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SIFF 2022: That’s a Wrap! Roundtable.

After eleven days of virtual and in-person screenings, partying, and celebrating independent filmmakers, the 48th Seattle International Film Festival closed on Sunday with a morning awards ceremony and an evening gala. In the afterglow of our individual festing, the SunBreak’s SIFF team gathered on the internet to debrief on this year’s event.

A return to theaters meant the return of those hallmark paper ballots; so let’s start by tearing through our overall ratings for SIFF 2022: Hybrid Edition. 

Tony: If I had one of those little paper ballots representing my overall SIFF 2022 rating, I’d make a solid tear through the 4. I think the hybrid model’s a great look on the festival, and I hope it was a successful strategy for fest organizers. It helps that I liked/loved pretty much everything I saw. 

Josh: I didn’t see nearly as much of it as I wanted to but, I’m glad to have SIFF back, really appreciated the hybrid approach, and think that the earlier time of year and ten-day running time are as welcome as its long overdue return. 

Chris: I agree with what you said, Josh. I didn’t catch as many films as I would’ve liked but I really enjoyed the hybrid approach with most of the movies available on streaming throughout the festival. I wouldn’t have minded an extra week or two like pre-Covid SIFF but it was enjoyable and well-run.

Morgen: Yes, I definitely would have loved another week to catch a few more in-theater-only screenings but really appreciated that there were so many films with the watch-at-home option. I ended up going to several in-person showings and only one film had more than a half-full theater (and most of the time it was more like one-third), but I kind of loved having all that space. Which film brought out the masses you ask? Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. 

Chris: I knew Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was going to be one of my big regrets that I just couldn’t fit into my schedule but what Morgen and Josh said afflicted me with massive levels of FOMO. Its two screenings conflicted with  the Seattle Storm’s first preseason game Saturday evening  and the Golden Space Needle Awards brunch Sunday morning. 

Tony: As per usual, I didn’t catch nearly as many films as I’d hoped. And while the condensed festival run was appreciated, it also made for fewer weekend binges, which meant fewer opportunities for a working stiff to catch up on sought-after screenings.  I’m with you regarding the not-capacity audiences at the in-person screenings, Morgen. I do cherish the energy of a full theater, but it was also nice being able to distance myself from the plague-ridden masses in a theater. 

Jenn: I ended up prioritizing in-person-only showings with the rationale “it’s streaming so I can watch that anytime later”, but with the result that I didn’t even log into my virtual streaming account until the last day. Whoops! I heard that the Cleveland International Film Festival recently did a week of in-person screenings, FOLLOWED BY a week of virtual screenings, which feels like a genius idea, rather than forcing the choice. But anyway I had a really great time and was so happy to be back out in the mix with my cinephile pals and seeing so many great movies once again!

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, courtesy SIFF

Let’s get into it with our own Golden SunBreak Awards: Best Narrative Feature

Chris: I’m going to abstain from giving out my own Golden SunBreak trophy this year only because there were so many gaps of what I could actually  get to that it feels woefully incomplete. 

Josh: I missed it at a few other festivals, but damn it if that one-eyed, one-inch tall shell didn’t get me this time around. Dean Fleischer Camp’s Marcel the Shell With Shoes On was every bit as cute as advertised, but was also guttingly melancholic. Adorable stop-motion animation as a conduit for meditations on isolation, mortality, abandonment, and balancing the hope of finding more with the fear of winding up with much less. It was almost too intense for ninety minutes.

Tony: Is Marcel the Shell with Shoes On officially fully-SunBreak approved? Because I likewise enjoyed it enormously. That said, there were three movies that rose to the top of a very rewarding SIFF 2022 for me. One of them was a doc (more on that later), but my favorite narrative features of the fest both bowled me over so thoroughly that I’d really have to flip a coin to choose the ‘better one.’ 

Morgen: This is actually a tough pick for me this year, there were a few standouts and I was able to see a decent number of films despite the truncated timeframe and my full-time job. I credit the ability to stream many of the features, and I’m thankful SIFF offered this option again. But let’s get down to business, I can narrow it down to two: Hit The Road and Everybody Hates Johan . Both were quirky and light-hearted with a subtle underlying heaviness that gave each story the gravity to make them memorable. The former was particularly silly and wonderful, as a family takes a roadtrip with a veiled purpose that slowly unravels as they move through the desert to their destination. Tugging at your heartstrings the whole way, a barely-out-of-toddlerdom boy donning a sassy mouth chats, crawls and loves all over his brother and parents while the adults discuss more important matters of which he’s utterly oblivious. It doesn’t have a happy or sad ending, but life simply moves forward. As an aside, I’m completely on-board with Josh’s pick as well. I had my doubts, but Marcel ripped my guts out and put them back in a couple times; bravo Jenny Slate. 

Tony: Peter Strickland’s become one of my favorite modern filmmakers, and to my mind his batting average runs so solid, I’d figured his latest,  Flux Gourmet, would click for me. But I was not prepared for how great it was–sharply satirical (and howlingly funny), visually spellbinding, peerlessly acted by a cast running on all eight comedic cylinders, and packed with symbolism as rich and resonant as it was (occasionally, at least) bluntly gross. My other favorite SIFF 2022 narrative was Warm Blood , Rick Charnoski’s narrative fictional feature debut about a teenager living in relative poverty in modern-day Modesto, CA. It’s an exhilarating burst of ragged energy that oscillates between verite grittiness, deadpan humor, moments of surprising beauty, and a stinging sociopolitical voice. Hoping to do a deeper dive on these, and the rest of the features I saw for the fest, in a post later this week.

Jenn: Here to add to the avalanche of praise for Marcel the Shell : definitely my favorite feature I watched during this fest. I’ve been a fan of that adorable shell since his inception (I even own the book!!), and was a little skeptical about fleshing the hit-Youtube-shorts concept out with a feature-length emotional backstory, but I’m totally agreed with the chorus here: they absolutely knocked it out of the park. If I’m including films I didn’t watch over these past 11 days but had seen in previous fests, there’s another clear winner for me, though, which is Cha Cha Real Smooth (previously reviewed by Josh at Sundance). Cooper Raiff’s follow-up to Shithouse (one of my honorable mentions among my Best of 2020) builds on that debut’s promise to deliver an achingly human story of a twentysomething growing up. It would be easy to make a version of a film that’d fit this one’s description which would make my eyes roll so far back into my head that they’d get stuck there (and this guy sure is a master of choosing titles that do not fit the tone of his films), but somehow Raiff avoids those pitfalls to bring a refreshingly, deeply honest and sweet perspective to the screen. It’s really lovely.

Navalny, courtesy SIFF

Best Documentary Feature

Josh: Didn’t really see enough to have a vote, but I’m sure that if I hadn’t already seen it elsewhere this would be Navalny for me. I will mention Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting On Two Fronts , which played as part of the Northwest Connections program. The short documentary, illuminating the contradictions and complexities of newly-freed slaves joining the US Army after the Civil War because it provided their most credible shot at pursuing the “American Dream”, at times felt like concisely produced content that would be at home accompanying a museum exhibit. However, the thorny issues it raised and the groundbreaking characters it introduced were so fascinating that I hope it is spun off into a limited series, with sixty minutes per episode instead of for the whole film, maybe more just for the Seattle-based re-enactors who keep these pieces of American history in living memory.

Chris: I am torn on this between Sweetheart Deal and The Pez Outlaw, because I thought both were well made and compelling but they’re so different from each other. The Pez Outlaw is the one I’d rather watch a second time because it isn’t quite as heavy but it could be a coin flip.  

Tony: I only saw two docs, but because it gives me the opportunity to choose two Personal Bests of the Fest, I shall join Josh’s chorus of one in singing the praises of Navalny , a stunningly well-directed and consistently riveting bit of work that felt like a gene-splice of paranoid thriller, Hollywood romance, and historic drama–with hearty snifters of Dr. Strangelove and The Three Stooges spiking the punch. And it’s all real.

Chris: I’m going to offer a slight dissent, but I wasn’t as taken with the opening night film Navalny as some of you were. I enjoyed it and respect its mission but I liked it more than I loved it. I really wished I got more of a sense of what Alexei Navalny actually believes, beyond that Putin and corruption are bad. Navalny had some pretty odious political beliefs before becoming such a prominent figure. The documentary brushes aside that he spoke at some extremist marches but I wish there was more of an interrogation of that. Even though I think it was an embarrassing episode for the human rights organization, and my liberalism demands that I not want right-wing dissidents illegally detained any more than I want left-wing dissidents illegally detained, Navalny’s past statements and identity as a Russian nationalist caused Amnesty International to temporarily stop referring to him as a “Prisoner of Conscience.” Would this movie be so well-received if the viewers were told about past statements that could most charitably be called “very racist” that he’s yet to repudiate and continues to host on his YouTube channel? 

Josh: All very valid, and thorny points. It’s easy to get swept up in the spycraft and image-making in Navalny. I appreciated that the filmmakers hinted at his more controversial positions, but agree that they might’ve pushed harder to get at what he really believes and just hoe many compromises he’s willing to make in service of the essential goal of shaking his country free from a dictatorship.

Morgen: I was only able to catch one documentary this time, Framing Agnes, so I don’t feel qualified to say “best”. I enjoyed the film, and I liked that they were breaking the fourth wall a lot by re-enacting pivotal moments from a bygone era, but also catching discussion between the director/interviewer and the re-enactors about their personal experiences and thoughts on what happened to the folks they were emulating. It started to fall apart for me a bit about halfway through, but I still enjoyed it.

Jenn: I thought all four of the docs I managed to see were great, but if I’m choosing one, it’s Cat Daddies. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to step back and assess the objective quality of this documentary about cats and the men that love them, but it just made me feel so good while watching it that I can’t help but glow. I don’t know if I’ve ever so consistently had a smile on my face for a film’s entire runtime like that. Plus they offered photo opps with a guy in a mascot-style cat head, and I got a free cat mask to take home, so yeah, I loved it.

Watcher, courtesy SIFF

Special Mentions for Best Performances:

Chris: I was fond of Maika Monroe in Watcher, a Romanian thriller. The movie wasn’t the most unpredictable, but her performance of an American wife newly alone in Bucharest while her husband is away at work is marvelous. She really conveys the paranoia and the loss of herself in a new place while feeling stalked by a creepy neighbor. 

Tony: If I could give out a single Golden Sunbreak to Best Ensemble, I’d bestow that honor to The Innocents , writer/director Eskil Vogt’s quiet but very effective slow-burn about psychic kids working out their issues. All four child actors at the center of the movie delivered remarkable, unaffected performances. But for the big prize, I’ll single out Laura Galán’s performance as a put-upon, bullied teenage girl in Piggy , another terrific European indie chiller. The role starts out flirting close to caricature, but by the end, Galán’s conveyed adolescent longing, petulance, unbridled anger, and conflicted empathy with equal fidelity. Great as it is, the movie wouldn’t be 1/100th as effective without her performance at the center.  

Josh: I’m giving this one to Gwendoline Christie in one of your favorites — Flux Gourmet — if only for holding it together and relishing an array of increasingly absurd costume decisions. She’s the mad queen at the center of that farce and the whole thing falls apart if she breaks.

Morgen: I have two for this as well. Marina Redžepović of The Staffroom was engrossing. As the newly-hired high school counselor Anamarija, she subtly and slowly succumbed to the tension and stress building in her over the entire film, grinding away at her positivity like sandpaper. Caring too much can be painful, but in the end you find a reason to stay. The other has to be Adèle Exarchopoulos of Zero Fucks Given. While the film was in the middle of the pack otherwise, Adèle was mesmerizing as a young stewardess Cassandre living the life, jet setting from one town to the next. As we got to know her and see the slow vice that closes in from little-to-no sleep, a lot of alcohol and stress from home, the burn-out was inevitable. Party girl may be what she wants for now, but we find out that all the traveling is just Cassandre running from something that will always haunt her until she faces it. Working toward a better life is only possible if she faces her past.

Jenn: I was also particularly impressed by Laura Galán, Maika Monroe, and Gwendoline Christie. But to throw my attention on a film we haven’t mentioned yet in this piece, I loved Karen Gillan in Riley Stearns’ Dual (previously reviewed by Chase at Sundance). She plays two different roles – “Sarah” and “Sarah’s Double” – and manages to make them feel like very different people, even though they’re a person and that person’s clone. That takes an admirable level of talent, and she pulls it off.

SIFF’s juries and audiences have spoken … 

Know Your Place, courtesy SIFF Jury Awards Golden Space Needle (Audience Awards) Fool Serious (Passholder Awards) Official Competition: Klondike (Maryna Er Gorbach)

Documentary: Radiograph of a Family (Firouzeh Khosrovani)

New Directors: Lonely Voices (Andrea Brusa, Marco Scotuzzi)

New American Cinema: Know Your Place ( Zia Mohajerjasbi)

Ibero-American: Sublime (Mariano Biasin)

Narratives 1. Know Your Place (director, Zia Mohajerjasbi) 2. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (Dean Fleischer Camp) 3. I Love My Dad (James Morosini) 4. I’ll Show You Mine (Megan Griffiths) 5. The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic (Teemu Nikki)

Documentary 1. The Territory (Alex Pritz) 2. Sweetheart Deal (Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller)* 3. Kaepernick America (Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow) 4. Skate Dreams (Jessica Edwards) 5. Daughter of a Lost Bird (Brooke Pepion Swaney)

* Lena Sharpe Persistence of Vision Award

Most Liked Features 1. Voice of Silence (Eui-Jeong Hong) 2. The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic (Teemu Nikki) 3. Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma) 4. Hinterland (Stefan Ruzowitsky) 5. Montana Story (Scott McGehee, David Siegel) 6. The Last Film Show (Pan Nalin) 7. The Duke (Roger Michell) 8. Everybody Hates Johan (Hallvar Witzø) 9. Vera Dreams of the Sea (Kaltrina Krasniqi) 10. A Love Song (Max Walker-Silverman)

Top Documentaries 1. Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (Frank Marshall, Ryan Suffern) 2. Navalny (Daniel Roher) 3. Young Plato (Neasa Ní Chianáin, Declan McGrath) 4. Sweetheart Deal (Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller) 5. The Territory (Alex Pritz)

Any commentary on audience or jury awards or distinctions between passholders and the populous:

Josh: Not sure whether it’s meaningful, but only one of each of the top five audience favorites were from outside the USA. Maybe this means a good crop of American films, locals boosting locals, or people not being in the mood for subtitles at home. Either way, it’s great to see some of the local films getting recognition! Nothing wrong with a little hometown pride, particularly when it’s for Zia Mohajerjasbi’s gorgeously photographed and insightful odyssey set in Seattle. I caught The Territory at Sundance and am not at all surprised that Alex Pritz’s story, made in collaboration with indigenous people in the disappearing Amazon rainforest, also connected with SIFF audiences.

And as always, the overlaps between the marathon film-goers, the juries, and the general public are interesting … maybe we’re not so different after all!

Tony: Whether it’s some strange superpower/curse or not, I very seldom end up seeing movies that become the winners of the SIFF/Golden Space Needle/Audience Awards during the festival. That means I have very little skin in the game here. But I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Fool Serious voters anointing  Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story with the Best Documentary award over Navalny has me scratching my head. I’m sure Jazz Fest is a perfectly serviceable music doc (no, I haven’t seen it), but I can’t comprehend it holding a candle to Daniel Roher’s absorbing study of Alexei Navalny’s battle of words and images against the current Russian regime.

Josh: My guess is that it’s a matter of access and priorities. Navalny screened only on opening night, to people with a special gala ticket; so it’s possible that passholders and audiences alike waited for it to come to CNN. With so many options available only during the festival, I can’t say that I blame people for waiting a bit longer.

Along those lines, I thought I had covered my bases by seeing almost all of the Official Competition. That program always hits a nice balance of challenging and rewarding while giving a survey of the breadth of the festival as a whole, but I admit a personal failing in procrastinating and never watching the jury’s pick: Klondike. I have no doubt about the jury’s assessment: “For a work both tragically prophetic and universal in its impact, a ferocious and formalist vision of war that fuses humanism, black comedy and horror into a searing and original vision”. Still, film festivals are a matter of timing and serendipity, and I confess that I was never quite in the right frame of mind to sit down for two hours of Maryna Er Gorbach’s “raw and current tale set on the lonely border of Ukraine and Russia in the natural resource-rich Donetsk District, following pregnant Irka and her husband as their self-sufficient life is threatened by encroaching civil war.” 

Morgen: I didn’t end up reviewing it for SXSW, but The Blind Man Who Didn’t Want to See Titanic was a great story. The cinematography was wonderful, using camera angles, focus and lighting to put the viewer in the shoes of the main character. You wanted it to be more heartwarming, but being sequestered to a wheelchair, stuck in your house and the vulnerability of being blind aren’t a walk in the park individually, much less all together. I’m actually on board with the top narratives in the Golden Space Needle competition which almost never happens. As for the passholders I agree with a couple of their choices but otherwise they’re middle of the road at best. I’m still annoyed that both SIFF and SXSW Film viewers have all but ignored Linoleum . Jim Gaffigan is stellar, but the entire cast really meshes with a unique, heartfelt and thoughtful script to lead the way and I’m disappointed no one else is saying so.

Josh: I suppose that’s the great and frustrating thing about film festivals. Everyone’s on their own journey, sometimes great things get missed, and consensus forms unexpectedly. But they’re also an opportunity to find something great and advocate for your favorites throughout the year.

With that in mind, let’s bring another season of SIFF to a close. I know we have some more reviews to roll out in the afterglow; so we can look forward to hearing about other gems (or duds, it happens!) discovered during this year’s festivities!

Keep up with us during the Seattle International Film Festival on Twitter (@thesunbreak) and follow all of our ongoing coverage via our SIFF 2022 Index and our SIFF 2022 posts