Spotlighting some of the best films we saw at the 2024 Seattle International Film Festival

click to enlarge Spotlighting some of the best films we saw at the 2024 Seattle International Film Festival
Samuel Dunning(s) in Tim Travers and the Time Traveler's Paradox.

Getting swept away in a summer blockbuster is always a blast, but sharing a smaller gem of a movie with other movie lovers while attending a film festival is another kind of cinephile bliss. The annual Seattle International Film Festival is Washington’s best spot to find such treasures. With that in mind, here are some of the best films we saw at SIFF 2024. Keep an eye on these flicks, which will hopefully arrive in theaters or on a streaming platform in the not-too-distant future.

TIM TRAVERS AND THE TIME TRAVELER’S PARADOX

A new film has entered the conversation for best movie to come out of Spokane! After first being an award-winning short film that screened at the Spokane International Film Festival in 2022, Tim Travers and the Time Traveler’s Paradox has been adapted into a full-length feature. And it’s about as good as an independent, small-budget, dark sci-fi comedy can be. The story from writer/director Stimson Snead follows the cocky, neurotic, overthinking loner scientist Tim Travers (Samuel Dunning) who invents a time machine that can teleport him one minute into the past, where Tim encounters a prior version of himself and kills him… again and again… until he stops and begins teaming up with the multiple versions of himself to try to crack the meaning of the paradoxical world that features so many versions of himself. The jokes come at a pretty quick pace, and Dunning kills it as the many Tims, turning in a better performance than most of the more famous actors who pop up in supporting roles (Felicia Day, Joel McHale, etc.). Packed with ideas and laughs, it’s a tiny alternative sci-fi treat that has cult-favorite appeal. (SS)

DÌDI

The first feature-length film from Oscar-nominated shorts director Sean Wang, Dìdi (Mandarin for “younger brother”) is yet another millennial bildungsroman, but distinguishes itself by filtering a familiar narrative through the lens of the Taiwanese-American experience. Set in 2008, the cultural details are specific, and the hallmark moments of adolescent boyhood will hit the limbic system like a hammer… for cishet wannabe sk8r bois of a particular generation, anyway. The laughs are well-earned, as are the tears — there’s a third-act exchange between the teen protagonist Chris (19-year-old star Izaac Wang) and his immigrant mom (the phenomenal Joan Chen) that is absolutely awards-season-reel-worthy. In this regard and many others, comparisons to 2018 SIFF favorite Eighth Grade are inevitable and understandable. However, unlike that film, with its pop-up video-style overlaying of text messages over frames, Dìdi indulges in close-ups of AIM chats, mining palpable tension and hilarity out of the pauses between exchanges and the anxiety over lolspeak etiquette (remember AOL’s proto-AI SmarterChild? It’s in the movie!). Dìdi is a remarkable feature debut: relatable, charming, funny and moving. (JB)

IN A VIOLENT NATURE

What does Jason Vorhees do when he isn’t skewering camp counselors? He probably clomps around the woods, watches his next victims from behind trees and does a lot of heavy breathing. So, too, does the killer in Chris Nash’s artsy slasher deconstruction In a Violent Nature, which turns the Friday the 13th formula inside out — figuratively and, in one outrageous scene, quite literally. Our protagonist is the villain, a mutant that rises from the grave to retrieve a precious locket that was stolen from him. The camera stalks along as he methodically slices, dices, bludgeons and rips apart everyone in his way. This movie exists somewhere between the notorious 1983 German film Angst and those horror survival games that let you play as the killer, and it’s for sickos only. It’s also a SIFF movie you don’t have to wait to see, as it’s now screening at AMC River Park Square 20. (NW)

399: QUEEN OF THE TETONS

What happens when the unhealthy human obsession with celebrity gets applied to wild animals? That question is the crux of 399: Queen of the Tetons, a documentary about the most photographed bear in the world: the Grand Teton National Park grizzly known as 399. Massive crowds of tourists and shutterbugs gather to see this majestic momma bear, and she’s become comfortable around people… perhaps too comfortable. Director Elizabeth Leiter frames 399’s majesty and troubles through the eyes of humans who follow her closely — including a famed wildlife photographer, a couple of 399-obsessed retirees, scientists and park rangers — to show how the paparazzi frenzy around the bear both protects it and puts her and her cubs in danger because of behaviors humans force her into and then deem unacceptable. The film crew follows 399 over the course of years for this fascinating, frustrating and finely honed nature doc. (SS)

JANET PLANET

The work of Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker is quiet, still, sometimes deliberately monotonous. That unhurried approach extends to her debut as a filmmaker. Janet Planet is a fly-on-the-wall portrait of a single mother (Julianne Nicholson) and her observant young daughter (Zoe Ziegler) living in rural Massachusetts in 1991. Like a play, it takes on a three-act structure, as different characters enter their lives: a mentally troubled boyfriend, an old friend escaping a cult and finally the charismatic leader of said cult. Baker uses a lot of unusual, quietly disorienting visual framing, which suggests the POV of a child who doesn’t get the full picture but understands enough. It’s a bit long for how slowly it moves, but it has an authentic, lived-in atmosphere and a supporting cast with hall-of-fame character actors like Will Patton, Sophie Okonedo and Elias Koteas. It’s set to open at the Magic Lantern on June 28. (NW)

RAINIER: A BEER ODYSSEY

Rainier: A Beer Odyssey is less a documentary about the Northwest’s brew of choice than it is a shaggy monument to the effectiveness of oddball advertising campaigns. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Rainier — under the stewardship of Don Draper-level pitch man Terry Heckler and his crew of free-thinking associates — cultivated a reputation for gonzo TV spots that cemented the local brand as iconic. Could you cartwheel through the old advertisements on YouTube? Certainly, but this “odyssey” provides welcome insight into some of the creatives behind that advertising magic, plus anecdotes like how in the hell they got Mickey Rooney to be one of their on-air talents. (Spoiler: They sweetened the deal with a Ford station wagon.) Also, did you know the infamous Budweiser frogs 1995 Super Bowl commercial was a direct rip-off of a similar Rainier ad? (JB)

RED ROOMS

The insidious French-Canadian mystery Red Rooms is perhaps biting off more than it can chew. It’s about technological overreach, the true crime boom and our unhealthy cultural obsession with evil men — and it’s a psychological study on top of it. But when it works, it strikes a nerve. It follows a beautiful loner (Juliette Gariépy) who’s a semi-professional gambler, an expert at dark web sleuthing and a fashion model. That old cliché! She’s also fascinated with an ongoing murder trial, spending all her free time rubbernecking in the courtroom, and the possible existence of a video of the crimes completely consumes her. It ends up being a bit ridiculous, like a lesser version of Alejandro Amenábar’s grisly debut feature Thesis. But just like this film’s weird protagonist, I couldn’t look away from it. (NW)

PORCELAIN WAR

The incongruity of humans’ capacity for art and war comes to the forefront in Porcelain War, which won the audience award for best documentary at SIFF. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Slava Leontyev and Anya Stasenko — artists who make stunning hand-painted porcelain figures of animals — decided to start filming everything. The war leads Leontyev to start training some of his fellow working-class Ukrainians so they can be a makeshift resistance army. While their art is fantastic and footage of their tactical assaults on invading Russian forces can be life-or-death gripping, the documentary lacks a professional filmmaker’s touch — with things often feeling like two separate tracks rather than an interweaving narrative that would’ve driven home the themes the film clearly wants to explore. That said, the animation which brings the static porcelain figures to life (used far too infrequently) is one of the most gorgeous uses of animation you’ll ever see on film. (SS) 

SO UNREAL

This stylish pseudo-documentary probes cinema’s fascination with depicting cyberspace, starting with 1982’s TRON all the way up to the 20th-century capping masterpiece The Matrix. Other virtual-minded classics are are thoughtfully analyzed — The Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, War Games, Virtuosity, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ — as are more obscure B movie fare like Arcade, D.A.R.Y.L., Mindwarp, Brainstorm, and Ghost in the Machine (the live-action one, not the anime). Narrating this journey is a heavily reverbed Debbie Harry, the Blondie singer and star of Cronenberg’s kinky body horror/media satire Videodrome. The interstitials and psychedelic neon animations will appeal to anyone who reminisces about the Tumblr heyday of vaporwave, seapunk, and retro reclamation. So Unreal interrogates the dystopian possibilities of our desire to live in the digital space, and what movies’ role is in this abnegation of the physical. At the screening, editor Benjamin Shearn indicated it was maybe the last time the film would get a big-screen presentation — unsurprising given its heavy reliance on footage from other rights holders — but similar video essays have found homes on streaming, so keep your eyes out and your modems connected. (JB)

ETERNAL

When a mysterious fracture forms on the ocean’s floor, climate scientist Elias and his team dive into the underwater depth to try to repair the planet. But something unexplainable about the fracture causes Elias to see visions of an alternative existence where he puts research aside to start a family with Anita, the love of his younger days that he still pines for daily. While technically a small-scale Danish sci-fi flick, Eternal is really a doomed romantic drama about time lost, hearts broken and what we choose to prioritize in life. Even the somewhat distractingly off casting between the younger and older versions of Anita doesn’t mitigate the film’s emotional gut punches. (SS)

Additional SIFF Picks

Bring Them Home

Hajjan

The Missile

THE PRIMEVALS

With mainstream cinema so clogged with rubbery CGI these days, the magic of practical effects work can feel like a welcome salve. The Primevals is a testament to the lost art of stop-motion animation and the kind of once-upon-a-festival gem that B-movie lovers will go gaga for. Completed after the death of director David Allen (a VFX veteran whose credits include Ghostbusters II, *batteries not included, The Stuff, schlock favorites like Q: The Winged Serpent, and dollar-bin Doctor Strange rip-off Doctor Mordrid), the film follows a motley crew of academics and adventurers who are searching for the elusive Yeti and end up stumbling into a world of extraterrestrial gene-splicing. Leading the team is a hunter named Rondo Montana, who utters the immortal line, “The eyes of a dying giraffe can change a man.” It’s all incredibly silly and executed with the kind of slapdash panache one would expect from Full Moon studios (whose logo got a hearty laugh from the audience, priming them for the inanity that followed). The animation is legitimately impressive and justifies the film’s decades-long journey to completion. With any luck, this oddity will be streaming or on home video soon. (JB)

THE QUEEN OF MY DREAMS

Writer/director Fawzia Mirza previously explored her upbringing in a short film and a one-woman show, and now she’s translated it into a feature called The Queen of My Dreams. Mirza tells two stories on (mostly) parallel tracks: her fictional avatar, Azra (Amrit Kaur), traveling to Pakistan in the wake of a family tragedy, and flashbacks showing how her parents met and fell in love there 30 years earlier. In between, we get scenes set in the late ’80s, when the family moves to rural Nova Scotia and Azra realizes she’s queer. Like The Joy Luck Club (though this isn’t as good) or The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (though this is better), it’s about the intergenerational and cross-cultural rifts between mothers and daughters, and it’s at its best when it nods to the style of classic Bollywood films. (NW)

THE NEW BOY

How has Cate Blanchett never played a nun before? She seems predestined for the habit. In The New Boy, she assays a vanity-free portrayal of Sister Eileen, the charge of a remote Australian mission. After “rescuing” the titular aboriginal new boy (Aswan Reid) from the outback, culture-clash drama ensues, and things take a turn for the blasphemously eerie. The boy, it turns out, is blessed with supernatural healing abilities, afflicted by stigmata and fixated on the image of Christ on the cross who — no joke — winks at him. The film raises many questions about indoctrination and faith without resolving any of them satisfactorily. But as a showcase for Blanchett — who genuflects, frets and gulps red wine throughout the runtime — and as a gorgeous tableau of Aussie scenery, The New Boy is worth the price of admission. (JB)

Expo '74: Films from the Vault @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 8
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Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the former music and film editor of the Inlander. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.