2014 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL WRAP-UP

As you may or may not know, the Seattle International Film Festival is the largest film festival in the world. This year, they screened 435 features and short films from around the globe. As you can imagine, it’s impossible to see everything, so I try my best to curate my personal program wisely. Unfortunately, even an awful film can have a great idea at its core so I am sometimes duped by a promising synopsis. Thankfully, my dance card contained way more great films than stinkers this time around. Here are the best and worst of the 20 or so films I squeezed into the festival’s month-long run:

BEST:

“The Babadook” – This Australian export, akin to “Rosemary’s Baby”, is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of a widowed mother who questions her own sanity when her behaviorally impaired son becomes obsessed with a morbid children’s book that mysteriously appears on his book shelf. Supernatural though it may be, “The Babadook” also hauntingly examines grief in the face of senseless tragedy. Try not to watch it right before bed.

 

“Happy Christmas” – Joe Swanberg is one of the founders of Mumblecore, and with every new film, he makes a better case for genre MVP. If you liked “Drinking Buddies”, you will certainly love “Happy Christmas”, which stars versatile minx Anna Kendrick as a hot mess who gifts her brother and his burgeoning family with her post-breakup meltdown during the Christmas holiday. Swanberg also stars alongside his real life baby and the long-underutilized Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures”, “Foreign Correspondents”) as a writer who has put her career on the back burner in order to stay at home with their son.

 

“In Order of Disappearance” – Comparisons to “Fargo” extend beyond the prevalence of snow, in this Norwegian film from director Hans Petter Moland. Star Stellan Skarsgaard channels Liam Neeson in this humor-speckled revenge drama in which an unassuming snowplow driver systematically hunts down the men responsible for murdering his son.

 

“Mood Indigo” – However you stand on the work of French director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), you have to admit that he is always innovating. His latest film is his most experimental yet. It’s “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”-meets-“Synechdoche, NY” aesthetic left the entire theater in a surreal daze, as if they had sprinkled shroom dust on the popcorn. It’s not his masterpiece, but it is required viewing for anyone who is remotely interested in experimental cinema.

“Night Moves” – Kelly Reichardt is a true cinematic auteur and her latest film induces a lingering performance from Jesse Eisenberg as one third of a trio of eco-terrorists (alongside Dakota Fanning and Peter Skarsgaard) who are blindsided when they fail to consider the full implications of their actions.

 

“Skeleton Twins” – Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig are unbelievably brilliant in this black comedy about estranged twins who begrudgingly reunite following simultaneous suicide attempts. It’s entirely possible that this movie would be completely devoid of humor (and sympathetic characters) without the two leads. But because it’s Hader and Wiig (quite possibly the most natural comedic actors on the planet.), you love them and want them to be happy despite their self-destructive idiocy.

 

“Obvious Child” – I saw this at another festival but I really can’t say enough nice things about Jenny Slate’s killer multi-layered performance in the funniest romantic dramedy about abortion in recent memory.

WORST:

 

“Alex of Venice” – I hate to put Chris Messina’s directorial debut in this category, because it’s a masterwork in comparison to my other two Worst of Fest choices, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a very good film. Messina attempts Cassavetes vérité, but the hackneyed dialog betrays him. Performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Don Johnson (going for a late-career dramatic turn a la Tony Danza) are as good as they can be under the circumstances.

 

“Another” – A large part of me just wants to forget I ever saw this movie. And in time, I’m sure I will. But I am compelled to put out one more warning to stay the hell away from this amateurish, nonsensical, misogynistic pile of poop. It’s not so bad it’s good. It’s just SO BAD.

“Zombeavers”– The title is absolutely the best thing about this failed attempt at b-movie camp. If you like relentless entendres about hairy vaginas, you still won’t like this movie.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

 

“An Afternoon with Laura Dern” – I thoroughly enjoyed this professionally moderated Q&A with one of my favorite actresses following her receipt of SIFF’s Outstanding Achievement in Acting Award. In addition to her immense talent, Dern is lighthearted, humble and as savvy about film as she is enthusiastic. A screening of David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” followed the Q&A, featuring one of Dern’s most memorable roles as the sweetly rebellious and philosophical Lula Fortune.

 

“To Be Takei” – From sci-fi cult hero to nerd national treasure, George Takei has reinvented himself numerous times throughout his career. Jennifer Kroot paints a respectful portrait of a relentlessly optimistic and talented man who has used his charm to advance the LGBT equality movement.

“Venus in Fur” – Roman Polanski’s latest is a compelling, if on the nose, portrait of a self-obsessed director and playwright who doesn’t realize he’s met his match in a seemingly naïve actress auditioning for the lead role in his adaptation of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel. Hyper meta though it is, (it’s a play within a play about a novel within a novel), the story still manages to be fairly straightforward and accessibly clever.

 

“Willow Creek” – Accurately described by many (including writer/director Bobcat Goldthwaite) as “The Blair Sasquatch Project”, this found footage horror film surpasses its predecessor with compelling characters and story structure, but falters at the very end.

 

GOLDEN SPACE NEEDLE AWARDS:

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, swept the Golden Space Needle awards, earning accolades for best director, best actress (Patricia Arquette) and best damn film period. Alan Hicks took home Best Documentary with “Keep on Keepin’ on”; an account of jazz legend Clark Terry’s mentoring of blind piano prodigy Justin Kaulflin. Cody Blue Snider’s “Fool’s Day” took home the award for Best Short.

SIFF is a film festival marathon. It’s exhausting and occasionally painful, but ultimately very rewarding. Thank you to SIFF for another great fest. Time to catch up on my DVR and then start training for next year!

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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AN EVENING WITH RICHARD LINKLATER/BOYHOOD

2014 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL EVENT!

On Friday, May 2nd, the 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival presented director Richard Linklater with their Founding Director’s Award. The San Francisco Film Society decided to make a night of it, with “An Evening with Richard Linklater” at the Castro Theatre. The packed-to-the-gills event sandwiched a screening of his latest film, “Boyhood,” between two Q & A sessions. Longtime friend and colleague, Parker Posey, moderated the first segment with a casual familiarity. Posey was among many actors to hit it big after appearing in Linklater’s second film, “Dazed and Confused,” including Matthew “Don’t Call Him Matt” McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Renée Zellweger. The cult classic, released 27 years ago (holy crap), also helped to kick start Linklater’s fertile career.

Posey and Linklater reminisced their way through his catalog, spending ample time with “Dazed and Confused.” Linklater revealed that the iconic music for the film came before the story. When he finally got around to casting, he made mix tapes (that’s cassette tapes, kids) for all of his actors to get them in the correct headspace. His auditions included a brief interview about their high school experience, wherein he promptly dismissed anyone who claimed to have had a good time.

He also admitted that the beloved “Before” films, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, were never meant to be a trilogy. But he found himself revisiting those characters and every 5 or 6 years wondered, “What they were up to?” Those ruminations would turn into a script. Fortunately, Hawke and Delpy were always game to reprise those roles as well. He’s not sure there’s much left to tell of their story, however as “meeting briefly becomes less and less age appropriate.”

In her introduction, Posey called Linklater “a voice of my generation,” but with his diverse body of work, that title seems too limiting. In addition to writing about youth culture, he’s also made films about bank robbers, music teachers, the fast food industry, a man driven to murder and Orson Welles. Linklater seems game for just about anything, so long as there’s a good story in it. As he put it, he’s, “Always channeling things through the filter of cinema.”

Despite his prolificacy, Linklater confessed to frequently spending years with an idea before bringing it to fruition, so that he could be sure to get it right. “Waking Life” came from a real dream he had, but he didn’t make the film for another 20 years. He wasn’t even sure that the idea was filmable until some of his friends began experimenting with Rotoscope technology. It was then that he finally understood how to make it work.

The way he tells it, he’s “had two good cinematic thoughts all these years”. One was his first film, “Slacker,” which told a complete story by following one character to the next. The Austin, TX native culled the story from real people who populated his neighborhood in the 1980s. “Slacker” was the film that launched his career and it is also heralded as one of the great pioneer independent films.

His other “good cinematic thought” was to tell a story by following one actor through his formative years in order to create an honest and illuminative narrative about childhood. This film became “Boyhood,” a bold experiment in filmmaking that could have easily fallen apart at any point during the 12 years he spent on it. He didn’t just follow the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane. He also employed Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, to play the family. Year after year, the actors agreed to come back and shoot for one week, until he had a complete story. The end result is astounding.

Though “Boyhood” is a tad on the long side, I have to forgive Linklater because I imagine that putting that much of your life into a film would make it very difficult to cut. The running time is a minor criticism, as is the imprecision of the title. Coltrane’s Mason is our guide, but everyone in the family grows and changes in profound ways throughout the story. This is some of the best work that Arquette and Hawke have ever done. Every beat of their performances feels authentic and personal. Linklater also struck gold with Coltrane and his daughter, who remained natural (and reliable) throughout. The film also serves as a sort of time capsule, since the “period” scenes were actually shot in the eras in which they take place. Technology, fashion, pop culture and politics evolve organically. Arquette’s mother character, the children’s primary caregiver does the best she can to provide for her children, getting a psychology degree and attempting to find them a reliable father figure. Her faulty spouse selection causes much of the drama over the years, but she eventually finds the confidence to raise them on her own. Hawke plays the absentee dad who ultimately comes around to fatherhood, trading in his muscle car for a mini van and attempting to incorporate his original children into his second-chance domesticity with another woman.

There aren’t many films out there than can satisfy everyone, but surely “Boyhood” comes close. If you are a human being who grew up in America, some part of the film will resonate with you. If nothing else, the scale of the experiment is a sight to behold. “Boyhood” will certainly remain a highlight in Linklater’s career, even if he continues to make films for another 27 years.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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