Trust us, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a movie you cannot miss at SIFF.

The world’s biggest and longest film festival is back, and it’s bigger and longer than ever! There are so many fucking films to watch. Where to begin? Well, how about with some films we think you MUST SEE? That’s as good a place as any. These may not be the only must-see movies in the 41st Seattle International Film Festival, but you must see them nonetheless. We sincerely hope this humble primer will ease the anxiety of your decision-making process. Of course, for the full picture, you’ll want to spend some quality time with our annual SIFF Notes guide and a pen. What’s that you say? You don’t have a pen? Not to worry: Just visit the exhaustively detailed SIFF section of The Stranger’s online calendar, Things to Do, where you can access schedules, trailers, SIFF’s official synopses, our original reviews, and ticket info. It’s searchable by date, film title, theater, and Stranger recommendations.

We’ll continue to cover the festival over the next three weeks with gossipy dispatches and further reviews (since not all of the 450 titles in this year’s lineup were available for advance screening), but in the meantime, relax. Life is hard. The world is fucked. Time spares no one. Yet SIFF is an imperishable gem, one of the best things this changing city has ever created. In an increasingly atomized, on-demand life, the festival affords us all the chance to surrender to a schedule we don’t control, to sit in a big, glorious room with strangers and friends, and to escape collectively into flickering images of beautiful and terrible humans doing extraordinary (and, yes, occasionally boring and cloying) human things. And then argue about them afterward while waiting for the next movie to start.

Pacific Northwest Ballet presents: Romeo et Juliette at McCaw Hall
Romeo et Juliette returns to PNB to sweep you off your feet – just in time for Valentine’s Day!

See you in line!

The Apu Trilogy: Song of the Little Road

The first installment of the trilogy (also known as Pather Panchali) remains in some ways the most affecting, its scrappy, almost amateurish direction only increasing your emotional investment in the young lead. Throughout the series, Apu learns the value and wisdom of others, as well as the folly of caring only for yourself. Road traces the nascent steps of this evolution, as the child Apu realizes that the poverty in which he’s raised affects not only him, but his poet father and much-harried mother as well. There are some clumsy moments—both narratively and cinematically—but what do those matter in the face of such glowing, embracing humanism? BRUCE REID

The Apu Trilogy: The Unvanquished

Part two (don’t worry about seeing them out of order) follows our hero from age 10 until he’s offered a scholarship to a university in Calcutta, in an innovative documentary style. Apu is always being forced to decide whether to devote himself to his family or indulge in what he wants to do and where he wants to go, and the struggle is as relevant today as it was in India in 1958. (Also known as Aparajito). Beatles fans note: music by Ravi Shankar. ANDY SPLETZER

The Apu Trilogy: The World of Apu

Apu is now a young adult writer living in poverty (of course). Never having been in love, he allows himself to be drawn into an arranged marriage with his friend’s sister. Watching them get married and then fall in love, Satyajit Ray manages to make them one of the most romantic couples in cinematic history. But the Apu films are more about reality than romance, so happiness is balanced by tragedy. This is the worthy culmination of a powerful series of films. ANDY SPLETZER

Being Evel

See a man jump a motorcycle over a box of rattlesnakes! (Well, mostly, anyway.) Although produced by the Jackass gang, this documentary about the iconic daredevil Evel Knievel is far from a hagiography, refusing to sugarcoat Knievel’s ever-widening mean streak. (The stories surrounding the Snake River fiasco are shuddery and wild.) Very, very, very entertaining, and occasionally sublimely ridiculous. WARNING: Some of the wardrobe displayed may cause hysterical blindness. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Originally produced for PBS, this impressively comprehensive film never really deviates from the standard historical template. (You could guess the majority of the song cues beforehand.) The combination of archival footage and modern-day interviews is both fascinating and enraging, especially when delving into the tragic oratory genius of Fred Hampton. ANDREW WRIGHT

Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana

When you think of all the ways a doc about Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling could’ve been kind of sloppy and still done the job, it makes you want to stand up and cheer for the filmmakers, who go several extra miles to imbue a story about Seattle’s irrepressible underculture with narrative drive and visual stealth that elevate everything about it. Talk all you want about how the city is changing. Here’s a movie that shows you the Seattle you sometimes forget is right in front of you, struggling to stay afloat. SEAN NELSON

Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy

Graceful, weary, wry, intelligent, and amazingly uncynical, these dozen cartoonists (plus the original begetter of the Danish Muhammad cartoons) are a joy to spend time with. Yes, the film is a tiny bit preachy, but how could it not be? Go in order to refresh your democratic spirit; after you’ve seen it, write to your senator, inscribe some inspiring graffiti, tweet a rousing tweet, let your voice be heard. BARLEY BLAIR

Challat of Tunis

At the end of Challat of Tunis, I was in such disbelief that I went back and watched the credits again, then finally, asking myself, “Can this be real?” I googled, and, well, yes and no. It’s a mockumentary about a man who slashed women’s butts in Tunisia and was never caught. That part is real! (It happened in 2003. Religious conservatives said the women deserved it, and the “Challat,” or “Blade,” as he was nicknamed, became a folk hero.) The not-real part is female Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania’s parodic “attempt” to solve the mystery and expose Tunisian machismo. Every scene is more outrageous, ridiculous, and brilliant than the last. JEN GRAVES

A Few Cubic Meters of Love

Screw the Romeo and Juliet comparison. Here’s the deal: You’re wandering through a smog-filled wasteland, lost. Suddenly, you spot something impossibly beautiful nearby. Your face gets flushed, your heart beats fast, and you think: This is it. This is my way out. SPOILER ALERT: Sometimes the wasteland wins! This film will destroy you. SYDNEY BROWNSTONE

Frame by Frame

Afghanistan was a country without photography during the Taliban, and this doc follows the core crew of four photojournalists—one of them a woman—trying to rebuild the practice. Their story is incredible. We see them fighting for access, getting bombed but taking pictures rather than panicking, visiting children who are past subjects they watched nearly die, looking into the eyes of women who are never seen. “And also I will be seeing the self-immolation section in the hospital” is a sample line. Maybe that sounds depressing. But seeing matters. See this film, and tell everyone you know to see it, too. JEN GRAVES

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)

To American eyes, the most striking thing about this story of love and bribery, based on the fiction of Rattawut Lapcharoensap, might be its treatment of queer and trans characters. They are remarkable in their unremarkableness. The gangsters, the stern military officers, the religious and superstitious old auntie—they’ve all got more important things to worry about than who’s a boy, who’s a girl, and who’s somewhere in between. BRENDAN KILEY

The Malagasy Way

Though I have not seen all of the films in this festival, it’s hard for me to believe that there is one that’s more important and relevant to our times of climate change and financial globalization than this documentary, which is about a community of poor artists, craftspersons, and market vendors in Madagascar. The story concerns the spiritual and economic ways they have survived what we in the US call the Great Recession—for them it has been, of course, a Great Depression. These people are proud of their traditions and their drive to recycle everything, to waste nothing, and to meet all manner of problems with very simple and non-capitalist solutions. Says one man: "To remove a thorn, a white person says give me a pin. As for us... we remove it with another thorn." CHARLES MUDEDE

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Senior year is eventful for any teenager, but that goes double for Greg (Thomas Mann), when his mom (Connie Britton) volunteers his services as a companion to leukemia-stricken classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Along with his filmmaking partner, Earl (RJ Cyler), they’re a modern-day Mod Squad battling high-school hierarchies and deadly disease with dubious advice from the works of Werner Herzog and Greg’s super-slacker dad (Nick Offerman in peak form). KATHY FENNESSY

Mr. Holmes

Bill Condon and Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters) make such a good team that it’s almost possible to overlook the director’s desultory entries in the Twilight series. In this affecting three-hander, which draws from the 2005 novel by Mitch Cullen, McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as a 93-year-old retiree working on his memoir, struggling with memory loss, reliving a troubling case, and mentoring Roger (Milo Parker), an impressionable boy. The relationship between Sherlock and Roger reflects, in ways both positive and negative, the storied detective's previous dealings with partner Watson, nemesis Moriarty, and enigmatic brother Mycroft. Laura Linney plays the woman, Roger's housekeeper mother, who calls Sherlock on his bullshit. KATHY FENNESSY

The New Girlfriend

If you’ve seen François Ozon’s other films (See the Sea, Swimming Pool, 8 Women), you know to expect something uncommon. The New Girlfriend is no exception. It begins with a corpse: Laura has died and left behind her husband, David, and a baby daughter. Her lifelong best friend, Claire, has promised to support the grieving spouse. Both Claire and David are searching for a way to live without that fundamental relationship in their lives. It’s a tricky story of change, acceptance, and moving on to be your true self. And I love that darling Romain Duris. GILLIAN ANDERSON

One Million Dubliners

This documentary about Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery is interesting enough for those interested in Irish history and/or cemeteries. The place is home to the corpses of Brendan Behan, Roger Casement, and tens of thousands of stillborn babies—Glasnevin is one of the few cemeteries that allows their burial on consecrated ground—one of whose mother works there as a tour guide. The film strings together a series of eccentric character sketches (including the mysterious “French lady” who visits the grave of revolutionary Michael Collins each year), but ends with an O. Henry–type twist that will leave you gaping like a fish. You’ll have to hit Google to fill in the details, which director Aoife Kelleher handles with gentleness and circumspection, but this unforeseen event backlights the rest of the film in a deeply eerie way. BRENDAN KILEY

Our Terrible Country

Whether you’re confused by the situation in Syria or think you aren’t—or think you don’t care—this dangerous, ramshackle, and strangely beautiful documentary is required viewing. A journalist and a photographer with tiny, handheld cameras flee from a “liberated” (and decimated) quarter of Damascus to the Islamist stronghold of Raqqa and then to southern Turkey, following Yassin Haj Saleh, a famous Syrian intellectual who’s trying to dodge both the Assad regime and the butchers of ISIS—and despairs that the region can’t find a moderate, liberal alternative beyond the two. The trio moves through firefights, airstrikes, sniper zones, rubble, abandoned towns, dangerous daytime walks and furtive nighttime truck rides through the desert, all the while analyzing the situation as it’s unfolding. It’s like a Go-Pro video of the apocalypse with a highly educated writer giving real-time narration. BRENDAN KILEY

Personal Gold

If you like sports documentaries at all, don’t miss this one! The narrative lets a few loose ends flap, but c’mon: extreme underdogs, extreme biometrics, extreme uxoriousness, extreme Yankee ingenuity. Your heart would have to be made of Silly Putty not to beat faster. BARLEY BLAIR

The Red Shoes

A young ballerina takes on a Hans Christian Andersen fable, only to see it boomerang back into her own life. A favorite of Scorsese, this may just be the greatest film from the Powell-Pressburger team (they are known for a series of influential films in the ’50s and ’60s), which is saying quite a bit. Almost indecently lovely, in Technicolor that pulses off of the screen. You’ve gotta see this 1948 gem in a theater—and not just any theater. The Egyptian. ANDREW WRIGHT


On the Texas/Louisiana border exists a town where the residents veer a bit off the beaten path. (To give you an idea of what life is like in Uncertain, one local is hunting a boar with the head of a horse.) Shot over two years, this fascinating character study quickly hits an odd, nonjudgmental rhythm. It feels like it could go on forever. ANDREW WRIGHT


You can always trust the French to take a market-saturated, budget-heavy Hollywood genre and make it something thoughtful, beautiful, and minimal. In this case, the French film is Vincent and the Hollywood genre is the superhero flick. Yes, Vincent has special effects, but they are nowhere near those that dazzle your living daylights in, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Indeed, the superhero of the film, performed by its director and writer, Thomas Salvador, is not so much trying to hide his superpowers from society but more wants to enjoy them in private. He does not need an audience (box-office hit) to do his thing, which happens when water makes contact with his skin. Watch for the film’s homage to the iconic kiss in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. CHARLES MUDEDE

A Second Chance

The latest film by the Danish director Susanne Bier (In a Better World), is a thriller with lots of twists and surprises. It involves a cop who has a baby, a marriage, and a handsome house by a lake that reflects a wintry sky. But the cop makes one fatal mistake: He refuses to see if his marriage is happy or not. And if he had done so, if he had just taken the time to asses the true state of things, he would have soon faced this difficult question: Is his wife crazy or not? Everyone, however, can see within minutes of the film’s opening that she is not at all stable and needs help right away. But the cop is too wrapped up in his cute baby, his safe job, his wood-warm house, and the beauty of his wife’s face to see that shit is about to hit the fan hard. CHARLES MUDEDE

Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana

When you think of all the ways a doc about Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling could’ve been kind of sloppy and still done the job, it makes you want to stand up and cheer for the filmmakers, who go several extra miles to imbue a story about Seattle’s irrepressible underculture with narrative drive and visual stealth that elevate everything about it. Talk all you want about how the city is changing. Here’s a movie that shows you the Seattle you sometimes forget is right in front of you, struggling to stay afloat. SEAN NELSON

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer: Jan 13-Feb 14 at Bagley Wright Theatre
Part theater, part revival, and all power, this one-woman show will have your head nodding and hands clapping!