The 2008 Seattle International Film Festival wrapped on Sunday night, June 15, after 25 days, 191 narrative features, 57 documentary features, and 170 short films. Awards were announced Sunday morning. I posted the winners, a few stats, some observations and a few more reviews in my SIFF wrap at GreenCine:
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 Amerika challenged them in terms of quantity (if not always quality).
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 (reviewed in SIFF Dispatch 3) 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.
And a few more reviews:
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.
- 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.
Read the complete piece here.