We're used to thinking of SIFF as a sort of benign cancer nestled in the body of our city: Movies are normal and healthy, but then SIFF thrusts upon us a consistently multiplying knot of feature films and shorts packages and fly-filmmaking competitions and panel discussions and classes and special events and Q&As and endless lines and warnings about cell phones and hokey little trailers and even a few scattered parties. This year the largest film festival in the United States will screen more than 270 features—more than ever before—and it's spilling beyond the city limits to stake out fresh territory at the posh new Lincoln Square Cinemas in Bellevue.
But the festival's expansion can also be seen in a different light. Like a finite package being hemmed in on several sides, SIFF is splitting at the seams. Sure, there are increasing numbers of movies being produced and submitted every year, but there's also an ever-expanding number of ways to consume cinema. And these new options are encroaching upon SIFF's traditional domain. Cinematheques like Northwest Film Forum and the Grand Illusion are screening more foreign, independent, and archival films than ever before. Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence, Claire Denis's The Intruder, Carlos Reygadas's Battle in Heaven, and the fantastic documentary The Devil's Miner (which you can still catch at Grand Illusion through Thursday, May 25), would have been natural candidates for SIFF—had they not already screened in Seattle this spring. In March a competing Seattle festival snatched up Iraq in Fragments, which would have been the best locally produced film at SIFF (we're left with only the inferior My Country, My Country to address the continuing U.S. occupation of Iraq). The profusion of quality DVD releases of archival films also contributes (notice how SIFF is dangling a new Guy Maddin/Isabella Rossellini short as a lure for The Flowers of St. Francis, a film that is not coincidentally available in a lovely Criterion edition). And mainstream outlets are getting in on the game as well: Two films in the festival (Three Times and Russian Dolls) are already available on cable through IFC's agreement with Comcast On Demand, and the newly minted AMC Select is bringing traditionally arthouse fare like La Mujer de Mi Hermano to multiplexes (though it remains to be seen whether the program will go the way of the much-mourned Shooting Gallery Film Series).
So how do these pressures affect the content of the festival? It's obviously difficult to evaluate an agglomeration of hundreds of disparate elements, but SIFF does give us some markers. This year's bland opening-night film, The Illusionist, is a step down from last year's Me and You and Everyone We Know—an exquisitely inventive movie with a Northwest connection. Still, good SIFF opening nights are flukes, not the general rule. (And Cannes chose to open with the shitty The Da Vinci Code this year, so let's not flagellate ourselves too enthusiastically.) The closing night film, The Science of Sleep, is perfect: Michel Gondry is big but not too big, Gael García Bernal is sexy but not just sexy. There are, of course, plenty of lame movies that should have never made it into the festival. We've warned you off most of them in the following pages. And SIFF hoards plenty of weird little gems as well. Especially exciting this year is a wider selection of experimental films, screening primarily at the Northwest Film Forum, and a huge number of fantastic documentaries.
SIFF 2006 also boasts much-needed technological advances: Now you can buy tickets online until 30 minutes before a screening, and the will-call system is much more flexible. And here at The Stranger, our intrepid crew of critics has worked around the clock to bring you more real reviews than ever before. We have a dedicated web page—www.thestranger.com/siff—to keep you abreast of all things SIFF: schedule updates, special guests, our top pick of each day, notes about which films are opening later this summer in Seattle, and even more reviews, plus a SIFF blog and a forum where you can weigh in with your own opinions. SIFF is what's known as an audience festival, and you, dear reader, are that audience. Have at it.