Family documentary is hard to do well. Made in China, by the Seattle filmmaker John Helde and shown at this past SIFF, marked the debut of a director with the subtle gifts needed to pull it off. Made in China is narrated by Helde and is about trying to reconstruct his father's childhood, which, given its unusual circumstances, isn't easy. The circumstances: Helde's father was born to YMCA missionaries in rural China before World War II. Three days after childbirth, Helde's father's mother died. Helde's father didn't like to talk much about his childhood—Helde only began looking into it after discovering a stash of photos—but Helde talks to people who knew his father when they were all kids of missionaries in China, many of them grown women living in the suburban southwestern United States. They talk into the camera about how different they feel from everyone else because of where they were raised, even though everything about, say, their living room screams fitting in.
The quest—Helde's search for details of his father's life that his father would never discuss—becomes as interesting as the answers Helde uncovers. Eventually, à la Everything Is Illuminated, Helde travels to China with little information (a photo and some old maps) and tries to talk the locals (coal miners) into helping him. Helde has a sense of humor and a talent for drawing links between things, but when he's finally standing in the place where his dad was probably born, he has no idea what to do. He's seized with inarticulateness: "I don't know what to feel. In an ideal world, I'd be standing here with my dad. But things don't turn out the way you want them to." CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
This is how the great culture critic Steven Shaviro described the look of Guy Maddin's latest film, Brand Upon the Brain!: "In order to create the decayed-silent-film look, Maddin shot Brand Upon the Brain! in Super 8, which he then blew up to 35 mm, so that the predominantly black-and-white images (there are a few seconds in color) look, at various times, grainy, washed-out, overly high contrast...." This impressive look was made possible by the local cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke. And because the best thing about Brand Upon the Brain! is the way it looks, the best thing about the movie is Kasulke's camera work.
A graduate of Ithaca College (he studied cinema production) and Prague's National Academy of Film, Kasulke has worked on other major local productions, too: Linas Phillips's Walking to Werner and Lynn Shelton's We Go Way Back. His impact on local, independent cinema is distinct and will be lasting. CHARLES MUDEDE
In the very first Genius Awards issue, in 2003, Etta Lilienthal was shortlisted for her set design work in theater. Now her talents have moved to the cinema, where her work in such locally produced films such as Police Beat and Cthulhu is notable for its unobtrusiveness. The best production design acts as a silent character in and of itself, enhancing the bodies occupying it and quietly transporting the audience into whatever world, no matter how pedestrian or fantastical, the filmmakers imagine. Whether it's crafting a blood-soaked corpse, cluttering the apartment of a drug addict, or dressing a coastal manor for a wake so meticulously that the environment comes across as oppressive, Lilienthal breathes realness into everything she crafts. One of the highest compliments you can pay a production designer is that you didn't notice their sets, you felt them; Lilienthal, no matter the genre she's working in, makes you feel the world on the screen. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
Since programmer Adam Sekuler started at Northwest Film Forum a year and a half ago, nothing dramatic has changed. Its two cozy cinemas still compete with the likes of Landmark's Varsity Theatre, Grand Illusion, and now SIFF Cinema to present an omnivorous schedule of independent, foreign, and classic films; meanwhile, these three specialty exhibitors continue to fight for viewers with larger chains and Netflix.
But something has been going very right at NWFF. From this spring's entrancing series of little-seen Canadian new wave films made by renegade National Film Board documentarians in the 1960s to retrospectives of the canonical but underscreened filmmakers Jacques Tati, Jacques Rivette, and Kenji Mizoguchi to exemplary contemporary films from Argentina, Turkey, Mali, and Belgium—not to mention welcome revivals of Woody Allen classics—there's something worthwhile almost every week. Plus, Sekuler goes beyond the call of duty, inventing intriguing concepts for his "film challenge" group exercises every quarter (this fall, participants are being asked to create short "city symphonies" in the tradition of Manhatta or Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) and achieving absurd successes outside his usual zone of expertise (see the annual summer Bike-In held in city parks). Northwest Film Forum is in good hands. ANNIE WAGNER