One of the rare upsides of COVID times is film festivals realizing they can screen a good chunk of their films online even when people are back in the theaters. This year's Seattle International Film Festival wasn't the robust monthlong affair it was in the before times, but there was still plenty to watch over the fest's 10-day span (which concluded last Sunday). Here are some of the better movies we saw without having to trek over the Snoqualmie Pass. In this digital age, you're likely to find them available in some form in the next year or so.
ALIEN ON STAGE
It's easy to imagine some classic movies making the jump to the theatrical stage. Alien is not one of those films. Alien is especially not one of those films when adapted by a ragtag crew of professional bus drivers who dabble in community theater and have a shoestring budget to pull off recreating Ridley Scott's horror sci-fi classic. But after the tiny production gets found by a couple enthusiastic Londoners, the production moves to the big city for a one-night engagement on the West End. This documentary captures the campy quirk of the small-scale production and the kooky characters that made it. It's charming enough, though the bus drivers aren't terribly compelling documentary characters (apart from the DIY special effects guy, who's the production's real star). This would probably be perfect as a 40-minute short instead of a feature, but the West End crowd's reactions when Alien finally takes the stage mostly makes up for some of the tedium getting to that point.
Charlotte Solomon is often credited with producing the first graphic novel via the compilation of her autobiographical paintings that became Life? or Theater? The animated film Charlotte tells that life story narratively, which mostly focuses on being a Jewish girl in Germany during the Nazis' rise and her attempts to escape their grasp. It's hard not to compare it to the recently thrice-Oscar-nominated animated documentary Flee (as both films share a lot of the terrified refugee beats), and by comparison Charlotte feels relatively paint-by-numbers. The animation style is incredibly mundane compared to Solomon's own expressionist painting style (which comes through via lovely scene transitions), but you almost wish filmmakers had tried to totally animate in that style so the film would feel distinct and not so middling.
FIRE OF LOVE
The saying "opposites attract" isn't always true. Sometimes perfect matches attract. Such was the case with Katia and Maurice Krafft, the married pair of volcanologists who made a name for themselves with their study of the magma-spewers in the '70s, '80s and '90s. The documentary Fire of Love doesn't beat around the bush, letting you know right off the bat that their passion for nature's atom bombs will be their doom, which in some way relieves some of the tension and allows you to sink into their life story. Narrated by Miranda July, this winner of SIFF's Official Competition Grand Jury Prize sort of attempts to be both a nature documentary and a quirky Wes Anderson love story (the Kraffts often dress like they're in The Life Aquatic), but falls a bit short on both accounts — being a little information-thin for a nature doc and not fully fleshing out either as a rich personality. However, that deficiency is counterbalanced by the unreal volcano footage (the Kraffts shot everything and left behind hundreds of hours of jaw-dropping footage). They were so bold some of it legit feels fake, and seeing Maurice standing mere meters from a volcano that's spewing magma just beyond the edges of the frame out of sight makes certain shots look like he's standing at the gates of hell. The fact that they were both OK with such harrowing circumstances proves they were truly meant for each other.
KNOW YOUR PLACEThe reality of gentrification and economic divides in Seattle come to the forefront in this indie drama which won SIFF's Best Film Audience Award and the New American Cinema Competition Grand Jury Prize. The story follows a 15-year-old Eritrean-American, Robel, who embarks on a cross-city journey to deliver a suitcase full of supplies to a family member in need. While its pace drags at times, Know Your Place captures the feel of modern Seattle, and the lead performances from Joseph Smith (Robel) and Natty Moges (Robel's best friend, Fahmi) are terrific, oozing with an authentic moody male teen facade of machismo.
I can safely say you won't see anything like Neptune Frost this year. Written and co-directed by slam poet/rapper Saul Williams, this Rwandan film is an anti-colonialist, anti-captitalist Afrofuturist musical about a nonbinary who follow their literal dreams to a technological collective that attempts to take down the powers that be by hacking the world at large. The music is driven by African beats whether conveyed by rebelling mine workers or around party-like fires, and the characters pop with vivid proto-futuristic blacklight colors and costumes. It's not the easiest to follow at times (I think being more familiar with Rwandan society would help), but Neptune Frost is still so unique that it's worth the atypical journey.
Sinéad O'Connor got a raw deal. A true rebel (often to her career's detriment), the Irish singer rose to the top of the musical world only for her tearing up a picture of the Pope on SNL to send her spiraling. The documentary Nothing Compares tells the story of her childhood of abuse and makes the case that O'Connor was a singular talent who took trailblazing stands that no one else was willing to take in the 1990s, and was chewed up and spit out by the system in a way that just seems unfathomable in current times. The problem is that the movie reaches the climax of SNL and then sort of ends quickly, essentially yadda yadda yadda-ing her career and mental struggles in the event's wake — which is the period most deserving of examination in many ways. As a story of the Sinéad the public knows, Nothing Compares works, but it drops the ball on deeper resonance.
THE PEZ OUTLAW
A lot of SIFF docs are frankly a bummer thanks to extremely heavy subject matter. The Pez Outlaw, on the other hand, is a quirky oddball blast. The documentary tells the story of Steve Glew, a small-town Michigan schemer who discovers a disconnect between the United States and European supply chain for Pez dispensers in the 1990s. It helps him become a financial hit in the collectors' market but also makes him Pez's No. 1 enemy. Told with silly glee — including over-the-top reenactments where Glew plays himself — it's got some of the beats of a spy thriller but set in a world of delightful sugary weirdos.
The best film I saw during digital SIFF was this harrowing documentary about prostitutes on Aurora Avenue in Seattle and Laughn "Elliott" Doescher (the "Mayor of Aurora"), who let drug-addicted women into a camper for shelter and other things when needed. It's a completely unflinching look at the lives of four sex workers and their relationship to Doescher. It can be incredibly tough to watch them do everything from shoot up, freak out coming off drugs and wail for their mom to talking about having to turn more tricks to pay for their parents' cigarettes, and being very frank about the cycle of addiction and their work. It fully immerses you in the world and shows Doescher's care for the girls, before taking a hard turn and becoming tough to stomach in completely new ways. It's not for the faint of heart, but the winner of SIFF's Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision is absolutely loaded with humanizing compassion for people society often turns to look away from in disgust. ♦