COVID-19 might've kicked the annual Seattle International Film Festival to the curb last year, but this time around the sun the festival is back and more accessible than ever. You can screen each of the films in SIFF's line-up at home this year, and—!!!—you can screen them at your own pace. Nearly all of the films are available to watch at any time throughout the festival's run from April 8 to 18.
This year's fest brings over 90 films and 100 short films, and we're here to help you break down which ones are worth your time. (That said, there are many great options that we didn't have time or space to recommend, so please, check out everything SIFF has to offer.)
Continue refreshing Slog during the run of the fest, where we'll drop longer reviews of some of our favorites. Let's get into it!
United Kingdom, 2020, 90 min., Dir. Bassam Tariq
Riz Ahmed gets to play with our hearts again in Mogul Mowgli, another star-making turn for the rising actor.
I'm glad the world is waking up to the talent that is British actor Riz Ahmed. After starring in the hilarious Four Lions, a scuzzy cameo on Girls, and appearances in both the Marvel and Star Wars universes, Ahmed is up for an Oscar for his performance in the stunning Sound of Metal. What you may not know about him is that he's a talented rapper. I first encountered Ahmed as part of Swet Shop Boys, a duo he formed with US rapper Heems, which explores South Asian identity against a Western backdrop.
Now, Ahmed puts his rapping skills to use in Bassam Tariq's Mogul Mowgli as Zed, an up-and-coming British MC based in New York City who's about to embark on a career-defining European tour. Just before kicking off, he visits his Pakistani family in London and attempts to reconnect with them after years away. But tragedy strikes when Zed contracts a rare autoimmune disorder that threatens his life and career. The film then descends into a "delirium of childhood memories and surreal hallucinations" as Zed tries to reconcile his current and past self. Weaving in spoken word and rap, Mogul Mowgli explores family history, cultural identity, and the Partition's legacy. JASMYNE KEIMIG
Ma Belle, My Beauty
USA, 2021, 93 min, Dir. Marion Hill
Have several bottles of wine prepared for this queer intrigue set against the dusty and boozy south of France.
First-time writer-director Marion Hill's sun-dappled feature Ma Belle, My Beauty is a fun study of queer relationships, polyamory, and how sick slurping wine in the French countryside can look.
Fred and Bertie (Lucien Guignard and Idella Johnson) are two recently married musicians who live in Fred's parents' beautiful farmhouse in the south of France. A depressed Bertie feels like a stranger in a strange land, hardly finding the will to sing despite her upcoming tour. In an attempt to raise her spirits, Fred invites their ex-lover from their life in New Orleans, Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), to the property as a surprise. Sensuous parties, heartbreak revisited, strained silences, soaring music, and really hot sex ensue.
Ma Belle, My Beauty doesn't attempt to be the tentpole film for queer, polyamorous storylines. The film uses their three-way relationship to explore the threads that bind the characters together rather than as a starter guide for the poly-curious monogamous crowd. It deftly explores jealousy, but never between Bertie, Lane, and Fred, who all have an easiness and respect for each other that feels refreshing. JASMYNE KEIMIG
Suggested watch time: April 14 at 6:50 PST, followed by live Q&A at 8:30 PST with director Marion Hill.
In the Same Breath
USA, 2021, 95 min., Dir. Nanfu Wang
If living through a full year of a pandemic didn’t completely wreck you, this might do the trick.
This upcoming documentary from director Nanfu Wang (of One Child Nation fame) is one of our first comprehensive looks into the earliest days of the mysterious respiratory illness that became the COVID-19 pandemic. Wang, born in China but living in the United States, starts her documentary in Wuhan and includes her account of navigating between the two countries while battling the unique but equally disorienting misinformation coming from communist and capitalist media. From there, the doc jumps between investigative journalism and media criticism. The initial scenes play out like a spy thriller.
I was nervous to watch this doc, thinking Wang's remarkable and breathtaking access into the earliest, most horrible days of the pandemic would be too much to stomach. We have years of unpacking our COVID-19 PTSD ahead of us, so I understand any hesitancy around watching this one. Still, I'll say that I found the experience to be cathartic. It's curious and relieving to watch the panic of those early months and see how far we've come.
HBO acquired the doc, so it'll likely drop on the platform sometime this year. Get an early screening by watching it at SIFF. CHASE BURNS
This Is My Desire
Nigeria, 2020, 116 min., Dir. Arie Esiri, Chuko Esiri
Blade Runner meets the Heart of Darkness.
Eyimofe (This Is My Desire), a gorgeous, slow-paced, detail-dizzying film by Nigerian directors Arie and Chuko Esiri, translates the top megalopolis of the black world, Lagos, into an urban system that has cyberpunk written all over it. The liner notes for Suba's 1999 album São Paulo Confessions describes that Brazilian megalopolis as Blade Runner of the tropics. Eyimofe's Lagos is Blade Runner of the Heart of Darkness.
The thing that distinguished cyberpunk, which emerged in the early 1980s, from earlier branches of science fiction is that it layered, in the present, the past and the future. This is why we see, in Blade Runner, police officers in flying cars and ordinary people on bicycles. This is also the Lagos of Eyimofe.
For example, Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), one of the two main characters in the film, is an electrician who clearly has received no formal training, and can be described as a débrouillard (indeed, Lagos is the capital of the débrouillard, or, as we say in English, MacGyver). He lives in a world with cassette players, fax machines, and WhatsApp existing all at once. In fact, there is not one moment in Eyimofe when its characters are not dealing with technology in one form or another. The end of the film leaves you with the impression that anyone from the streets of Lagos can say without exaggeration: "I have seen things you people wouldn't believe." CHARLES MUDEDE
Summer of 85
France, 2020, 101 min., Dir. François Ozon
French director François Ozon is back with the good stuff.
François Ozon's new film returns to the key narrative elements of the short film that made his name, "A Summer Dress." This early work, filled with the breezes of sexy trees and eyes, made it clear that Ozon was mostly gay but not in a zone that excluded encounters with the opposite sex. In the Summer of 85, we have two beautiful young men—Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), and David (Benjamin Voisin)—in a French seaside town. They meet in a storm-tossed sea. They look like the members of Duran Duran. They fall in love and make out with devouring mouths.
But then, there is this young woman (age 21—Alexis and David are still in their teens). Kate (Philippine Velge), her name, is an insouciant tourist from England. Her hair is somewhere between Siouxsie Sioux and Madonna. She is down for whatever and with whichever boy. One of the two seaside lovers (Alexis), however, clearly wants a monogamous relationship, and the other (David) is open to sex with other men and women. These conflicting desires end in a tragedy. But the one thing Ozon could not do is end this film without a scene involving a beautiful young man in a summer dress. CHARLES MUDEDE
The Pink Cloud
Brazil, 2021, 103 min., Dir. Iuli Gerbase
This COVID-19 sci-fi thriller actually has nothing to do with COVID-19.
The kicker on The Pink Cloud’s promotional material reads: “Any resemblance to actual facts is purely coincidental.” It suggests the film, written in 2017 and shot in 2019, doesn’t want to be seen as a metaphor for the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s hard not to view it that way. The set-up: People in cities worldwide are abruptly and dramatically forced indoors after mysterious and deadly pink clouds descend on their cities. Everyone, now required to shelter inside, seemingly without an end, has to figure out new ways of living completely inside apartments and homes. It’s impossible not to find COVID-19 lingering in these scenes.
That said, it’s true that the pink cloud is very different and much worse than our COVID cloud. You can’t go outside, at all, and wherever you were when the pink cloud hit, that’s where you’re stuck for good, whether that be a grocery store or your office or the apartment of that stranger you were banging. Everyone’s pods become their entire worlds. “You have to accept the cloud” becomes a common saying. It’s an interesting thought experiment that holds up, even as some of the details are improbable. CHASE BURNS
Suggested watch time: April 15 at 3:10 PST, followed by live Q&A at 5:00 PST with director Iuli Gerbase.
Potato Dreams of America
USA, 2021, 95 min., Dir. Wes Hurley
This deeply Seattle endeavor from Wes Hurley is an autobiographical coming-of-age dark comedy about growing up gay in Russia.
The first glimpse that Seattle filmmaker Wes Hurley had of his future came in a midnight pirate broadcast of the movie Ghost.
Wes and his mother were living in Vladivostok, on the far eastern edge of the Soviet Union near China and North Korea. The USSR was teetering toward collapse and their lives were hell: Wes, a closeted gay kid, lived in such fear for his life that he carried a knife to school. His mother, Elena, worked at a prison and was ordered to falsify medical reports to cover up the beating deaths of prisoners — if she refused, she was told, an “accident” might happen to her.
American movies, broadcast from an unknown source somewhere nearby, were their first ticket out. Their second was Elena’s decision to become a mail-order bride, eventually escaping Russia and settling in Seattle. That's just a small sampling of the twists in Wes' life story — a story that is now coming to the big screen, with his autobiographical feature film Potato Dreams of America. The new feature is a deeply Seattle endeavor, shot locally at various locations around town. The scenes in Russia were filmed in an old Staples warehouse in Burien that the team converted into a soundstage. MATT BAUME
Suggested watch time: April 10 at 3:20 pm PST, followed by live Q&A at 5:00 PST with Wes Hurley (director), Marya Sea Kaminski (actor), Mischa Jakupcak (producer), and Kristen Bonnalie (production designer).
Australia, 2021, 117 min., Dir. Robert Connelly
Eric Bana is who? Aaron Falk, an agent employed by the Aussie government. What's his problem? His close friend from years ago killed himself after murdering his wife and kid. But there is more to the story, right? Yes, there is. Falk, who is in town for the funeral, begins to investigate the murder-suicide tragedy. And the deeper he looks, the larger the mystery around the dead grows. One might consider this film as something of an In Heat of the Night, but without the uppity black cop. CHARLES MUDEDE
STRICT watch time: The Dry is only available April 8, 6 pm-12 am PST.
GET THE HELL OUT
Taiwan, 2021, 96 min., Dir. I-Fan Wang
There is not a single chill moment in this very bloody political zombie comedy.
I’ll keep this short since I haven’t watched it yet, but Get the Hell Out is one of the films I’m most excited to see at the fest this year. This Taiwanese zombie comedy has a few familiar elements: activists and politicians clashing inside legislatures, an uncontrollable virus spiraling through communities, guns and blood. And then there are the zombies. Local critic, Scarecrow employee, and one-time Unstreamable contributor Emalie Soderback called it “a colorful, speedy, kinetic, and extremely bloody rollercoaster showing government corruption and tabloid obsession in the form of an unrelenting zombie crisis.” Sign me up! CHASE BURNS
Spain, 2020, 97 min., Dir. Icíar Bollaín
Get ready for wedding bells in this undemanding, breezy romcom that defies convention.
Spanish director Icíar Bollaín's Rosa's Wedding will close out the Seattle International Film this year. The film follows Rosa (Candela Peña), a middle-aged single mother and costume designer living in Valencia, Spain. She tries to play the role of a good daughter, good sister, and good mother, pulled every which way by her family—not to mention her hectic job making costumes. She hardly has any time for herself or her dreams of opening a dress shop.
After Rosa's elderly father insists he moves in with her, Rosa escapes to her childhood home for a solo vacation to get back in tune with herself. It's there that she reconnects with her first love—couture—and decides to marry an unconventional suitor. As she starts to plan for the wedding, her family's desire to hem to convention escalates. Still, they can't keep Rosa down. This joyous story of a woman with newfound confidence is an optimistic note to end SIFF 2021. JASMYNE KEIMIG
STRICT watch time: Rosa's Wedding is only available April 18, 6 pm-12 am PST.
USA, 2021, 90 min., Dir. Albert Birney, Kentucker Audley
Weed is a prerequisite for this one.
Okay, here’s the pitch: “a ‘dream auditor’ on assignment becomes obsessed with an aging eccentric, and, while investigating the VHS archive of her subconscious, happens upon a chance at love.” I think that tells you everything you need to know.
Usually a pitch this off-kilter has me squinting, but the overwhelming praise critics have thrown at this film so far makes me think it'll be a cult favorite. Maybe like the recent Greener Grass, but I can’t say any of this with confidence because there was no Strawberry Mansion press screener available and I missed it when it screened earlier this year at Sundance. Reviews of this are a little like an alphabet soup—it’s about capitalism and love! quirk and dystopia! physical media and dreams!—so instead of deciphering what’s up here, I suggest joining me in taking a gentle dose of THC and slipping into this one with a fresh head.
Strawberry Mansion partially comes from Baltimore-based filmmaker Albert Birney, who was behind The Beast Pageant, Sylvio, and Tux and Fanny. If you really want to get a taste of Birney's work before you jump into this new one, Sylvio is available on Prime Video and Kanopy. CHASE BURNS
Suggested watch time: April 12 at 3:25 PST, followed by live Q&A at 5:00 PST with directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley. There's also a related "World Building through Production Design Roundtable," which will focus on creating "heightened cinematic worlds without a blockbuster budget," on Monday, April 12 at 6:30 PM.
Sweden, 2019, 94 min., Dir. Amanda Kernell (Sami)
How far would you go to be with your children?
This taut Swedish drama directed by Amanda Kernell (Sami) follows Alice (Ane Dahl Torp), a mother deep in the trenches of a custody battle with her ex-husband over their two children. Barred from visiting her kids for several months, Alice becomes desperate to do anything to be with them again. In perhaps a not-very-smart-move, she whisks her kids from northern Sweden to the Canary Islands in Spain for a "vacation," but under the circumstances, her actions are more akin to abduction. As she tries to cling on to a fraught semblance of escape, time ticks down as the real world presses in on them. Kernell says that the film is interested in the "stigma in being a mother and not having your children." JASMYNE KEIMIG
United Kingdom, 2021, 84 min., Dir. Prano Bailey-Bond
Set in the UK in the mid-1980s during the real-life moral panic surrounding the "video nasties," Censor is a horror film keenly aware of its genre.
This is the debut feature of director Prano Bailey-Bond, who also co-wrote the film with Anthony Fletcher. In many ways, the film creates its own tradition of horror. Even as it loves trashy horror flicks of decades-old, Censor becomes a beast all its own.
It stars a superb Niamh Algar as Enid, a censor tasked with watching more horror films than many would watch in a lifetime just in an average month at work. Enid is committed to this big task and takes the job seriously. She considers herself a protector of society's moral fabric. After all, she believes she's the only thing standing between the fragile minds of the world and the corrupt forces of graphic violence beaming into homes from the VHS era of horror.
Enid insists that "it's not entertainment" and that she does "it to protect people," which she convincingly says with seriousness. But when she screens a film that eerily seems to resemble a traumatic event from her past, Enid's life takes a sinister turn. CHASE HUTCHINSON
Ireland, 2020, 90 min., Dir. Rachel Carey
Someone gets folded like toast.
There are films that one can watch alone, and films that one can only enjoy with other people. Rachel Carey's Deadly Cuts is certainly in the latter category. Set in a working-class Dublin neighborhood, and centered around a rather shabby hair salon owned by a world-weary middle-aged woman, the film disrupts, again and again, serious urban issues (gangs, gentrification, poverty) with comic situations that break completely with reality. One such scene finds four hairdressers cutting up a dead hoodlum because his body will not fit (or "fold like toast") into a butcher's incinerator. But somehow it all works; the film is pretty entertaining. But what a world of difference it would make to see this movie in a theater where someone inevitably laughs a little too loudly. Yes, it is funny. But not that funny. CHARLES MUDEDE
Riders of Justice
Denmark, 2020, 116 min., Dir. Anders Thomas Jensen
Let's spiral with some Danes.
While American productions often cast him as a villain, in his native Denmark, people see Mads Mikkelsen as a high-cheekboned, relatable everyman. Homeboy has range.
That image is troubled a bit in the Danish film Riders of Justice, a screwball black comedy that features Mikkelsen as Markus, a gruff-looking military vet forced to return home after a horrific train accident kills his wife. And he's looking for revenge. When he links up with a witness to the train accident and crazy numbers guy Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), they both start to think that the "accident" may not have been so accidental.
Obsessed with statistics and probability, Otto starts spouting an insane theory that a violent biker gang called the Riders of Justice are responsible for the crash. He brings in his hacker friends Lennart and Emmenthaler (Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro) to help prove his point. Coupled with Markus's military prowess, this band of misfits teams up to avenge the deaths of those on the train—and things start to spiral quickly. JASMYNE KEIMIG
France, 2020, 90 min., Dir. Charlène Favier
A tense look at an abusive and predatory relationship between a coach and athlete, set against the backdrop of the French Alps.
French director Charlène Favier's debut film comes when the world is still reckoning with #MeToo allegations, especially in the world of sports—from the U.S. gymnastics team to French ice skating. And like the relatively small crop of films made post-#MeToo (Kitty Green's The Assistant immediately comes to mind), Favier meticulously creates a picture of predation and abuse drawn from her own experience on the ski slopes. It deeply unnerves.
Slalom follows Lyz (Noée Abita), a 15-year-old girl who gets accepted into an elite skiing program in the French Alps, despite her relative lack of experience. There she meets Fred (Jérémie Renier), the extremely demanding program director who pushes his students physically and emotionally to the limit.
Though brutal, Lyz takes to Fred's training regimen. The Olympics are more plausibly in sight for the prodigious young skier. As Fred devotes more of his attention to her—pinging between compliments and insults—Lyz finds herself under his manipulative and exploitative grip as she becomes isolated from her family and friends. It's all told from Lyz's point-of-view and wonderfully acted by Abita. JASMYNE KEIMIG
Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
USA, 2021, 101 min., Dir. James Redford
Novelist and Chinese-American icon Amy Tan gets her due with this well-timed retrospective.
Amy Tan is having another big moment in the mainstream. The famed author just dropped a Masterclass video on “Fiction, Memory, and Imagination,” and the National Film Registry recently inducted the Wayne Wang-directed film based on her best-selling novel The Joy Luck Club. Now, this May, PBS will drop an intimate documentary on Amy Tan, with Tan telling her own story, focusing specifically on her relationship with her mother.
Tan is a living legend, so it would be easy to engage in a kind of hagiography when creating a retrospective about her life. But filmmaker and environmentalist James Redford took care to build a nuanced and insightful narrative. Redford’s doc spends a good deal of time exploring Tan’s complicated relationship with her mother, Daisy, who frequently battled suicidal thoughts. This story won’t be entirely new ground for people who have followed Tan throughout her career, but the open and honest interviews from Tan will provide a new awareness.
SIFF viewers are among those who get the first glimpse at the doc, which happens to be Redford’s final film. The 58-year-old son of Robert Redford died of bile-duct cancer last October. CHASE BURNS
East of the Mountains
USA, 2021, 93 min., Dir. SJ Chiro
SJ Chiro is our favorite cousin.
First thing's first. I'm related to the director of this film, SJ Chiro, and so this is not a review of the work but a description of my impressions, which happen to be favorable. The film stars Tom Skerritt, Mira Sorvino, and Annie Gonzalez, and is based on the novel by David Guterson. The story is simple enough: An old man, Ben Givens (Skeritt), loses his wife and faces his own mortality. Because death is just around the corner, he begins to search for a way to end it all with his own hands. Givens leaves Seattle for Eastern Washington (his home, his past, his end). While in the wild with his trusty dog, however, things go wrong and life begins to get a grip on him.
Chiro, who directed the beautiful Lane 74, keeps East of the Mountains on course from beginning to end. Her goal is not to tell a story but to visualize the real pain of loss and the real fear of the unknown. The somber mood moves across the screen in much the same way a cloud moves across the sky. Chiro might be my cousin, but she is also one of the best directors in the Pacific Northwest. CHARLES MUDEDE
Suggested watch time: April 9 at 6:50 PST, followed by live Q&A at 8:30 PST with director SJ Chiro. There's also a Tribute to Tom Skerritt on April 15.