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Time magazine critic Richard Corliss chats with Sissy Spacek at this year's Seattle International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

When you go to the Seattle International Film Festival, you hear often that it is the largest, most highly attended film festival in the United States. 460 Films! 25 Days! 70 Countries! 160,000 attendance! Bigger is better!

However, as I learned during the dying days of this year’s event, what makes SIFF one of the country’s more interesting festivals isn’t its size per se. Sure, other than pre-Rutger Wolfson Rotterdam, I can’t think of a festival that has approached this level of sprawl. So one can with relative fleetness dispense with the “this is my grand theory of modern cinema in the context of the programming at this one significant festival” type of article when you are assigned to take stock of Seattle’s 38th edition. It just isn’t possible. Although the broad majority of the program is pulled from other major festivals, foreign and domestic (24 world premieres, which is a lot except when you have 460 films; only 65 of the films are at least U.S. premieres), many of which this journalist has also been dispatched to, getting a hold of this program is like trying to palm a beach volleyball with wet fingers.

Despite its girth, the festival has an impossibly intimate vibe, in part because the staff does such a great job of facilitating interactions between visiting filmmakers, journalists, industry types and Seattle moviegoers. The wildly varied program is broken up into 10 very well-considered “pathways” designated by genre and theme, which lump together children’s and young adult movies, thrillers, cult movies, dramas, etc. The knowledgeable audiences stick around for Q&As, are quick to strike up conversations on the street and are unfailingly cordial. The venues, such as SIFF’s own three-screen Uptown Cinema and the gorgeous Seattle art houses the Harvard Exit and the Egyptian Theatre, are generally top notch, only forcing you to enter a mall multiplex once (the Pacific Place AMC which, as far as mall multiplexes go, isn’t so bad). The festival’s guests of honor this year, Sissy Spacek and William Friedkin, were both in fine form during their public tributes and private dinners.

In short, for all its size, SIFF is fun, inclusive, accessible and filled with strong work presented with humility.

A non-market international festival (overlapping with Cannes will healthily reinforce that perception) in a place with rich cinema culture, SIFF has a programming team that does its best to provide a venue for local filmmakers. With Seattle undergoing a semi-renaissance cinematically, it was only fitting that Seattle-based films by Lynn Shelton (My Sister’s Sister) and Stephen Gyllenhaal (Grassroots) opened and closed the festival. The biggest winner on awards day was Megan Griffiths‘ SXSW hit, Eden, another film shot in the Pacific Northwest (although it’s set in Nevada and New Mexico) and directed by a Seattleite, which won an audience prize for its lead actress (Jamie Chung) as well as prizes honoring Griffiths and the film as the best of the Northwest.

Among the other award winners was Travis Fine‘s Any Day Now, which took home the Golden Space Needle audience awards (presented, also fittingly, in the Space Needle itself) for Best Film and Best Actor for Alan Cumming‘s performance. Kirby Dick‘s The Invisible War won the audience award for Best Documentary while Benh Zeitlin won yet another accolade for Beasts of the Southern Wild; he was named the Best Director by the audience.

Among the sliver of the program that I caught, Michael Connors‘ intelligently written and genuinely felt Iraq War drama, Recalled, and Duck Beach to Eternity, a thought-provoking portrait of a summer mating getaway for young adult Mormons in North Carolina co-directed by Stephen Frandsen, Hadleigh Arnst and Laura Naylor, were both real standouts. The intersection between Mormonism, the mating rituals of the young, and the wages and demands that popular culture places on those already taught conform are all brought to bear in the latter, a documentary that borrows heavily from the aesthetics of reality TV (to a fault) and seems to care about its characters earnestly. That it doesn’t try to force them to evaluate their value system from the same modern perspective they clearly apply to almost all the other decisions (cultural, social, commercial) in their life is perhaps unsatisfying for some, but Duck Beach to Eternity is a movie that will make you confront your prejudices, even if the characters aren’t necessarily confronting theirs.

Like Duck Beach, Recalled also portrays an insular community with its own peculiar moral logic, in this case an American military regiment of New York National Guardsmen being called up to active duty in Iraq on the eve of the Sadr City/Fallujah nightmare of 2004. If you recall correctly, many thought that would be the first Vietnam-level firefight of the war for American soldiers, and although it turned out less violently than many predicted (at least as far as American casualties were concerned), the anticipation of that engagement hovers over Connors’ thoughtful, if at times aesthetically overwrought, drama about how class resentment and mutiny build within the unit after one officer’s deployment is suspended because of his politically connected family while another is forced to go fight despite the specter of his child having terminal cancer. The able ensemble includes Aidan Quinn, Malik Yoba and Bow Wow and the film does a pretty outstanding job of applying the genre codes of the prison break movie to the context of a typical American deployment to war. Connors, who like his producer Sean Mullin is an ex-Army grunt, infuses the entire project with a heady verisimilitude, even when he’s filming movie stars and rappers. Like many indies, however, had it not informed nearly every significant story beat with a score that telegraphs the emotional content of the film in a way that savvy film watchers (i.e. movie festival programmers who don’t make enough money, see too many formulaic films and, in many cases, secretly wish to be filmmakers themselves) might find unfashionable, Recalled may well have premiered at one of those vaunted markets. Bowing instead in Seattle, it found the first of what I suspect will be many engaged audiences who were asked to remember what it’s like to live in a country at war, something everything in our culture seemingly asks us to forget.

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