Of the things that will have shelf life in my memory as the rest of the festival collectively fades, I’ll long remember the SIFF trailer that ran before each film. “Tell me everything you saw,” Grace Kelly, in her pearls and black gown, implores Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, as frames within frames of iconic images flicker past—among them, Sean Young exhaling in Blade Runner, a car skidding along the façade of a building from Day Watch, and Claudette Colbert showing Clark Gable exactly how one hitches a ride in It Happened One Night. This beautiful piece, designed by Digital Kitchen, deserves a small prize of its own, if only for being a welcome departure from the leaden clunk of SIFF trailers past. Any festival-goer who recoils at the mention of “Who ordered the murdered mistress?” or “We’re gonna take little Joey and put ’im in show biz!” will undoubtedly share my sense of gratitude.
Last Sunday morning at the Space Needle, over a brunch of scrambled eggs and mushy, overcooked salmon, the festival winners and juried awards were announced. I won’t go into them all, suffice to say that when Alan Rickman’s name was called as “Best Actor” for the universally reviled Bottle Shock, you could have heard the sound of one hand clapping. Granted, there were no obvious frontrunners for Best Actor this year, at least not among the films I caught, but that Bottle Shock had only screened once publicly (the night before the awards ceremony) struck me as a trifle suspicious.
There was better news in the Best Director category. I was delighted that Nina Paley took second runner-up for the wonderful Sita Sings the Blues. Of course, she merited higher than that, yet the refreshing thing is that of the five finalists, three of them were women directors. It was heartening to see Dorota Kędzierzawska (Time to Die) and Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) acknowledged along with Paley. Emerging ahead of them, alas, was Amin Matalqa for the Jordanian Captain Abu Raed, a movie I began to watch and—for a number of reasons—couldn’t finish.
It was disappointing that the documentary jurors were impervious to the great Trouble the Water, which ought to have won the competition. This year, as in years past, I somehow managed not to see any of the Grand Jury Prize winners. I did, nonetheless, catch—partially—a couple of the Special Jury Prize mentions. I’m not going to say anything about the Russian film Mermaid (New Directors Showcase). I’ve already made my disdain for it quite clear. As for the New American Cinema competition, well… normally I’d skip over Russell Brown’s The Bluetooth Virgin in charitable silence. I hate to pick on Brown. He’s a decent critic, his heart is in the right place, and like me, he had the insight to realize just what an empty, overblown fiasco the ridiculous There Will Be Blood amounts to (it isn’t just Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie that’s a fiasco, it’s all of the arrogant, embarrassing critical hosannas heaped on it by Scott Foundas and his ilk), and also like me, Brown had the temerity to say so in public.
But when something as bad as The Bluetooth Virgin receives a jury commendation for Brown’s “fresh and squirmy script,” duty compels me to step in and say that, yes, it’s squirmy all right. I suppose that David Schmader (!) and his fellow jurors have in mind the argument scene between a hack screenwriter and his breadwinner wife. Each accuses the other of coasting on what he or she has that the other lacks, and it is a mortifying encounter—not because it rings true, but for the very opposite reason and because it is so poorly, so unconvincingly acted by Austin Peck as the writer. There’s no heat; it’s lacerating only in a sitcom-ish way. In theory, there’s nothing inherently wrong with lengthy sequences of two persons talking. Yet Brown’s movie, presumably written for the screen, feels like a filmed play. The stilted rhythms define his way of working with actors, too, so that even as lively a performer as Karen Black, who plays a writing coach, can’t do anything about the dead air that engulfs her.
The kicker, however, at the Sunday awards brunch was this: that the Golden Space Needle for Best Picture went to Doris Dörrie’s Cherry Blossoms—Hanami. One of my editors from Northwest Asian Weekly, seated next to me, said, “You hated that, didn’t you?” Um, yes. Although far from the festival’s worst, I did pan it. Not only here, but there.
Well, dispensing with all that, what follows are some of my choices for festival bests, as well as a smattering of SIFF 34’s dubious achievements. First, the cream of the crop…
Best film: Not merely the best animated film or best American, but like the bejeweled Hindu goddess who rises from an ocean of puppet waves with her wind-up Victrola, simply the finest of all. Writer/director/cartoonist Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues re-imagines Valmiki’s epic poem The Ramayana as a Jazz Age feminist parable. Setting a 14th-century saga of a banished bride to Depression-era ditties initially seems amusing, yet becomes haunting, too. When Sita enters the belly of Mother Earth, Paley’s decision to score this sequence to Fats Waller’s “I’ve Got a Feelin’ I’m Fallin’” fuses sound and image into an emotionally charged statement on the history of heartbreak across the ages and continents. In this context, Irving Berlin’s lyric, “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on,” heard over the final credits, may never have felt as devastating as it does here. Yet like Persepolis, Sita Sings the Blues is often howlingly funny. Paley shares with Marjane Satrapi a comic sensibility imbued with a sense of the tragic.
And another thing: engaged and engaging artworks get us to think about or respond differently to something we thought we knew. Until seeing this film, I’d never much liked the standard, “Mean to Me.” Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk’s song always struck me as melodically a bit lazy and thematically masochistic. Hearing Annette Hanshaw sing it through the persona of Sita not only changed my perception of this sneakily minimalist tune, the song has spun ’round on the jukebox in my brain for weeks on end, and it isn’t leaving—it’s become a part of me. The same weekend that Paley placed as a Best Director runner-up at SIFF, the Annecy Festival announced Sita Sings the Blues as its Best Film. As of this writing, Sita still has no U.S. distributor. This is the kind of work that Sony Pictures Classics ought to be blazing a path to Paley’s door to acquire.
Runners-up for best film: A festival programmer confided in me that I’m in the minority on championing the Australian surfers coming-of-age drama Newcastle. Which tells me: I’m right. Whenever I’m in the critical minority, I’m almost always right, and as for the naysayers, well, they may or may not catch up. Also, Bliss.
Best actress, who is in fact a real person: Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy in Frozen River, the kind of blue-collar heroine rarely seen in movies since the halcyon days of Sissy Spacek and Sally Field. Tugging gently at my heart and my conscience, the nonagenarian actress Danuta Szaflarska, as lovely as she is feisty, in Time to Die, runs an awfully close second.
Best actress, who is in fact a cartoon character: There are actually two Sitas in Sita Sings the Blues. I’m voting for the busty, Bengali Betty Boop version, who shimmies with her exaggerated round curves to the 1929 recordings of white blues vocalist Annette Hanshaw.
Best actor: Ah, now this is a toughie, as there were no truly major contenders. I’ll give a four-way split to a quartet of performances I liked. One: Dennis Hopper, in the archival presentation of 1961’s Night Tide, has a sublime, purely physical moment in a rowboat near the end of the picture. His mermaid girlfriend, whom everyone takes to be a murderess while he alone believes in her innocence, has just tried to off him in the midst of a deep-sea dive. Having swum up to the boat, Hopper’s buff young sailor collapses, his back to the camera as his body reacts both to the death struggle and the sense of betrayal. It’s a heartbreaking scene on a few different levels, not the least of which being the youthful openness Hopper brought to his first leading man role—a quality he would rarely, if ever, show again.
Two: Yao Anlian as the migrant worker father in Cai Shangjun’s impressively downbeat The Red Awn. Like Hopper, the trusting Yao also dodges—narrowly—attempted murder at the hands of a loved one; in this case, his estranged teenage son attempts to run him over with the red combine of the movie’s title. Yao, who at one point is misguidedly optimistic enough to pay a girl to seduce his maladjusted offspring, expertly conveys this essentially honorable man’s inability to process the nature of the beast. Three and four: Reshad Strik as a bitter ex-pro surfer in Newcastle, and Josh Peck in The Wackness, who lends a sweet face and a romantic soul to the friendly (upper Manhattan) neighborhood drug dealer. His monologue to an absent girlfriend’s answering machine, “Are you not calling me back because I said, ’I love you’?” justly drew applause from the closing-night crowd at Cinerama.
Best documentary, overall: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s masterful Trouble the Water, which placed in the top-ten of audience favorites, even if the doc jury ignored it. The footage of Ninth Ward residents, who were left behind by their state and federal governments, sequestering in a neighbor’s attic as the waters rose from Hurricane Katrina struck me as—and I know this is a leap—roughly an African-American equivalent to The Diary of Anne Frank. That a video camera takes the place of a written journal… plus ça change.
Best tango documentary: Half history lesson and half concert film on the Río de la Plata’s veteran tango musicians (it could use less of the former and more of the latter), Café de Los Maestros came and went in the opening weekend in the bat of an eyelash, and it has no U.S. distributor, despite being produced by two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla. Although the storytelling meanders, the sharply etched harmonics of the bandoneón, violin, and piano steep the soundtrack in the warmth, power, and wistful defiance of Argentine music. The movie provides a farewell to the magnificent singer Lágrima Ríos, who died on Christmas Day 2006. Seen here with the caramel-colored dye in her hair, and heard in the exquisite dark timbre of her voice, an instrument as resonant as a well-tuned viola, Ríos, for a time, lives again.
Best documentary on the art of the striptease: Among the students in Miss Indigo Blue’s “Academy of Burlesque,” I was most captivated by the petite 51-year-old Diane. With her Patricia Clarkson-esque vocal delivery and a beautifully lived-in quality to her face, she’s compelling in a way that her 20-something classmates are not. Diane speaks of having grown “stagnant” from being a stay-at-home mom. “I never really did fit in,” she confides, and on her comparatively late decision to so publicly embrace her sensuality, she tells us, “For every person that disagrees, there’s another person who’s going to applaud me for it.” Words to live by.
Diane isn’t the only reason to seek out Dierdre Allen Timmons’s all-over-the-map feature debut A Wink and a Smile. Timmons mixes up footage of students finding their alter egos with performance interludes by Seattle’s more established burlesque habitués. Some of these segments, such as the one with the pot-bellied James Bond-parody Ernie von Schmaltz, whose protruding crotch turns out to hold a cocktail shaker, have immense humor and charm. Some of them, such as the woman who smears bright blue and red paint over her body, allegedly in homage to Picasso, are repellent. Yet even through the occasional gross-outs and excesses, Timmons, a former newspaper journalist, has a good sense of mise-en-scène, especially in an early montage of accessorized body parts sans faces. I wish there had been a bit more of one student, a not-so-young virgin turned off to sex by the misfortunes of her bed-hopping best friends. For her burlesque act, she decides to be Little Red Riding Hood transforming herself into the Big Bad Wolf—a marvelously intriguing statement on heterosexuality, wouldn’t you agree?
Best incest movie: Or best performance trapped in an otherwise indefensible production goes to the fresh-faced Brit Eddie Redmayne for Savage Grace. A washout as Natalie Portman’s incestuous brother in the tepid Other Boleyn Girl, Redmayne here commands us to sit up and take notice of his protean talent for black comedy. After sharing beds with Unax Ugalde (Portman’s brother in Goya’s Ghosts) and Hugh Dancy (who’s so masculine as a “walker” I mistook him for Billy Crudup), Redmayne’s rich neurotic Tony Baekeland bookends a bout of sex on the sofa with Mommy Julianne Moore with queries into a missing dog collar. After she climbs off him: “Are you sure you didn’t put it any place?”
Best cinematography: A tie between Richard Michalak for the sand and surf ecstasies of Newcastle and Sabine Lancelin for Manoel de Oliveira’s Christopher Columbus—The Enigma. Although their Columbus collaboration lacks a strong central performance such as Michel Piccoli gave Belle Toujours, Lancelin and Oliveira work with such empathy on architectural and nature imagery of such grandeur, the cinematographer and director achieve the visual equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences.
Movie I missed: I caught most of what sparked my interest, except that Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda’s Juju Factory slipped away much too soon. Actually, this film about Africans in Belgium received no advance push from the festival at all, and it ran during the first—and busiest—week. I really wanted to see this film about a writer drawn into serious conflict with his editor—not that I personally could relate to the scenario, of course.
Best venue: The Egyptian Theatre. Old, yes, with lots of character. Tranquil, even among a large crowd.
Worst venue: Uptown Cinemas. Semi-new and corporate-ugly. Seeing a good film at the Uptown is a trying experience, because you’ve already been given a splitting headache by the house manager’s insistence of keeping those hideous fluorescent overheads burning brightly for a full half-hour before the screening starts. Seeing a bad film here, thus, is akin to a nightmare.
Worst Film: At the end of what may well be the sorriest literary adaptation in many a moon, a title credit appears: Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Pretty soon we get to: Written by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Somewhere in the production credits, this bone of contention arises: Based on the novel by Michael Chabon (although the preceding movie we’ve just watched (in collective stupefaction) was only based on the title of a novel by Michael Chabon); a few more credits flash past, and then we come to it: A film by Rawson Marshall Thurber. At this point, I could no longer contain the whoop of derision that had been building in my craw over most of the past 85 minutes.
“A film” is precisely what Mr. Rawson Marshall Thurber hasn’t made of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s 1988 debut as a novelist. Rather, Mr. Rawson Marshall Thurber has made a complete hash—a motion picture so bad, so utterly at cross-purposes with the novel’s intent, and yet a movie so utterly sure of itself in the deforming liberties it takes as to seem an achievement on par with—what? With Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s trashing of Susan Orlean, perhaps? Well, not quite, because in that instance the makers of Adaptation were openly, quite self-consciously urinating all over The Orchid Thief; by contrast, Mr. Rawson Marshall Thurber genuinely appears to believe he has wrought somethin’ fine out of Chabon’s book by grinding it down into a sort of Apatow-esque Garden State 2. Yes, it’s just like revisiting Garden State, only with more nudity, a soupçon of bisexuality (lucky for us Mr. Rawson Marshall Thurber sure did get rid of all that gay stuff Chabon wrote about), a rapidly edited montage of hetero anal sex in a bookstore, oh and a jewel heist, followed by a high-octane police car chase with screeching sirens and crunchin’ gravel—yes sirree, Bob, just like at a real movie! Carried off with a straight face and everything. And have I mentioned all the voice-over narration that goes on and on in scene after scene (i.e., “Suddenly my mind went blank”), thereby relieving the actors of any responsibility for acting, as well as abdicating us, the viewers, of any obligation to watch (we can just close our eyes and listen, honey)? On the weight of this evidence, I pronounce Mr. Rawson Marshall Thurber the cinema’s first totally non-ironic graduate of the Donald Kaufman School of Acme Screenwriting.
There are no mysteries in Thurber’s Mysteries; those well-observed vicissitudes of Chabon’s that linger in the mind nearly 20 years after reading his book, those haunting, individual qualities that transcend the coming-of-age genre—those have been assiduously sponged clean. Thurber’s movie scarcely seems to have anything to do with Pittsburgh, either; it’s a whitewash that could take place anywhere. And although the story’s purportedly set in 1983, the writer-director’s lone concession to period detail lies in the fact that the three neurasthenic creeps who serve as his main characters do not text one another.
Runners-up in the worst film category: Mermaid, Wonderful Town, Towelhead, The Children of Huang Shi, The Home Song Stories, The Last Mistress, Máncora, and the game design competition for middle-schoolers doc Some Assembly Required, which borrows its template from Mad Hot Ballroom, but gives us no reason to care whether these ostensibly adorable tykes win or lose.
Worst music: This brings us right back to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. When Jon Foster, the button-downed kewpie doll leading man, beds Sienna Miller, their director cues solo New Age piano on the soundtrack. (He couldn’t even have given them jazz?) Foster and Miller slowly disrobe, then there are shots of their naked torsos humping, then—somewhat inexplicably—Thurber crosscuts these with copious footage of the lovers undressing. If they’re already undressed and between the sheets, what’s the point? Ah, but I’ll tell you what the point is. Now that Boy has bedded Girl, Boy must also bed Boy, in order to maintain any relation whatsoever to Chabon’s source material. The lone male-male love scene in this Mysteries of Pittsburgh takes up considerably less screen time than the hetero frolicking. (Hasn’t Thurber heard of Brokeback Mountain?) And when, half a reel onward, Foster finally kisses Peter Sarsgaard, and they finally go to bed (I mean, why are we at this bomb anyway?) the boys hump to that exact same insipid New Age piano piece. Don’t different sexual partners deserve their own songs? Couldn’t the composer, Theodore Shapiro, have thought up anything else? I’m not being bitchily effete here, although Sarsgaard is. As petty hoodlum Cleveland Arning, the hirsute actor seems to have staked out a position as a post-postmodern Paul Lynde. And not to let the vanilla sameness of the music go, even the alcoholic, deeply closeted frat boys to whom Thurber gears this movie change their MP3s sometime.
Worst movie about orgasms: Alan Ball’s Towelhead, which also qualifies for Worst Movie about Statutory Rape, Worst Movie Involving Close-ups of the Menstrual Cycle, and (last but not least) Worst Movie about a Young Woman Learning to Express her Sexuality via Porno Magazines for Straight Men. Ball, Oscar-winner for American Beauty, returns to suburbia where things are just as rotten as they ever were, and thank heaven the screenwriter-turned-director is around to point this out. Gratuitous fantasy shots of buxom snowbunnies and topless golf cart drivers really ram home Ball’s self-congratulatory desensitization techniques in trotting out taboo subject matter. The director does almost zilch to differentiate his point-of-view from the sadistic mother overacted by Maria Bello, a woman whose neediness for her daughter is surpassed only by her desire to humiliate the girl. Lost in the jacked-up shambles here, there’s nice work by Summer Bishil as the cruelly mistreated by nearly everyone Jasira. Ball’s surface smooth yet out-of-control direction suggests what Alexander Payne and William Friedkin might have devised in the field of outré sitcoms—everything from tone to action is freaky, ghoulishly smug. Aaron Eckhart and Toni Collette acquit themselves with humanity to this booby trap; where the film spectacularly fails, besides in the writing and directing, lies in Peter Macdissi’s grotesquely ill-conceived approach to playing a Houston-based, traditionalist Lebanese father. It’s a tad difficult to buy into Daddy Dearest’s punitive objections to his daughter’s wearing a tampon when Daddy seems more like an interior decorator from Christopher Street than the NASA engineer he’s supposed to be.
Worst opening scene: Lazy, ugly filmmaking at its most vile abounds in Choke. Once again, we’re bombarded by voice-over narration, because an inexperienced director doesn’t know what else to do. He only knows that he doesn’t trust the actors or the audience to figure anything out; when you have an opening scene at an “AA” meeting for sex addicts, this pedestrian technique becomes more of a problem than usual. The moral implications of the reasons why, even or especially in a “comedy,” should be obvious. Yet here we are: writhing in claustrophobic distaste as the camera impales one sad-faced creature after another, set to Sam Rockwell’s condescendingly fast introductory spiel of their individual fetishes. Wouldn’t it have been more generous to let these sex addicts speak for themselves? Instead of deriding them as voiceless freaks, instead of being “hip” to their suffering, why not frame them in a sort of montage like the childhood classroom in Annie Hall? You know, rapid cuts of each kid speaking in the past of his or her future: “I’m into leather,” or “I’m a methadone addict.” Anything, anything other than what Clark Gregg comes up with.
Worst animated film: Either Vexille, from Japan, or Princess of the Sun, an Egyptian “adventure” from France, qualifies for the dishonor, but as I walked out on both, I’ll give the nod to Nocturna, an English-language Spanish cartoon that was absolute torture to endure, and yet I did—all 80-odd minutes. Beautifully swirled turquoise-and-white night skies cannot begin to compensate for an absence of charm and preponderance of cliché. A flock of angry lamplights chasing a porcine marshmallow-headed orphan child through dark, cobblestone streets implies an ambition toward Lewis Carroll terrain; the affected generic haughtiness of the voicing, nonetheless, firmly charts Nocturna in the flatly uninspired, broadly overplayed world of 1970s Hanna-Barbera.
Worst documentary: Chris & Don: A Love Story. No further comment.
Worst SIFF coverage: Although it’s tempting to let the axe drop on any byline credited to Kathleen Fennessy, an Amazon.com employee who fobs herself off as a movie reviewer, let’s indict the merry band of Hashmakers at GreenSlime, er, GreenCine Daily (no link provided) whose SIFF reports were so unfailingly ass-kissy in tone as to qualify as a form of liposuction.
Worst closing night band: The Casio player and off-key female vocalist SIFF hired to perform covers of shoddy pop tunes at the Pan Pacific Hotel, as part of the closing gala festivities. Surely, surely, the festival has deeper pockets than this “entertainment” would indicate? Or could it be that the person in charge has no taste? The closing night party lacked lustre in comparison to the memory of last year’s: it came a night early, for one thing; also, the food was not as good, the drinks were nowhere near as good; and in a perverse irony, there was no smoking section on the balcony this year, although a cigarette company had pitched a tent on said balcony, a place where free packs were disseminated, yet no one was permitted to light up. You could, however, smoke in the hotel courtyard far below, yet were mandated to leave your tasteless wine inside the hotel lobby. Bad, bad party planning—inexcusable. And I’m not even a real smoker. But about that band—it was dismal last year, too. Given all of the jazz pianists who orbit around Seattle (Bill Anschell, if you want a good one), why doesn’t the Seattle International Film Festival have sense enough to hire a jazz combo (piano, bass, drums—very possibly, a tenor saxophone) to whisk the whole shebang away? The right jazz ensemble could effortlessly lend SIFF events the sort of cosmopolitanism the festival craves and lays claim to, yet so often lacks. Hire Jim Knodle—he’s a brilliant local trumpet player. Anybody but the sort of twentieth-rate airport lounge acts the festival has been dishing up at what are supposed to be celebratory occasions. Ahh, but perhaps the festival has been holding out to make its next big anniversary—SIFF 35—appear to be something grander than a midlife crisis. You’ll tell me when we get there, won’t you?
N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.