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DISPATCH FROM SEATTLE | The Real Story Is Between the Margins at Seattle Fest

DISPATCH FROM SEATTLE | The Real Story Is Between the Margins at Seattle Fest

The 34th annual Seattle International Film Festival opened with a small bang (Stuart Townsend‘s “Battle in Seattle“) and closed with a small whimper (Randall Miller‘s “Bottle Shock“). As ever, the best films spooled between the two gala events. That isn’t to suggest it was a bad SIFF. For the higher-profile screenings, the powers that be often choose studio fare, like “The Notebook” (SIFF ’04), to bring the punters out of the woodwork–including those who normally shun “art films.” Consequently, creativity sometimes takes a backseat to commerce, but it’s the balance between the two that makes SIFF such an enduring event.

As Alternative Cinema programmer Adam Sekuler puts it, his section “provides the festival with one of its more challenging programs.” The titles he and collaborator Andy Spletzer selected screened at Capitol Hill’s Northwest Film Forum, where Sekuler serves as program director.

Sekuler explains that “we tend to get crowds who haven’t necessarily experienced experimental content before. A festival setting like SIFF is an environment that breeds experimentation for the filmgoer. It allows us to connect new audiences with works of art that wouldn’t ordinarily even enter into their radar. That alone is incredibly rewarding for me as a programmer.”

Local director Lynn Shelton (“We Go Way Back”), whose second feature, “My Effortless Brilliance,” premiered in Seattle at SIFF, praised their efforts.

“In terms of films that I’ve been blown away by,” she notes, “I’d have to say this was a big shorts year. The most inspiring was probably [Canadian director John Price‘s] “The Boy Who Died” in the Alternative Cinema “The Past and the Present” package. All those films joyously took me back to my filmmaking roots, the highly visual, altered-state-sound-designed world of experimental film, which seems to speak the most purely cinematic language of all the film genres.”

About Shelton favorite “The Boy Who Died,” Sekuler adds, “Everyone loved John’s film. It was absolutely gorgeous.” He also singled out Hungarian helmer Benedek Fliegauf‘s witty “Milky Way” as an Alternative Cinema crowd-pleaser.

Sekuler concludes, “With nine features and two shorts programs, Andy and I brought in a wide range of films that pushed the boundaries of traditional film-going. I think the festival has the possibility to continue to grow this area of programming.”

Regarding “Brilliance,” Shelton reports that she was “well pleased with my own screenings, especially considering they both happened over Memorial Day Weekend when tumbleweeds roll down the streets of Seattle. Attendance was quite strong and the Q&As were fun. I was way more nervous about it showing in front of the hometown crowd than I was at any of its six prior screenings at other festivals, including its world premiere in competition at SXSW! We had a great, plum brandy-soaked party too, hosted by the NWFF, which was really gratifying.”

Shelton next begins principal photography on “Humpday,” with Joshua Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”) and actor/director Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”), who came to SIFF with his filmmaking brother, Jay, in support of the well liked “Baghead.”

Altogether, SIFF programmed 191 features, 57 full-length documentaries, and 170 short films, granting 150 of the latter their own “ShortsFest” weekend at Queen Anne’s SIFF Cinema (Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger dubbed the event “The Shorts Ghetto”). Of the 418 titles screened, there were 43 world premieres, 38 North American premieres, and 19 U.S. premieres.

Surprisingly, Price and Shelton went home empty-handed during the Golden Space Needle Awards brunch, which took place on the last day of the fest (unlike years past, the closing night gala was held on a Saturday).

While 70,000 attendees vote on the Needles–film, director, actor, actress, short, and doc–150 full series pass-holders vote for the Fool Serious Awards.

In the New American Cinema Competition, Tony Barbieri (“Em“) took the Grand Jury Prize, while Isaac Julien (“Derek“) won the Doc Competition equivalent. At the brunch, a grateful Barbieri (“The Magic of Marciano,” SIFF ’00) enthused, “SIFF has always been my favorite festival, so this really means a lot.”

As for “Bottle Shock,” if it brought a few non-art house fans into the SIFF fold, that can only be a good thing. Maybe they’ll take a chance on more independent films in the days to come–maybe they’ll even become SIFF and/or NWFF members.

As entertainments go, “Shock” gets the job done, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Alexander Payne‘s more emotionally involving “Sideways.” Arguably, Miller didn’t set out to make an intimate chamber piece, but comparisons are inevitable, and his movie will surely come out on the losing end whenever they arise.

The story concerns the real-life competition between a Napa Valley winery in 1976 (Bill Pullman manages the joint) and its French counterparts (represented by British merchant Alan Rickman). Pullman and Rickman are fine, but the bulk of the narrative revolves around the bland love triangle formed between three of Pullman’s employees (played by Chris Pine, Freddy Rodriguez, and Rachael Taylor).

Miller, Pullman, and Rodriguez attended the closing night bash at the Pan Pacific Hotel (SIFF’s second year at the swanky spot). Despite mixed reactions to the film, they charmed the locals with ease. Rickman, who wasn’t in attendance, even garnered a Golden Space Needle Award for his performance.

Like Miller, “Towelhead” writer/director Alan Ball (“American Beauty”) made it to the party and was widely proclaimed one of the year’s most gracious guests.

Better than both “Battle” and “Shock” was Centerpiece Gala selection “The Great Buck Howard,” which premiered at Sundance (yes, SIFF poaches from Park City like nobody’s business). Featuring John Malkovich and produced by Tom Hanks‘s Playtone shingle, Sean McGinly‘s heartfelt comedy pays tribute to those multi-faceted talk-show staples of yesteryear, like the Amazing Kreskin.

Those seeking originality may want to look elsewhere, but fans of previous Playtone productions, like Hanks’s own “That Thing You Do!,” have a fun time in store, though magic fans should be advised that “Howard” has little in common with “The Prestige” or “The Illusionist” (SIFF ’06). Rumor has it the film picked up a distribution deal while the fest was still in progress.

Ideally, McGinly’s movie should’ve brought SIFF ’08 to a close. The “Howard” after-party at Capitol Hill’s D.A.R. Hall was packed to the brim with revelers, and star Colin Hanks, who brought the script to his dad’s attention, could be spotted chatting with SIFF artistic director Carl Spence and signing autographs for fans.

As for the 57 non-fiction titles screened, highlights included James Marsh‘s “Man on Wire” (about Phillippe Petit’s high-wire walk across the Twin Towers), Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Trouble the Water,” and Denny Tedesco‘s 12-years-in-the making “The Wrecking Crew,” which picked up the Golden Space Needle for top doc.

“Water” director Tia Lessin and Carl Deal were joined in Seattle by exec producer Danny Glover, who had just flown in from Senegal, and had to leave after the first screening. Between interviews, Lessin and Deal spent most of their time at Alpha Cine, where they the converted their HDCAM feature to film, their $20,000 first place award from April’s Full Frame Documentary Festival.

In a fine year for female filmmakers–one third of the fest’s offerings–Germany’s Doris Doerrie won the Golden Space Needle for “Cherry Blossoms – Hanami.”

Speaking of Women in Cinema, former SNL cast member Julia Sweeney was thrilled to premiere “Letting Go of God,” a filmed version of her one-woman show, at SIFF, where it also came in as one of the voting audience’s top 10 favorites.

Sweeney and her daughter, Mulan, attended the cozy after-party at the group’s Capitol Hill headquarters during the final Friday of the fest. A University of Washington graduate, Sweeney credited Seattle for shaping the sensibility behind “Letting Go of God,” and exclaimed that “to premiere it here is just fantastic.”

During the closing weekend, SIFF added Belltown’s Cinerama, i.e. the theater that Paul Allen built, to the venue line-up, while the NWFF hosted the first annual Northwest Production Summit in conjunction with The Mayor’s Office of Film + Music, WashingtonFilmWorks, and the Washington State Film Office. This three-day event featured an invite-only symposium and a series of panels geared towards directors, screenwriters, producers, and those seeking to get their foot in the door.

After 25 days of panels, parties, docs, features, shorts, and archival screenings–notably a luminous version of Rouben Mamoulian‘s 1935 “Becky Sharp” (the first three-strip Technicolor film) and Native American photographer Edward S. Curtis‘s 1914 silent “In the Land of the Head Hunters,” the one word that sums up the 34th Seattle Film Festival experience like no other is, well, exhaustion. Fortunately, festival-goers have 365 days to rest up until SIFF ’09.

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