Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Once More, Into the Breach


Update: The complete schedule now online at SIFF website here.

The 36th Seattle International Film Festival, still the largest (and, at 25 days, the longest) film festival in the United States, opens on Thursday, May 20 with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man, the Sundance premiere starring Paul Dano and Kevin Kline, and ends (at least symbolically; there are a few more straggler screenings, but I digress) on Sunday, June 13 with Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. In between, 256 features (narrative and documentary) and 150 shorts are scheduled to play (the term “unspool” no longer seems appropriate in a cinema culture where so many presentations are digital projection) in venues all over the Seattle area.

In addition to the familiar Seattle venues—the Egyptian on Capital Hill, the Uptown in Queen Anne, the Neptune in the University District, SIFF Cinema at Seattle Center and Pacific Place downtown—there’s the opening night at Benaroya Hall, week-long stints in West Seattle (at the Admiral Theatre), Everett (the Everett Performing Arts Center) and Kirkland (Kirkland Performing Arts Center), and special events at the Paramount, the Triple Door and the Pacific Science Center IMAX.

Paul Dano and Kevin Kline in "The Extra Man"
Paul Dano and Kevin Kline in "The Extra Man"

SIFF is a different kind of festival than Toronto, the biggest film festival in North America where a massive collection of high-profile premieres are packed into 10 long days, or Sundance, a much smaller fest that attracts much bigger premieres than Seattle. Those festivals and many others (like Tribeca or SXSW) are designed to draw critics and industry movers and shakers from all over the country—and the world—to see what’s on tap. SIFF is too sprawling at 25 days and too diffuse in its programming to draw much from outside the city, and thus it simply can’t compete for the big premieres. Where Toronto and Sundance are all about starting the conversation on what’s new in cinema, SIFF is about joining the conversation in progress. The world premieres (most of them from the New American Cinema competition, traditionally the festival’s weakest collection) are rarely as exciting as the international offerings finally making their way to Seattle along the festival circuit, or as compelling as the documentaries.

So it’s a brambly garden of delights and frustrations, a festival so determined to be all things to all people that you have to search out the adventurous and the challenging strewn through the crazy-quilt programming. Yet what may sound like the festival’s biggest weakness is also its greatest strength: it’s about bringing the world (cinema) to Seattle audiences, and Seattle audiences respond in kind: it’s one of the best attended festivals in the country as well. It just takes some effort to navigate your way through the overwhelming offerings, and to schedule your days and evenings so you don’t find yourself scrambling across town from screening to screening. (For such an audience-friendly fest, it doesn’t make it easy to jump from one theater to another.)

The complete schedule will be available on Thursday, May 6, in print as an insert in the Seattle Times (and also available in many local theaters and other venues) and on the web at the SIFF website, but the films have been announced and here are a few of the highlights.

Galas and Special Presentations – Christian Carion’s Farewell is the “Centerpiece Gala,” which comes with a special price that may not get you any special guests but does get into the gala party. Mark and Jay Duplass’ Sundance premiere Cyrus (with John C. Riley, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill) is the spotlight presentation for the New American Cinema sidebar. Violet Tendencies is the “Gay-la Extravaganza,” always a favorite event in Seattle. And James Franco is Allen Ginsberg is Howl, a narrative/documentary hybrid from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. And for those so inclined, there’s a Grease Sing-along.

Tribute – Actor Edward Norton is feted with a screening of Leaves of Grass (directed by Tim Blake Nelson) and an audience Q&A with the actor, plus late-night screenings of three of Norton’s most distinctive films: American History X (1998), Fight Club (1999) and The 25th Hour (2002). (Hey Ed, did I ever tell you that Ethan Hawke told me I look like you? Just sayin…)

Documentaries – 54 documentaries are slated for SIFF 2010, including the nuclear arms race profile Countdown to Zero, the Afghanistan war doc Restrepo and Waiting For Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s look at the broken education system, plus a special presentation of Cane Toads: The Conquest In 3D!

Ambiente: A Celebration of Spanish Film – 18 films from Spain, including Cell 211, the prison-riot drama that took home the top Goya Awards, Alejandro Amenabar’s English-language historical piece Agora (with Rachel Weisz), Fernando Trueba’s heist film-turned-political thriller The Dancer and the Thief, the North American premiere of Ventura Pons’ Drifting and the documentary Garbo: The Spy, about the double agent that distracted the Nazi high command from the Normandy Invasion.

International auteurs – Scour through the general program and you’ll find Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll, Robert Guediguian’s World War II resistance thriller The Army of Crime, Francois Ozon’s addiction drama Hideaway, Neil Jordan’s Ondine, Julio Medem’s Room in Rome, Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen and Life During Wartime from the always entertainingly provocative Todd Solondz.

Emerging Masters – SIFF is less a leader than a follower when it comes to identifying an “emerging master” but the choices invariably introduce general audiences to filmmakers that have yet to make a name for themselves outside the festival circuit. The three directors celebrated this year are Mohamed Al-Daradji from Iraq (with Ahlaam, 2006, and Son of Babylon, 2010); Ana Kokkinos from Australia (Head On, 1998, and Blessed, 2009); and Valery Todorovksy from Russia (Land of the Deaf, 1998, and Hipsters, 2009).

Midnight Adrenaline – Neil Marshall’s Roman warrior battle drama Centurion, George Romero’s Survival of the Dead (the zombie nation continues), Vincenzo Natali’s summer horror offering Splice and a Japanese exploitation film with the irresistible title RoboGeisha are among the midnight genre offerings.

"Senso" - Alida Valli in Venice
"Senso" - Alida Valli in Venice

Archival Presentations – Invariably my favorite section of the festival, the 14 programs this year makes it SIFF’s most interesting collection of classic films. To mark the 20th Anniversary of The Film Foundation, four masterpieces restored by the organization will unspool (the term is accurate here: we’re talking 35mm prints): John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, a classic of early Technicolor glory), Jean Renior’s The River (1951, one of the most beautiful color films ever made), Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) and John Cassavetes’ directorial debut Shadows (1954). Three silent films will play with live accompaniment: the 1931 Chinese comedy A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931, with Donald Sosin on the piano), the 1925 Tom Mix western Riders of the Purple Sage (1925, in more of a concert setting with roots-rockers The Maldives) and the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Stephin Merritt (from The Magnetic Fields) performing live with David Hegarty on organ and Daniel Handler on accordion. There are three films that spotlight the work of Leonard Bernstein (On The Town, 1949, On the Waterfront, 1954, and West Side Story, 1961), restored prints of two films by Polish director Jerzy Kawakerowicz (Night Train, 1959, and Mother Joan of the Angels, 1961) and Serge Bromberg’s acclaimed documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, as well James Forsher’s lecture presentation “How Sex Sold Hollywood,” illustrated by clips from a wide range of films.

World Premieres – 11 of the 12 World Premiere features are American, which usually means it’s a) a local production given a spot in the spirit of supporting local filmmaking (like John Jeffcoat’s documentary Amplified Seattle), or b) was already turned down by Sundance, SXSW and/or Tribeca. Choose carefully here, but know that Seattle filmmaking scene is finally carving out an identity and making a name for itself.

Plus there are more returning SIFF programs: “SIFF ShortsFest Weekend” (all of the shorts programs in a single weekend), “Face the Music” (mostly music docs but also the Ian Drury bio-pic Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll with Andy Serkis), “FutureWave” (films by, for and about teens), “Northwest Connections” (11 features and 18 shorts with a Northwest connection, either through the filmmakers or the subject) and the ever decreasing alternative offerings of “Alternate Cinema.”

The complete schedule available on the SIFF website here.