations and the fearless mix of charm and vanity in the performance by Sean Nelson.

On a final note: the dormant sun came out and brightened up the final day of the festival. Of course, with such warmth outside after weeks of cold, I was even less inclined to step inside the theater one more time, so instead I dropped by the SIFF Hospitality Suite and talked with a few of the directors whose films played over the last weekend. The fact that I had seen neither Marc Grigoroff's Salawati nor Armin Völckes's Leroy didn't hamper our conversation. It was an engaging afternoon and a great way to end the festival. I left excited to see their films. Just not today.

Until next year.

-Sean Axmaker

Update, 6/17: Also wrapping Seattle: Kathleen C Fennessy at indieWIRE.

Update, 6/20: NP Thompson has a "Post-Mortem" at the House Next Door.

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Posted by dwhudson at June 16, 2008 2:55 AM