Sunday, June 22, 2014

SIFF 2014

It makes me so happy that SIFF exists and that they put so much effort into putting on such a great festival every year. This year was no exception and I think had a particularly awesome promotional video with it. It featured over 140 painstakingly chosen films (and is the longest film festival in the country I believe), and out of that we managed to see 11 feature length films and 3 short film programs. So I thought I'd come up with a few awards of my own (obviously not formal or anything). The films that I'm listing below as winners are literally movies that I still think about today, two weeks after seeing our last film at the festival. They're worthy of your money if you get a chance to see them.

Best Eye Candy
Winner:  The Nightingale
We almost didn't even see this one because I just didn't know what it would be like. I was really impressed with it though. It's entirely in Chinese (with a French director at the helm, interestingly enough) and features the incredible backdrop of rural China. It may be the best shot movie you'll see all year. Not only that, but it's a wonderful story. In a nutshell, a little girl spoiled by modern conveniences and has two workaholic parents is babysat by her grandfather. He subsequently takes her on a trip to his home village and the story takes off from there. I won't give away more than that, but I'll just say that it's a really cool journey. It is a bit slow paced at times, but I just loved the characters so much that I decided that I really didn't care that it was moving a little slow. If you've only seen China through CNN or some other form of mass media, this is a must-watch. It makes me really want to plan a vacation to China.

Best Documentary Film
Winner: The Internet's Own Boy
We saw a few documentaries but this one definitely stuck with me the most. It documents the tragically short life of computer visionary Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit and Internet Haktivist who contributed to the movement of blacking out websites to protest SOPA/PIPA. He sadly committed suicide amidst facing prosecution for downloading academic journals illicitly using the MIT network. I love how much the movie focused on his accomplishments though and how little it covered his death. The film maker, Brian Knappenberger, showed great respect for Aaron and his family and I found it to be a really inspiring and moving story overall. If you're worried that you'll be depressed from watching it then don't be - it's really not meant to be a sad film. It is sad at times, but I mostly found it amazing that someone so brilliant existed and left a bevy of lessons behind for the rest of us to learn.

Runner Up: I Am Big Bird
I was really pleasantly surprised by this film. We decided to see it because of the cute trailer but I figured that a movie about the life of some guy would be boring, even if Caroll Spinney is Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. I was truly surprised at how captivating this movie is. I think what made it really special is all the archival footage that the Spinney family let the directors use. We briefly met Caroll and his wife after the movie and I was so happy that they're the exact people you see in the movie. The directors truly captured the personality of the both of them so well and you'd think that someone who's been Big Bird for so many generations of kids would be crotchety and jaded by now but in fact he was really sweet to all his fans that came out to take photos and get autographs. The movie is definitely a ball of emotion from start to finish eager to take you from tears to laughs within a few minutes (some of the transitions were actually a tad sudden), but if you can stomach a few tears then you're in for a really enjoyable film.

Most Provocative Film
Winner: Dear White People
I was already pretty jazzed for this movie going into it and it did not disappoint. The thing is, I don't know how to describe it really. They have a teaser for it that I don't really recommend watching because I don't think it does a great job telling you what this movie is really like. It's a satire that superbly addresses the issues surrounding modern-day racism (primarily between white and black people) by giving you several different viewpoints from a great cast of characters. It doesn't give any concrete answers and I kind of like that. I walked out of the theater feeling really enlightened and just curious about how many people I've knowingly offended in recent years. I think it's getting a theatrical release in October, which is very well-deserved and frankly a little surprising given that it's a little incendiary in its town. Still, I think it's a film that a lot of Americans really need to watch.

Runner Up: Two Raging Grannies
If you just watch the trailer for this movie you'll understand why it's such a fun movie. It simply chronicles the adventure of two senior citizens trying to get a handle on the complex issue of economic sustainability. It ends up being a double whammy because on one hand you actually do learn quite a bit about popular advice on economics and what the pitfalls of those common conceptions are, and on the other hand you get to watcht he two cutest old ladies you ever seen live their lives. I absolutely adore the fact that despite being so old and having mobility and medical issues that they're so brave and driven. I hope when I'm they're age that I still have that kind of fire in me, and it really made me want to go out and pick up some of their suggested reading material.

Best Overall Film
Winner: Boyhood
I already wrote a pretty in-depth review here about Boyhood so I won't re-hash that. I will say that it won the audience choice award (the Golden Space Needle) for best director for Richard Linklater and best actress for Patricia Arquette. I'm pretty sure it'll come out in theaters, possibly even wide release, so just make sure that you catch it when it does because I really doubt you'll be sorry. For all its imperfections, it's so unique that you'll find it hard to look away.

Runner Up: Life Feels Good
This was another popular movie at the festival that earned Dawid Ogrodnik best actor. This is a really powerful movie. At times, it can definitely be hard to watch and it's a little long. Still, I love how raw it is. It doesn't sugar coat anything and I don't feel like it exaggerates anything. I feel like it's really telling the story of this boy who's coping with Cerebral Palsy and being treated like he's unintelligent even though he's quite smart, sweet, and funny. It's so important for us to treat people with disabilities like people and understand that they can be an asset to society though most people wouldn't think so at first look. I digress though - it's astounding that Dawid doesn't actually have Cerebral Palsy. Astounding. This movie is worth watching just to see how amazing an actor he is - the amazing story is a bonus.

Best Short Film
Winner: Democracia
Every year SIFF does a short film program dedicated to Spanish films and after seeing it last year we had to check out again this year. Sure enough, they were all very entertaining. This one was the most memorable to me though. It's the story of the boss of a small company who feels that things have been going too well among employees and somehow has to die so that there can be a funeral for the employees to commiserate at and bond with one another. It's such a crazy concept that you can't help but be drawn in by this dark comedy. If you somehow find a way to watch it, you'll be happy for it.

Runner Up: The Missing Scarf
It makes me so happy that this short film exists. It's quirky, clever, and wonderfully animated. You can get an idea of its style in the teaser trailer. It's follows a squirrel looking for his missing scarf that ends up sharing a series of life lessons that end in an interesting twist. It's narrated by the grand master of Seattle's Pride Parade this year, George Takei. I definitely don't think it would be as entertaining without his spot-on narration. Again, if you can see it, please do. You'll thank me for it.

And that's it! I'm so glad to live in a city that loves cinema enough to support an organization that puts together such a great event every year and can even maintain a few theaters year round. If you appreciate classic movie theaters, please consider helping SIFF re-open the Egyptian this fall.

Friday, June 06, 2014


I know it's been over a year since my last post, but I was feeling inspired to write up a review of Boyhood since we managed to catch it on Sunday at SIFF and it's not widely released yet but it's one of the only movies I'll have seen during the Festival that will be available nationwide. We still have three more movies to see before SIFF 2014 is in the books, and maybe I'll follow that up with short reviews of my favorites (we'll have seen 14 of the 140+ films).

The trailer for Boyhood has a couple of spoilers, but I'll share it in the hopes that it will encourage more people to check out this movie:

Richard Linklater (of the "Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight" series fame) set out 12 years ago on a daring film project: to create a film that follows the boyhood of a fictional character from age 6 to 18 as he deals with growing up in a family after his biological parents divorce. The catch is that this character is played by the same actor without any special effects trickery - all versions of the boy are portrayed by Ellar Coltrane. It's really less of a movie though than a cinematic experiment. While I do think it has its share of problems in the end, I feel that they're outweighed by the wholly unique experience of watching this movie and partially just inherent in the overall story. This is in stark contrast to another cinematic experiment that hasn't gotten quite as much attention stateside, the Aussie film The Turning based on the book of short stories of the same name that I think almost completely failed to make a cohesive movie out of over a dozen short stories directed by different people.

Boyhood doesn't follow your typical movie formula. It plays more like a series of vignettes that are trying to explain the formative moments of this boy's life. They are held together by involving the same central characters and overall style (after all, the same director made all of them). They actually dovetail quite well with one another. I thought it would be super obvious from a technological point of view in picture quality that the film was made over 12 years, but it really isn't - you just see the main character (Mason Jr.) and his sister (portrayed by Linklater's real-life daughter, Lorelei) age during the course of the film. It flows surprisingly well. The catch is that it's almost like you're looking through a peephole into this kid's life at very specific times. In fact, it's hard for me to think of a scene without the main character in it. Because it has to span so much time, I feel like there are plotlines that aren't fully explored that I would've loved to have seen more of, except that the movie is already far too long at a whopping 164 minutes.

I'm digressing a bit though. The point I'd like to get across first and foremost is that this is a really evocative film for probably any guy and probably some women, as well. I feel like girls have a distinctively different set of formative experiences from guys (a Girlhood sequel would be kind of cool), but what's deeply fascinating to me is that I can personally relate to so much of what happens in this movie even though my upbringing was so different from Mason Jr.'s. There's some pop culture nostalgia that comes up, but aside from that there's the nostalgia of things like getting bullied or sibling rivalries or lots of other things I don't want to spoil. It really is something special, in my opinion, and something that has stuck with me ever since I've walked out of the theater almost a week ago.

If I had to pick one thing in this movie that I wish would've been fixed it would be the relationship between Mason Jr. and his mother (portrayed by the amazing Patricia Arquette). She's very talented in her role and I feel like I don't always understand their relationship and that Mason Jr. doesn't always make sense because of this. It's really hard to explain what I mean without spoilers. I wish that Linklater could've cut some other stuff out of the film to make just a little more room for some of that exposition. The focus is so heavy on the boy that so many of the other characters in the film become throwaway and we don't get to get very deep into his sister, even. You have to kind of just accept that and enjoy the ride that this story is, but it still is something that bothered me even though I recognize it as a tough thing to fix.

My other issues with the movie are relatively minor. The movie ended with terrible dialogue. Terrible dialogue. I think it was purposely cheesy, but why end a film with cheesy dialogue? There was cheesy dialogue at other times in the film, but I feel like it was forgivable because kids are cheesy by nature when they're growing up. I'm conflicted on how I feel about Ellar Coltrane as an actor. It's tough because his supporting cast is so amazing and he's a newcomer to acting, but it was hard to tell at times if he was following direction on the character or phoning it in - it could've gone either way. His performance was good enough, but I don't think he elevated the film like he could've.

All-in-all, I would call this a must-see movie. If I had to rate it, I'd probably give it an A-. Yes, it's really long. Yes, it can feel like a dizzying array of content. If you can look past its flaws though, I hope you'll agree that Linklater has a real gem on his hands and I really hope that he gets a wide release for this. It's a very engrossing experience that is put together as sharply as one would expect from someone of Richard Linklater's caliber.