Last year’s SIFF was wild. I saw everything from Turkish exploding chickens to serial killers of Persian filmmakers; from a backwoods indie sci-fi to a Zambian dark comedy; from movies that swept the awards circuit like Eighth Grade and First Reformed, to a movie that was literally just a sequence of starfields from 100 years of movie history. I also saw my favorite movie of last year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and shared a room with 900 crying adults as we mourned our culture’s collective loss of empathy.
It was a good year for SIFF. Like REALLY good.
Holy cow, folks, it was so good.
As SIFF 2019 starts, I don’t envy the team that had to put together this year’s slate, nor do I envy the task I have foisted upon myself to trim it down to eight entries. But I maintain hope for another stellar year of sensational cinema, and even if it can’t live up to last year’s hype, there could be worse things to dwell on in 2019 than which movies to see.
How to SIFF like a retired, upper income, empty nester, baby-boomer
You want to watch the best, you gotta learn from the best, and there ain’t no better film festival fellow like the retired, upper income SIFF donors who casually navigate the festival like they fund it themselves because they do. Over the past decade, I’ve studied their ways, learned their tricks, and pilfered their free popcorn. They may have given us Trump, and they may be responsible for literally setting the world on fire, but that doesn’t mean they can’t teach us all to play king maker over a bunch of starving young artists!
I’ve written this up a few times, including in last year’s SIFFnotes, but if you want a brief reminder of all the tips I use for picking movies at SIFF, here’s a quick, US-president-friendly bullet list of my pro tips:
- Use the calendar’s “limited availability” marker as an indicator of collective interest; popular films fill up fast, so don’t wait!
- Big films play on the weekends, bigger films play at prime-time slots (6pm+); search those first
- Scary films play at The Egyptian, often at midnight on Fri & Sat
- Get to know directors and use drop down filters
- Showings where cast or directors show up are extra fun
- Most SIFF films have played at other festivals and already have reviews, use them
- Be adventurous
For the past few years I made my selections by perusing the entire list, watching trailers, reading reviews, and listing what piqued my personal perspective. This year I’ve decided to do something a bit different.
While the following films are still filtered through 95% pure distilled Dustin (the other 5% is cheese), I’ve decided to use the handy tool SIFF provides known as “Mood tracks.” These categories break films down into eight different moods and suggest films that might go along with. Using keenly honed selection skills, I will go through each film in each mooood, and extract the best example of film for that particular moooooooooood.
One mood. One film. One afternoon of drinking coffee at KEXP to write this.
Mood #1 — Creative Streak
It took a minute to figure out what this mood was, but after a quick perusal of the films, it became apparent that by “Creative Streak” SIFF means films about creators, artists, acts of creations and great works of art. If I were naming it, I might have called it “Creators” but I suppose one can’t really be in a “creator” mood?
A category that emphasizes the creative process naturally lends itself to the documentary format, and there’s a diverse selection of documentaries to choose from. There are several documentaries about renowned fashion icons (Celebration, Halston, Freak and Chic), the always popular foodie story (Funke, Wine Calling, Le Chocolat de H), musicians (Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Pavarotti, A Dog Called Money, David Crosby: Remember My Name), writers (Words from a Bear, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael), and even an investigation Soviet era architecture (Palace for the People). Yet with all these stories about famous people and things, the film that most piqued my interest was…
Who Let the Dogs Out | Canada | Brent Hodge
Documentaries can serve many purposes, as memorials, as documented history, as courageous acts of journalism, but my favorite of all is when they find a remarkable narrative from a wholly unremarkable place. Enter Brent Hodge’s curio Who Let the Dogs Out which asks a question I didn’t realize I needed answered: Who actually let the dogs out?
The film proposes an intriguing rabbit hole as Hodge discovers that the one-hit-wonder of the early 2000s attributed to the musical group Baha Men has a mysterious origin claimed by several groups with claims to the song spanning several decades. It’s as if Vanilla Ice’s famously pilfered beat had not just belonged to Queen and David Bowie, but rather dozens of musicians from disparate parts of the world, all claiming to have simultaneously invented it, like some act of Jungian collective composition. Not only does it appear to be a lighthearted romp (something we could all use in 2019) but it’s filled with stranger than fiction characters and a stranger than fiction hunt for an absurd, but no less captivating truth: Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? Who who who?
Mood #2 — Love
*engage bad French accent*
Ah oui, ze mood of love. But what kind of mood is zis? Love can be all kinds of zhings. Love between family? Oui. Love between friends? Also, oui. Love tragic, love comedic, love forbidden, love erotic? Oui, oui, oui.
Ok, I’ll stop.
It’s an odd category, one that SIFF decided to selectively fill with choices from a wide range of genres, and one I unfortunately found to be somewhat lacking.
There was an interesting story — with serious Coco vibes — about a young girl who’s family in the afterlife attempt to break her back into the world of the living after her untimely death (Afterlife). There was a pretty standard tale of unexpected pregnancy and how it transforms the lives of two beautiful young people (The Days to Come). There’s a romcom about a bride trying to find her mother in the indigenous lands of her Australian ancestors (Top End Wedding), a cute looking melodrama about late night stock workers in Germany (In the Aisles); there was a particularly intense looking drama about a man in Guatemala who decides to undergo gay conversion therapy in a last ditch attempt to remain with his children in an oppressively conservative culture (Temblores); but the in the end, I had to seek outside SIFF’s list of “Love” contenders to find something that truly honored the mood of Love…
Touch Me Not | Romania | Adina Pintilie
Touch Me Not is billed a challenging film. Love, especially as intimacy, takes many forms, but for the most part when we think of it in cinema, we think of its idealized, romanticized, designed to titillate form, swelling with sensuality and portrayed by impossibly perfect figures. What strikes me about Touch Me Not is its director Adina Pintilie’s goal of exploring sexuality from a place of frank authenticity, challenging the pornographic fantasies of sex and celebrating the underlying nature of intimacy, from body image, to the healing power of touch, to intimacy among the disabled, all while balancing an indefinable line between documentary and fiction.
Like I said, challenging.
This is probably not a film for everyone, and if you are really in the moooood for love, go see that Australian romcom, but part of point of a film festival is to lock yourself in a room with a film you might otherwise not give a chance. If anything else, Touch Me Not promises something bold, new, and unforgettable, and in that, I think there’s a lot to love.
Mood #3 — Make Me Laugh!
The wording of this mood has always felt a little too forceful. MAKE ME LAUGH, DAMMIT! Alright, ok, calm down, I’ll get you a comedy…
Indie film fests have no lack for comedic entries, as every flannel bedecked filmmaker fancies themselves the next Judd Apatow. If only comedy wasn’t the easiest genre to attempt, but the hardest to get right. To quote Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
Fortunately SIFF has a great staff of curators, and you’ll find most of the comedies they screen equally great. It’s also why culling it down to one pick was quite difficult, and comes with a caveat.
Here’s the caveat:
If you are made of money, for heaven’s sake, go see either the Opening Gala film (Sword of Trust), the Centerpiece Gala film (Late Night), or the Closing Gala film (The Farewell). All are highly praised comedies by exceptionally talented comedians and directors, and the only disappointment you are likely to feel is with yourself for having paid $75 for a movie that will undoubtedly be streaming on Netflix in a month.
But if you aren’t made of money, and still want the funny, consider checking out…
Brittany Runs a Marathon | USA | Paul Downs Colaizzo
This movie has everything.
Out of shape twenty-something? Check.
Approachable main character based on a true story? Check
Upcoming young female comedian? Check
Charming and heart-warming self-help message? Check
Sundance Audience Award? Check and Check
I figured after throwing a Romanian film about brutally honest sexual intimacy I ought to throw out a slow ball. Almost every film podcast I listen to gushed over this. Many found it personally motivating and endearing, and given its acquisition by Amazon, it’s like to be on many end of the year favorites lists. As a bonus, the writer/director is showing up to the screening, making this an easy to recommend. If this doesn’t Make You Laugh! then nothing will.
Unless it’s no good in which case my traditional waiver of all responsibility applies. You make seek reparations via our new forced arbitration policy.
Mood #4 — Open My Eyes
Presumably this mood exists because after the fist two weeks of this four week marathon, you’ll be so tired that the festival would like to offer you some help physically keeping your eyelids from closing.
This category seems to be largely a place for the “film as journalism” pieces. Given that an international film festival tends to attract a LOT of films of this type, it’s also the one SIFF packed most full of films. And the worst part is reducing their picks down to one film feels like making some kind of moral judgement about what issues are less important than others.
I mean, yes!
I sure would.
There’s a film about female sexual equality (#FemalePleasure), there’s a film about CRISPR (Human Nature), there’s a film about a Macedonian honey farmer (Honeyland), heck, there’s a film by renowned documentarian Werner Herzog where he interviews Mikhail Gorbachev (Meeting Gorbachev).
How to decide between such a plethora of interesting and important issues? Well, I have to thank the great state of Alabama and their recent act of legislative barbarism for making the choice easy…
A Thousand Girls Like Me | Afghanistan | Sahra Mosawi-Mani
This documentary hailing from Afghanistan follows the story of 23-year-old Khatera and her harrowing journey through the Afghan legal system in the first ever case of incest being brought against her father and abuser of over a decade. As you can imagine, this is also not an easy film to get through, as it presents a frustrating tale of oppression by a violently conservative and patriarchal culture against an innocent victim seeking the most basic level of justice. Still, it also promises to be a tale of perseverance, and in a time when women’s rights have never been more threatened in the US, I hope that a film like this will hold up an uncomfortable mirror to our troubled times.
Mood #5 — Provocateur
Ok, if I’m going to be honest, I should have probably put Touch Me Not in this category, because it’s the category SIFF seemed fit to assign it. But you know what? I stand by my unorthodox Love pick, dammit! Besides, I don’t want to rewrite that bit. :)
I mean, this category speaks for itself. This is the “push yourself” category and boy-howdy are there some spicy meatballs to choose from. Besides the aforementioned Romanian sex doc, there’s a shockingly good looking film by an 18-year-old New Orleans-born filmmaker pitting inherited Black faith culture against the struggles and realities of southern life and cycles of pain (Burning Cane); there’s a brutal looking Taiwanese sci-fi noir (Cities of Last Things); a black satire on toxic masculinity starting Jesse Eisenberg (The Art of Self-Defense); even a neon-lit journey through the hyper-fueled sexuality of 1980s New Wave subculture in Mexico City (This is Not Berlin).
But in the end there was really only one choice (and no, it’s not just Touch Me Not again).
Alice | Australia | Josephine Mackerras
Winner of the SXSW Grand Jury Prize, this film chronicles a woman who discovers her husband has skipped town after losing all their money to a high-end escort service. Financial desperate, she decides to enter that very profession to save her self and her young child. Turns out for the rich clients the service attracts, she’s a natural talent, and finds not only money in the business, but a sense of personal empowerment. It’s a risky film that balances the stigma of sex work and the power felt by a woman her turns her sexuality toward parting powerful men from their money.
Provocative enough? :)
Yeah, no, it’s no Touch Me Not…
Mood #6 — Show Me the World
I find a little odd that an international film festival would feel the need to explicitly have a category for international film. I find it even weirder that the category would include Sundance winner and very American film Clemency starring the very American Alfre Woodard which seems about as far from world-cinema as you can get (though it is directed by Nigerian born Chinonye Chukwu).
Still, I don’t know, what part of the world are you interested in?
Do you like Hong Kong? There’s a charming looking film about special needs children, a topic you don’t see often from that part of the world (Distinction)
More in a Turkish mood? There’s a black comedy about a hilariously bungled military coup in 1963 (The Announcement)
Ever wondered about life in Ghana? There’s a tantalizing fly-on-the-wall documentary about youth who scam Westerners on dating sites (Sakawa)
How bout something from the Americas, like an absurdist sci-fi comedy about a Cuban school teacher selected to participate in a cultural exchange program with recently landed extra-terrestrials? (The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia)
No, there was only ever one right answer, and assuming we aren’t at war with the country by the time the festival starts, you can never go wrong with the incredible work of Persian filmmakers. But which of the four Iranian submissions to go see?
Cold Sweat | Iran | Soheil Beiraghi
SIFF helped me fall in love with Iranian film, and in a way with Iran itself. I think there’s something to the way art bridges understanding between cultures, and it doesn’t hurt that this country is churning out some of the greatest, most progressive filmmakers in the biz.
Why choose Cold Sweat, a story about a woman struggling to compete as an athlete against the capricious whims of her husband and her country’s laws which bind her to his will? Partly, I like sports stories. Also partly, I like legal dramas. But mostly I closed my eyes and randomly picked one of the four films, and you’d be just as well off seeing either Orange Days, 3 Faces, or Hat-Trick. I guarantee you’ll have a great time experiencing cinema from one of the world’s best kept secret troves of filmmaking talent.
Mood #7— Thrill Me!
Yes, the exclamation mark is included in SIFF’s official categorization.
This is an oddly anemic category this year, featuring only 15 entries. One would usually think thrillers would abound among independent filmmakers looking to stand out in the pack, but honestly, none of the films in this category really spiked my interest.
There’s a curious documentary about OTRAG, a private rocket company founded by a German aerospace engineer in 1975 that decided to build a rocket testing facility in the Congolese jungle. Given it was the middle of the cold war, you can guess how well that went. (Fly Rocket Fly)
There’s also a somewhat formulaic speculative fiction story about an ultra-nationalist party taking power in near-future Denmark, and the young son-of-immigrants man who joins an underground group to stop them. (Sons of Denmark)
Don’t get me started on the US revenge thriller about a group of nothing-to-lose vigilantes who decide to take vengeance — and money — from the healthcare profiteers they deem responsible for their woes… groan… (We Take the Low Road)
My pick ended up being the one that spoke to me most visually…
Sew the Winter to My Skin | South Africa | Jahmil X.T. Qubeka
I’m not going to lie, that bad-ass title didn’t hurt.
A Robin Hood-esque thriller about real world 1950s outlaw John Kepe who stole from colonists and gave to the poverty stricken and oppressed natives of South Africa. The film also promises to be an almost purely visual spectacle, choosing oppressive ambiance over dialog as the notorious folk-hero evades his pursuers. South Africa’s official submission to last year’s Academy Awards, this film looks to be a panoramic feast for the eyes with the heart of an operatic folk epic.
Mood #8 — WTF
My favorite :D
As you might have guessed, this category is reserved for those very special films for very special people with very special tastes. It also seems to double as “horror film” but not every movie featured in this category involves bloody violence or spooky scares. Ok, most do, but I promise I’ll be fair in selecting one.
Oh but how can I resist a film like The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s brutal revenge thriller follow-up to the terrifying horror masterpiece The Babadook? A film described at its Sundance premiere as “not an easy sit.” A film described by AV Club’s A.A. Dowd as “ceaseless, numbing brutality” and “a Western revenge yarn of such heightened cruelty and suffering that it basically demands to be read as allegory.”
Ok, fine, that one’s for me and me alone.
There are some other fine horror schlocks in the mix, an anthology from Shudder films (Nightmare Cinema), a giallo inspired tale about a possessed killer dress from the UK (In Fabric), a goofball satire of 1930s, cluedo-like who-done-its with a decidedly modern horror bent (Here Comes Hell), and a surreal… well I’m not quite sure what to call it film about suburban ennui (Greener Grass).
No, I’m taking pity with my recommendation and choosing something from one my favorite directors of bizarre films.
The Death of Dick Long | USA | Daniel Scheinert
Director Daniel Scheinert was co-director of one of my favorite films of 2016, the extremely oddball, but surprisingly sweet Swiss Army Man. The Death of Dick Long follows in that film’s comedic path as two rednecks wake from a night of tomfoolery to find their third compatriot mysteriously dead. What follows sounds like a comedy of errors as the boys panic in an attempt to avoid the obvious suspicion that they done killed Dick. Hilarity ensues.
What I hope for this film is that it brings what I found so charming about Swiss Army Man, a genuine heart and poignancy that balances the absurdity of the film’s story. If it can capture even a small amount of what was managed with Paul Dano and the reanimated corpse of Daniel Radcliffe (it’s a great movie) then this could easily find its way onto my favorites of this year.
And that’s it. Both I and SIFF have run out of moods, and I have meticulously winnowed down the gargantuan mass of 400 films to eight expertly selected, soon to be classics of cinema. And I did it all without cheating in the slightest by casually suggesting dozens of other films along the way.
But just in case you can’t be bothered to do all that tedious reading, here’s my final eight picks for SIFF’s somewhat haphazard “mood” categories:
- Creative Streak — Who Let the Dogs Out
- Love — Touch Me Not
- Make Me Laugh!— Brittany Runs a Marathon
- Open My Eyes — A Thousand Girls Like Me
- Provocateurs — Alice
- Show Me the World — Cold Sweat
- Thrill Me! — Sew the Winter to My Skin
- WTF — The Death of Dick Long