Recap: Seattle International Film Festival
April 12-24, 2022
By Tim Basaraba
Am I experienced? After writing just under 100 film reviews since late 2019, I would say “yes.”
I’m experienced with the process of viewing a film in a theater, hopefully without any knowledge about it ahead of time – what I call “Optimum Immersion.” I’m also experienced writing a non-spoiler review and then sending it to my friend and fellow critic Peter Cameron for some peer editing. And I’m experienced in sending this second draft to my editor, who almost always asks me to clarify something or explain things more clearly. This process, although daunting, has become a ritual which I am happy to experience over and over again.
As a film critic, where I lacked experience was in securing press credentials. And in opening a program with more than 250 films and choosing which ones to watch in a limited time period. I also lacked experience streaming from a film festival’s app or asking a question at a post screening. When the 48th Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) concluded on April 24, I had experienced all of these things. I will use this experience to immerse myself more fully in the event next year, because SIFF is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate my love of film and share it with others.
This year at SIFF I saw six new films. I also gained a greater appreciation for the art of filmmaking and the hard work it takes to draw attention to a completed piece of art. Up first was Anita (2021), a biopic about legendary Cantopop star Anita Mui directed by Longman Leung (Cold War, Cold War 2). I arrived quite early, allowing myself time to take in the renovations at the Pacific Place “mall,” now an homage to the opulence of Guggenheim as well as a symbol of capitalism. I met up with Peter, and we waited for our editor and his mother to arrive. Did I feel slightly special when I flashed my press credentials at a theater I go to often? Sure, but mostly I was excited to immerse myself in a film I knew almost nothing about. Anita stacks up in scope, vision and quality against recent Hollywood biopics like Respect and Bohemian Rhapsody. As it unfolded, not only did I learn that Mui was a fascinating person with an incredible story, I also learned that certain SIFF films are designated as “Hold Review,” (I wish they would have used “Embargoed” instead of “Hold Review”– it just sounds cooler). Anita is one of these films, meaning you’ll have to come back for my full review after the embargo lifts. (See I told you it sounds cooler.)
The next day I was off to see Robert Eggers’ third film, The Northman. I bought my tickets to see this new film from one of my favorite directors long before I knew I was covering SIFF, but I still felt like I was cheating on the festival. I could have been watching The Territory (2022), a new Sundance winning documentary from Alex Pritz, or Watcher, a psychological thriller from director Chloe Okuno, or even Linoleum (2022) starring everyone’s favorite “clean” comic Jim Gaffigan. Next year I will forgo all non-SIFF films during the festival; I couldn’t fully immerse myself in The Northman because of my lingering guilt about “stepping out” on SIFF. (Note: I did watch The Northman a second time once SIFF concluded and it’s excellent. I loved watching Eggers’ execute his visionary storytelling with a budget that matches his creativity and talent. Full review forthcoming.)
Screening Anita at AMC Pacific Place did not prepare me for the festival hijinks I would encounter at the world premier of Warm Blood on April 22. Uptown Cinema and its rickety seats felt appropriate for the independent flair of Rick Charnoski’s first feature length film and all its messy glory. After procuring popcorn for my wife (and adding an obnoxious amount of dietary yeast, she is obsessed) amidst three boisterous men ordering 10 beers, I made my way to the table outside the theater. As someone who booked independent bands for more than 20 years, the DIY aesthetic of the sloppy yet artistic screen-printed posters and shirts endeared the film to me before it even started.
The film itself was almost indescribable, but I will try. Warm Blood felt like the love child of Richard Linklater, David Lynch and Errol Morris. Short on plot but long on confusion and intrigue, I nevertheless left the film feeling like I knew what it was like to live on the underside of Modesto, California. Keep an eye on Nada Mucho for my full review as well as conversation with the director.
After Warm Blood ended, we made our way back to our home in the distant North to give the SIFF app a try on our smart TV. We started with what would end up being my favorite film of the entire festival, a documentary by Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller. Sweetheart Deal is about four women who encounter friendship and betrayal while battling addiction and working the streets of Seattle’s infamous Aurora Avenue. Whether it was my familiarity with the location, the powerful subject matter, or the quality of the filmmaking is hard to say, but Sweetheart Deal is one of the best documentary films I have ever seen, matching the emotional intensity of juggernauts like Deliver Us from Evil (2006), The Square (Al Midan) (2013) and Life Itself (2014). It also features some of the most cinematic camerawork I have viewed in a documentary.
I closed out my first SIFF experience by streaming the subtly powerful Hannah Ha Ha (2022), the unsubtly powerful Montana Story (2021) and the fun, Spanish horror film The Passenger (2021). Hannah Ha Ha details the quarter life crisis of a woman who isn’t actually in crisis at all; Montana Story tells the tale of a brother and sister coping with their father’s illness; and The Passenger balances Tarantino-esque dialogue with impactful chunks of gore. All three are worth watching when you get the chance.
As a film writer, I’m definitely more experienced after attending the 48th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. The festival can no longer let us watch films streaming through their app, so I’ll have to catch more of the movies they curated this year when they get a proper release. Until then, I’m off to see the latest Nicholas Cage film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022).