This year, the Spokane International Film Festival (SpIFF) has brought in one of its best slates of films since the event's inception. There are two Oscar-nominated foreign films, local projects, animation and a chance to discuss the craft of cinema with filmmakers. Here's a rundown of everything playing this year — most of which our staff was able to see in advance — to give you a little idea of what you might want to check out.
Best of the Northwest 2014
Fri, Jan. 24 at 5:30 pm; Bing Crosby Theater
SpIFF's Best of the Northwest features outstanding shorts from our neck of the woods, with subjects including everything from Spokane's very first axe murderer to a father and daughter who are slowly reconnecting. First in the lineup is "Chapters" (Shaun Springer), based on an entry in the Inlander's short story contest last year and filmed as part of the 50 Hour Slam film festival. It follows a young man as he remembers a love lost. "Flow: "The Elements of Free Ride" (Oly Mingo) goes in a completely different direction: zooming with Rex Flake on an intense bike ride through the Cascades as he identifies flora, fauna, and geography of the region. Based on another Inlander winner's tale of bathroom woe, "I Have To Go" (Sean Finley) taps into the awful nightmare of never, ever escaping the bathroom. "Real Change" (Adam Becker) emphasizes the important need to tell your story, no matter what. In a poignant moment between two people, 8-year-old Mia has no concept of her father Joe's real-world concerns in "The Hero Pose" (Mischa Jakupcak). "The Park Bench" (Kendra Ann Sherrill) dives into everyone's favorite romantic trope — the socially awkward love story — while sitting on a bench. "Sidney: Portrait of an Axe Murderer" (Nathan Brand) explores the life and subsequent death of Spokane's first-ever killer who carried an axe. "Superb-Man" (David Helberg) reveals the uselessness a superhero might feel after conquering his arch-nemesis. What's a guy to do when he's just saved himself right out of a job? Winner of the 48 Hour Film Festival and shown on First Night, as well as closing this show, "Super-Duper-Friends" (Shaun Springer) follows a frequenter of comic-book shops who's madly in love with an employee at his favorite haunt. Getting some help from his friends — his super-duper friends — might just give him the strength to save the day. (EMERA L. RILEY)
Animation Showcase 2014
Sat, Jan. 25 at 4:30 pm; Bing Crosby Theater
The Spokane Film Festival's Animation Showcase features genres from all across the spectrum, going deep into the weirdly abstract to resurface in the insanely hilarious. The short snippets of animation range from four to 13 minutes, but are still able to fit in incredible story lines. "El ruido del mundo" (directed by Coke Riobóo) is a foreign film about a composer who uses music to control a strange ailment, while "Gloria Victoria" (Theodore Ushev) features music over combat imagery from all over the world. "Impromptu" (Bruce Alcock) dazzles with a dinner party hosted by a slightly tipsy woman, and "It's a Dog's Life" (Nicolas Bianco-Levrin, Julie Rembauville) follows a pooch that just really wants to go to space. "Monkey Rag" (Joanna Davidovich) is a colorful explosion mirroring old-timey animation about Mitzi, a girl who creates her own disasters; "Mr. Hublot" (Laurent Witz) examines the difficulties of obsessive-compulsive disorder and a new pet. "The Rose of Turaida" (Ryan Grobins) dramatizes both adoption and sacrifice, as a young woman struggles to save herself, while "Boog" (Michael Nugent) features a young musician searching for the confidence to perform. "Subconscious Password" (Charles Landreth) illuminates the frustration of forgetting someone's name, and "Virtuos Virtuell" (Thomas Stellmach) shows the growth of abstract pictures through their timid encounters using a classical soundtrack. (ER)
Sun, Jan. 26 at 4:15 pm and Thu, Jan. 30 at 6:45 pm; Magic Lantern, 84 minutes
Aatsinki opens with men sitting around a campfire in rugged pants and jackets. Brothers Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki rub their hands together idly and laugh at someone's remark. They are Arctic cowboys — the leaders of the collective that herds the last group of wild reindeer in the far north of Finland inside the Arctic Circle.
In documenting a year in their lives, filmmaker Jessica Oreck mixed her interest in ethnobiology — how cultures interact with the environment — with a love of Hollywood westerns. This is not some romantic idyll untouched by modern technology — these cowboys make use of helicopters, ATVs and walkie-talkies. They smoke cigarettes, snap photos with digital cameras and butcher reindeer in glistening white slaughterhouses. But their story is told without narration or background music, partly because Oreck was so struck by the area's overpowering silence. "I'd spend whole days with my ears ringing because it was so quiet and there was nothing to interrupt that silence," she told National Geographic.
She lived with the family on and off for a year, staying in a small cabin without heat or hot water, and the result is a raw, contemplative look at life in the Arctic and the rhythmic contrast between action and quiet moments — the crackle of fire, the squeak of fresh snow. The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and begins its wider theatrical release at the IFC Center in New York on Jan. 24. (LISA WAANANEN)
Sun, Jan. 26 at 2 pm; Magic Lantern, 80 minutes
This upbeat, animated film from Uruguay follows the spirited Anina Yatay Salas, a 10-year-old who hates that all three of her names are palindromes because the kids at school make fun of her for it. During recess at school one day, Anina gets into a fight with her arch-nemesis for exactly that reason; the result is what Anina describes as "the weirdest punishments in the history of weird punishments:" the near-impossible mission of holding onto a sealed envelope for a week without opening it, without knowing what's inside. In the week that follows, Anina's imagination takes her on an unforgettable journey as she also embarks on a few real-life adventures in her quest to figure what's inside the envelope and what her punishment really is.
Bring the kids along for this one (if their reading skills are top-notch — the movie's in Spanish with English subtitles). It's jam-packed with life lessons about accepting and loving yourself for all your quirks and empathizing with others — even someone you think is your enemy. From her wild red hair to her triple palindrome name and her wild imagination, Anina is not like other kids, but she learns that that's OK and makes a new friend because of it on the way. A feel-good movie for sure, Anina offers the reminder we all need: our differences are what make us special, and we should not let those differences — whether physical, mental or emotional — stop us from making connections and developing relationships with other people. (CLARKE HUMPHREY)
Sat, Jan. 25 at 11:30 am; Magic Lantern, 76 minutes
The focus of this Washington-made documentary is on the kids in school who don't do drugs or drink alcohol. Rather, they prefer to imbibe in Jesus. They're not just filled with the Holy Spirit, but with a passion for winning the National Bible Quiz Championship.
The competition is not for the weak, or people unable to memorize entire books of the Bible. As Tacoma Life Center church's team captain J.P. O'Connor explains in Bible Quiz, "It's do or die. Not even joking."
The film follows the team of three through a year of cramming, practicing, competing locally and eventually qualifying for the nationals in Green Bay, Wis. But it's 17-year-old Mikayla Irle who is the heartbeat of the film. With a troubled home life, she finds solace in the inviting group dynamic, especially in O'Connor, who happens to be her crush.
As our heroes advance to the final rounds, competition becomes so stressful you're liable to get up and need a cigarette. Will they win or won't they? The fact that you'll care shows how much Bible Quiz achieves. Yet the film's theme transcends more than just a competition. In the end, It's about finding one's true self-worth and a place in the world.
Director Nicole Teeny is scheduled to attend this screening. (LAURA JOHNSON)
THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN
Fri, Jan. 24 at 8 pm; Bing Crosby Theater, 112 minutes
Here's something I learned from this movie: people in countries other than this one listen to Americana music. Maybe everyone knew this, but I had to learn it from the excellent, heartbreaking Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown.
Here, director Felix van Groeningen, adapting from a play of the same title, gives us the story of Didier, a bearded banjo player with an Americana obsession, and Elise, a tattoo artist, who fall in deeply in love. As a bonus, Elise has a killer voice and can join in Didier's folk and bluegrass band. It's a perfect fit.
The film — nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards — jumps through time, so we soon see the cute-as-hell daughter who results from their union, but know immediately that something isn't right. The little girl has cancer, and her parents are doing everything they can to keep the family together and their daughter healthy. Fair warning — watching the effects of chemotherapy on a young child like this is heartbreaking in and of itself.
Van Groeningen masterfully presents the live music scenes, which come as an abrupt shift from both the hospital settings and rural home where the young family lives. They sing in perfect English, with just the right amount of Southern twang. The music is damn good, too. You'll be tapping your toe to these tunes, but then you realize the weight of the story and it's hard to be in a dancing mood. (MIKE BOOKEY)
Tue, Jan. 28 at 6:30 pm; Magic Lantern, 116 minutes
Pay no attention to the misleading title; Child's Pose has nothing to do with yoga. Instead, it's about an extreme case of "mother knows best." The Romanian drama centers on Cornelia Keneres, an affluent woman who will stop at nothing to protect her adult son Barbu from a prison sentence after he kills a child in a car accident.
Mommy dearest is played by an utterly amazing Luminita Gheorghiu, who gives a performance so overbearing you'll want to run away from her, too. As the film opens, Cornelia is complaining to her sister-in-law about how her son never calls or wants to spend time with her. She's the only one in the film who doesn't comprehend why that's the case.
Through many scenes of talking and smoking, director Calin Peter Netzer shows us the point of view of every character in the movie, weaving his camera in and out, often with an almost documentary-type feel. To the very end, it seems anything could happen.
The movie won the 2013 Golden Bear (the best-film prize at the Berlin International Film Festival) and also was Romania's official submission for the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. (LJ)
THE EMPTY HOURS
Sat, Jan. 25 at 7 pm; Bing Crosby Theater, 100 minutes
In Spanish with English subtitles, The Empty Hours tells a story of romance and coming of age. While managing his uncle's pay-by-the-hour motel on the coast of Veracruz, Sebastián becomes familiar with Miranda, who spends many hours there waiting on fleeting meetings with her rich lover. Despite their difference in age (Sebastián is a few months shy of 18, Miranda is 35), they begin to form a tumultuous bond. (COLLEEN FOGERTY)
EVERGREEN: THE ROAD TO LEGALIZATION
Sat, Feb. 1 at 4:20 pm; Bing Crosby Theater, 86 minutes
You'll go in thinking this is a film about marijuana, but just a few minutes in, you realize it's much more a story about politics. Marijuana, and the legalization thereof, just happens to be the lens through which director Riley Morton and writer Nils Cowan inspect the modern political process in the state of Washington.
Evergreen brings to mind other political documentaries, the easiest comparison being The War Room, but is nevertheless unique in its sober, linear approach toward explaining the way in which organizers were able to pass Initiative 502, making recreational marijuana usage and possession legal in the state of Washington. We know the outcome going in — weed becomes legal. What most viewers won't know is what went on behind the scenes among both supporters and the opposition.
What viewers likely will find the most surprising aspect of Evergreen is the fact that there was no opposition, at least no organized opposition, to the measure that was making the age-old "drugs are bad, m-kay" argument against marijuana. Rather, it was the medical marijuana community that rallied against the passing of the law, mostly focusing on the new DUI laws that would be put in place. It's a fascinating dichotomy and makes for an outstanding, fascinating film.
It's not necessarily going to make you want to pack a fat bowl (not to say there isn't a ton of grass smoked on-screen) while you watch. Rather, Evergreen might make you want to read up on future ballot measures, or maybe take a political science class. (MB)
FIND YOUR WAY: A BUSKER'S DOCUMENTARY
Saturday, Jan. 25 at 2:15 and Sunday, Jan. 26, at noon; Magic Lantern, 95 minutes
The magic of Seattle's Pike Place Market goes beyond just lobbed fish and overcast skies. It's a place where music happens. Some of it applause-worthy, some of it cringe-worthy, much of it weird, but no matter: it's busker heaven.
Director Brian Nunes' Find Your Way follows seven Seattle street musicians, in their home life and their musical career. The overhanging question is whether these street musicians can "make it," and what, exactly, "making it" means. For some it's landing an album deal. For others, it's just making enough money playing to pay their bills or finding artistic validation.
Spreading the camera time across seven different musicians means the movie never goes deep enough, even as it readily scampers down rabbit-trails, like the Washington Post experiment about a world-famous violinist playing in the metro to see if anyone would notice his talent.
Instead, Find Your Way is best at raising issues begging to be explored further, like how do street musicians deal with harassment? What happens when there's a fight between musicians over the corner? How does the Bohemian street musician lifestyle work for those trying to raise a family?
At times, the shaggy, meandering just-jamming pace of the documentary feels frustrating. But then again, it fits perfectly with the subject matter. Watching Find Your Way is like strolling along a sidewalk, listening to a busker strum a guitar for a few minutes, and then moving on down the street. (DANIEL WALTERS)
Mon, Jan. 27 at 6:30 pm; Magic Lantern, 102 minutes
In Bloom paints a picture of Georgia in a time of chaos. The newly independent country is teeming with violence and uncertainty, with poverty, with hunger and with broken families as it falls deeper and deeper into civil war. In the midst of all this we find best friends Eka and Natia, who are simply trying to navigate their childhood.
Their problems are familiar and relatable: school, boys and less-than-perfect home lives. It is against this intense backdrop that the 14-year-olds come into their own in their relationships with each other, with family members and with men. There also exists, in an overt way, commentary on the tendency of men to control women in the form of Natia's parents' relationship, Natia's own experience with men and a friend whose husband kicks her out upon learning that she lost her virginity before marriage. Even with everything else that's going on, it's still very important to have those kinds of conversations so young girls like Eka and Natia don't find themselves trapped in similar situations.
The movie intricately weaves the lives of these young girls with their country's post-independence turmoil in a way that illustrates no one is safe, and no one is exempt from deeply feeling everything that's happening around them. One of Natia's two suitors gives her a gun to protect herself. She and Eka share it, passing it between them as one or the other needs protecting. You can't help but wonder when that pivotal moment — when one of them finally fires it — will come, and why. But it isn't as simple as that. Instead, the movie closely follows characters as they learn about themselves and changes the way they see the world through their interactions with each other. (CH)
K2: SIREN OF THE HIMALAYAS
Sat, Feb. 1 at 11:30 am; Magic Lantern, 75 minutes
If you ever wanted to understand why a person would risk their lives climbing an 8,000-meter mountain, you've got your wish. This documentary follows a small group as they attempt the world's most dangerous peak. Their attempt to summit K2 coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the Duke of Abruzzi's landmark K2 expedition in 1909. Through the eyes of director Dave Ohlson, we get to take a look at the history and geography of the Karakoram mountains and really learn about the risks, rewards and personal gain that come with this kind of undertaking. (CH)
KISS THE WATER
Sat, Jan. 25 at noon and Tue, Jan. 28 at 6:45 pm; Magic Lantern, 80 minutes
This has been dubbed "a love story" by its subtitle, so you're probably expecting the typical boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back rom-com. But neither "typical" nor "rom-com" can adequately describe this documentary about a woman in Scotland who ties fishing flies. Megan Boyd was an amazing fly-maker who became so well known that even Prince Charles was one of her buyers. Though her flies are mainly used for their original purpose, some have been collected over the years as folk art pieces; her craftsmanship was just that exquisite. (CH)
LE SAC DE FARINE (THE BAG OF FLOUR)
Wed, Jan. 29 at 6:30 pm; Magic Lantern, 92 minutes
As a young girl, Sarah thrives as a student at her Catholic orphanage in Belgium. Then one day a man claiming to be her father uproots her from the little stability she has. She is promised a trip to Paris, but she's ultimately drugged and taken to a remote Moroccan village. As she grows into a young woman, she continues to stand out from the other Muslim girls in the village. While struggling with poverty and hunger, she is not concerned with finding a husband like the other girls, but rather dreams of returning to Belgium and continuing her education. (CF)
Sat, Feb. 1 at 7 pm; Bing Crosby Theater, 87 minutes
This subdued spin on Rain Man from Dutch director Diederik Ebbinge centers on Fred (Ton Kas), a prim Calvinist widower with all the amenability of a drill sergeant and a soft spot for Bach's choral pieces. Within minutes of his first stiff-gaited appearance, he's taken in Theo (René van 't Hof), a mentally handicapped man given to begging among the local villagers. Although it's not readily apparent why this unlikeliest of samaritans would open his home to a disheveled stranger who communicates in monosyllables and animal noises, the complexity of Fred's motives becomes clearer as his and Theo's backstories are teased out. Loneliness, charity, rebellion and penance all play a part.
There's no small amount of absurd and understated humor throughout Matterhorn. Some of it comes from the film's flirtation with queer and religious themes; more is at the expense of childlike Theo, who's inclined to dress in bizarre outfits and invariably puts Fred in awkward situations among his scowling, black-suited peers. The pinpoint framing and meticulous backdrops of cinematographer Dennis Wielaert have a clinicality that mirrors Fred's anal retentiveness and makes his increasing aberrations from routine all the more jarring. Other scenes, like the surreal slow-mo montage of Fred and Theo doing song-and-dance shticks for a children's birthday party, call Wes Anderson to mind. As Matterhorn's brisk pacing picks up speed, its lighter side gives way to some unexpected and exquisitely moving revelations. (E.J. IANNELLI)
Fri, Jan. 31 at 5:30 pm; Bing Crosby Theater, 77 minutes
Spanning 18 years, this documentary tells the story of five boys at a maximum-security prison for juveniles in Chehalis, Wash., who grew up to be men struggling to overcome their childhoods and early incarceration. In getting to know these boys, director Heather Dew Oaksen realized — and will you see as well — that they weren't so different from her own son, and yours. (CH)
ON THE JOB
Mon, Jan. 27 at 6:45 pm and Sat, Feb. 1 at noon; Magic Lantern, 121 minutes
Fast-paced and action-packed, this crime drama goes where no other has gone before. When prison guards get orders from a mysterious "them" to have someone killed, the guards use prisoners to do it, and everyone else is none the wiser. But two agents are on the case, determined to expose the truth. (CH)
RIVER CHANGES COURSE
Sun, Jan. 26 at 4:30 pm; Magic Lantern, 83 minutes
This award-winning documentary shines light on the pressure rapid development is putting on Cambodia and its citizens. Land availability is dropping while prices are rising, natural resources are being depleted and the lush forests many rural communities call home are being destroyed. With a lack of education and nowhere left to go, many are forced to break away from their families and head to industrialized Phnom Penh to search for factory jobs. This documentary provides an intimate look inside the strain that recent development is putting on Cambodia's land, culture and people. (CF)
Thu, Jan. 23 at 7 pm; AMC River Park Square, 96 minutes
Among certain ethnic groups of Laos, the birth of twins is an evil omen. This means Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) is considered cursed from the moment he arrives in the world. He survives — unlike his partner in the womb — only through the kindness of his mother Mali (Alice Keohavong), who resists the urgings of elder Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) to kill Ahlo and spare the family the inevitable misfortune he will bring. Taitok's fears would seem to be warranted. Cut to a few short years later, when the family's tribal village is slated to be flooded by a new dam. They're forced to undertake a long, fateful relocation to an overhyped Shangri-La that proves to be little more than a shanty town. There the cheeky young Ahlo fails to win over the locals, but does befriend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), an orphan who lives with her eccentric uncle Purple, an ex-child soldier with a James Brown fetish. At night through the reedy walls of their huts they can see the illuminated windows of the buildings that house the Australian hydroelectric bigwigs, "selling electricity to all bloody Asia, with nothing left for us," grumbles Purple. The disparity is indicative of the West's most recent incursion into a country defiled by centuries of foreign imperialism and exploitation.
When Ahlo's actions result in the exile of his remaining family and friends from the camp, they wander in search of a new home. Their peregrinations take them to yet another unfriendly town, where a rocket festival might offer the ill-starred boy a shot at redemption. Written and directed with equal skill by Kim Mordaunt, The Rocket is intimately filmed while avoiding sentimentality — helped, no doubt, by Disamoe's genuine charm. (EI)
Sat, Feb. 1 at 2 pm; Magic Lantern, 85 minutes
The revolution in Egypt's Tahrir Square was the first one that began with a simple Facebook event, but that's not the only way it made history. Comprising interviews with diplomats, academics and journalists, coupled with footage from people who were there, this documentary shares the story of Egypt's revolution from the perspective of the people who organized it and united citizens in one common cause. (CH)