Holy shit, SIFF has shrunk! After several years of metastatic growth (from an already impressive total of 230 feature-length films in 2005, SIFF screened a record-breaking 270 features in 2006 and then outdid itself again with 288 in 2007), the biggest film festival in North America is actually scaling back. Whether it's just our luck, or some careful calculation of the downward pressure on discretionary spending as a result of climbing food and gas prices, or perhaps the siphoning function of the new, year-round SIFF Cinema, diverting festival-worthy films to the rest of the calendar, this year's festival has contracted to a reasonable total of 248 features. SIFF has also given up its posh outpost on the Eastside, confining screenings to the commutable circuit from Harvard Exit, Egyptian, and Northwest Film Forum (on Capitol Hill) to SIFF Cinema and Uptown (in Seattle Center/lower Queen Anne) to Pacific Place and Cinerama (downtown). This year's festival is more manageable than it's been in some time.

One development that we at The Stranger enthusiastically applaud is the recognition that short films (the sad majority of which are afflicted by cutesy premises, stunted plots, and overly clever conclusions) are a special interest, and a filmgoer should never stumble by accident into a program composed exclusively of such fare. This year, SIFF has helpfully segregated nearly all of its shorts programs into a single ShortsFest Weekend. Avoid SIFF Cinema from Thursday, May 29, to Sunday, June 1, and you should be fine.

In fact, as far as it's possible to analyze the broad programming decisions in a 25-day festival, this year's SIFF is looking unusually strong. Sure, the opening- and closing-night movies are populist jokes (though Battle in Seattle, about the 1999 WTO protests, will be fun to rip apart at the opening-night party, and several worthwhile alternatives are screening during Bottle Shock, the dopey closing-night selection), but we're recommending at least 90 films and programs as we go to press, and we'll have even more reviews online as the festival progresses. If you're thinking about a weeklong pass, the first week of the festival seems especially packed with gems, including this year's low-key Sundance discovery Ballast; The Last Mistress, Catherine Breillat's exciting venture into period filmmaking; The Edge of Heaven, Fatih Akin's superb follow-up to Head-On; Jia Zhang-ke's semirecent feature Still Life; and Casting a Glance, a new landscape film by experimental filmmaker James Benning. We also adored the lower-profile entries The Pope's Toilet; Continental, A Film Without Guns; Fantastic Parasuicides; Boy A; Chris & Don: A Love Story; and more.

Further on, I'm looking forward to feasting my eyes on restored prints of Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp and John Cassavetes's Faces and experiencing the epic Alexander Nevsky accompanied by the Seattle Symphony. One of this year's Emerging Masters is a Tunisian-French filmmaker named Abdellatif Kechiche; if you missed his excellent debut, Games of Love & Chance, at Northwest Film Forum in 2005, now's your chance to catch up. Then dive right into his stunning new film, The Secret of the Grain.

There are, as always, exceptional documentaries at SIFF. Don't miss Be Like Others, a fascinating exploration of the social fallout from Iran's policy of punishing homosexuality while quietly condoning sex-change operations.

Stranger writers have been working around the clock to give you more real reviews than any other guide in town—but also keep your eye on the blog on the left for extra information (including which films have secured distribution and will be opening later this year), brand-new reviews, updates to the schedule, and obsessive daily coverage and gossip.