2018 Seattle International Film Festival capsule movie reviews
Here are bite-sized capsule reviews of films screening at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival. This article will continue to be updated throughout 2018 SIFF.
Tickets for all screenings are now on sale at siff.net. General admission for regular screenings is $14 for non-members and $12 for SIFF members. Don't arrive late - standby tickets are sold for nearly sold out showtimes.
Screens May 18, May 19 and May 26
Normally the story of an exiled terrorist forced on the run would be interpreted as a thriller - but "War" takes the unconventional road of making this a simmering family drama. "War" doesn't waste its time with a "will he be caught" plot - it reveals the unintended consequences his family must endure for his past crimes. His family's lives are completely upended for the crime of just being associated with him - while he remains unrepentant in his political convictions, pitting his beliefs against his family's well-being.
Screens May 19 and May 20
The fun of watching kids try to pull off a major heist is the hook, but this dramatic thriller is an intriguing overlay of documentary and drama, resulting for a refreshing take on true crime. The narrative is based on a real heist - and the real-life subjects pop up as talking heads, injecting authenticity to this docudrama. "Animals" is less interested in the success of the heist, so much as the crime's impact on the lives and futures of these promising students.
Screens June 3 and June 5
A damsel. A mysterious murder. A spurned lover. Remove the conceit of "AI robots living among normal folk in 1928" and all that's left is a stock PI noir detective story. The core of "Automata" is uninspired, the characters are cartoonishly arch and its broad allegory of prejudice is overtly transparent. The sci-fi elements aren't strong enough to consider this intriguing and better pulp noir has been produced dozens of times in the past 80 years.
Screens May 20 and May 21
Jessie Buckley is one of the festival's break-out stars with a commanding lead performance that is simultaneously nuanced and bold. She leaves nothing on the table in this character study of a woman who struggles with her growing realization that she may have more in common with a serial killer on the loose than she wants to believe. Director Michael Pearce effortlessly juggles its many moving parts to elegantly reveal a woman's twisted introspective journey that forces her to confront her true nature.
Screens June 8 and June 9
Once there was a songwriter who met a girl, traveled a bit and his friends later waxed poetic about him. Enjoying this meandering film entirely relies on the audience connecting with the eccentric country balladeer. Thin on story, "Blaze" leans hard on its characterization of a mumbling, rambling, philosophical & self-destructive artist. Ethan Hawke's directorial debut is more interested in getting the audience to hang out with the titular character than to tell a compelling story.
Screens May 19 and May 20
With its bold, electrifying confrontation of race relations, this incisively funny and forthright story is told with a confident voice. Writer-actor Daveed Diggs is one of the breakout stars of SIFF 2018, balancing a performance that is hilarious and humane. Strip away the sharp, lyrical dialogue and wry edge, the remaining essence of the film is its humanity - it's the best Spike Lee film that Lee never directed. This wry lamentation of a city's disappearing soul is a valentine to an Oakland being swept away by hipsters.
Screens May 17
If the basis of drama is conflict and great protagonist/antagonist pairings want the same thing, then "The Bookshop" should be more far engaging than this tedious bore. Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy's fine performances save this lumbering snoozer from utter doom. The admittedly solid final 30 minutes does not make up for the plodding, antidrama of the first hour. The film moves with no dramatic imperative until the end. Go into this movie caffeinated and well rested.
Screens May 18 and May 27
Another fundamentally simple dysfunctional family "dramedy" - except this one has some drug dealing and a lot of dogs. The drama is forced and the comedy is very, very light. The performances - anchored by co-leads Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer - are nice ... everything else ranges from OK to fine. "Boundaries" breaks no new ground on the "boy this family sure is screwed up" genre. But such mediocrity in a tired genre warrants demerits for its middling results and its low degree of difficulty.
Screens May 18 and June 3
This well-meaning attempt to tackle where the law ends and morality begins is a cumbersome mess. The first half is basically just Emma Thompson's husband leaving her as she presides as a judge over a controversial case. It's only halfway into the story when anything resembling drama finally manifests - but only in the form of tragically contrived third act. Thompson is perfectly fine while Stanley Tucci is wasted in this all thumbs examination of morality and law.
Screens May 20 and May 21
A simmering, constant intensity powers what - on the surface - seems like a straight-forward "returning home" indie drama. But each scene has an undercurrent of a coiled, suppressed wanting of something just beyond their reach. Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola form a brilliant trio of nuanced performances in this delicate, complex portrait of repression and self denial. Weisz and McAdams are the film's heart but Nivola very nearly steals the third act.
Screens June 10
Director Gus Van Sant threw everything into this cluttered biopic: its protagonist must overcome a disability, an all-consuming addiction and some deeply-rooted personal demons. Strong performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill do not make up for the film's lack of focus. Hill deserves extra acclaim for turning a thin, walking AA handbook of a "character" into a soulful touchstone. "Don't Worry" find some light laughs in dark subject matter, however, the overall end product is not particularly revelatory.
Screens June 9 and June 10
Warning to anyone who was less than cool in middle school: this coming-of-age gem is painfully authentic. While light on plot, "Eighth" follows Kayla as she navigates her last week in middle school. Elsie Fisher is perfectly cast as mousy, awkward teen who is more comfortable heads down in her Instagram life than she is in her own skin. Writer-director Bo Burnham has captured the essence of that turbulent time when the opposite gender no longer has cooties and parents are terminally uncool.
Screens May 18 and May 22
Ethan Hawke shines in this meditation on despair and newfound, if misplaced, conviction. Writer-director Paul Schrader has composed a spiritual journey in this textured and engrossing work that feels equal parts cinematic and literary. Rooted in Hawke's subdued, soulful performance, "Reformed" revels in slowly unspooling a devout man's dwindling faith - and replacing it with righteousness in something truly disturbing. The film's true victory is in patiently breaking down a protagonist and rebuilding him into something horrifying.
Screens May 20 and May 22
This unfunny, undramatic Jean-Luc Godard comedy-drama biopic is a waste of time. He is characterized as an elementally pretentious and combative man who just spends the entire film berating and dressing down everyone around him. He has no character arc. There's no drama because Godard is so relentlessly one-dimensional - every scene is predictable: Godard offends someone. Like the characters in the film when they no longer tolerate Godard, the only solace comes when "Godard" finally ends.
Screens May 18 and May 25
This relentlessly taut Danish thriller is an exhausting pressure cooker - despite the fact that all the action takes place off-screen, with its protagonist trapped at a desk. Captivating from start to finish, "The Guilty" is a claustrophobic and bracing roller-coaster - from its harrowing tension, dread-inducing twists and even a smattering of unexpected humor. A strong lead performance and intense pacing make "The Guilty" a true SIFF gem not to be missed.
Screens May 19 and May 20
Come for the toe-tapping songs and the undeniable charm of Nick Offerman and stay for a sincere and hip father-daughter comedy-drama. "Hearts" is confidently centered in an ephemeral moment and less interested in some flimsy "small band is going to make it big" nonsense. Kiersey Clemons and Offerman are wonderfully paired as the unlikely father-daughter duo whose lives are very different turning points and headed in very different directions - but they share a love for song.
Screens June 1 & June 2
The follow-up from the "Winter's Bone" director Debra Granik is a delicate, solemn and engrossing father-daughter drama. "Trace" quietly moves at its own leisure, crafting a humane portrait of a troubled father unable to live among people and the teenage daughter who lives with him in seclusion - even as she yearns for community. Ben Foster does so much with small, nuanced movements - he doesn't have to say a single word to know exactly what his character is thinking
Screens May 22, June 1 and June 2
This story of an immigrant's attempt to get a Green Card is a distressing INS nightmare. Her goal is simple and the stakes are high: start a new life for her and her son in America ... or be sent back to Romania with nothing. This simmering drama throws an unassuming, earnest woman into an increasingly impossible scenario, wherein she is exploited and abused for the apparent crime of not totally understanding life in the U.S.
Screens May 26 and May 27
Juliette Binoche is undeniably great in an undeniable chore of a "drama." The protagonist claims she wants to find love, but she is no closer by the end than she is at the beginning. Every scene and conversation is circular - often repeating intentions and never advancing the story. She is an artist and a mother - but nevermind that, because those aspects of her are non-factors. The pointless and prolonged final scene (that plays over the end credits) typifies "Sunshine" as an absolute waste of time.
Screens May 30 and June 1
The key to liking or hating "Road" is Jason Mantzoukas, whose reckless, middle-aged lovable douchebag character takes command of this road trip comedy and never lets go until the very end. Co-leads Mantzoukas and Tony Revolori have great chemistry as the dynamically different immature adult and the precautious teen. Revolori's character gives the narrative shape and (surprisingly) depth, but Mantzoukas almost single-handedlymakes this little comedy one of the most purely entertaining and fun films of SIFF 2018.
Screens June 5 and June 8
Haute couture fans need not only line up for this honest and intimate look at the tragic rise-and-fall of brilliant fashion designer Alexander McQueen. This fantastic documentary paints a textured portrait of a bold and driven artist, conveying his passion and his vision. It not only gets across McQueen's role in modern fashion, but also who he was as son, brother and friend - an unlikely fashion icon who rose from the working class to the height of Paris' luxury fashion.
Screens May 25 and May 26
The strength of "Miseducation" is also its weakness. This story of a teenage girl sent to a bible camp to "pray the gay away" is thankfully more about Cameron's experiences at the camp and not some arch villain. Its lack of an overbearing plot allows the focus to remain on the effects of the camp's message on fragile kid's struggling with their identity. Without a clear plot structure, however, the film feels directionless until late in the story.
Screens May 29 and June 2
Timely and eye-opening, this documentary takes a clear and principled stance on a controversial issue - but more critically, it humanizes the hot button topic of gender identity. For such an innately divisive topic, this documentary maintains a measured tone that impresses the personal concerns of the transgender community. While mounting its case for transgender rights, "Dangerous" is most convincing in its quiet moments, showing transgender children playing and enjoying childhood like any other kid.
Screens May 24 and May 25
Is she or isn't she...? This dramatic mystery posits a tantalizing possibility for its characters - one that, if true, could fill a seemingly bottomless hole in their incomplete lives. "Nancy" keeps the audience guessing because the film's protagonist is a bit unreliable, yet there's just enough to keep her story plausible. As the film keeps the audience off balance, "Nancy" remains totally invested in the characters' defensive uncertainty, weary skepticism and lingering hope.
Screens May 25 and June 2
Another wonderful Saoirse Ronan performance, some incredible cinematography and an unconventional story framework save "Chesil Beach" from being completely forgettable. The script loosely plays with time, alternating between the story of a young couple's courtship and their disastrous wedding night. While the character's conflicts make sense, the film's ultimate resolution is rushed and its beats are predictable, rendering the finale not quite as poignant as attempted. "Chesil" has its moments, but they're too few to consider this drama effective as a whole.
Screens May 23 and June 4
This doc gets its first collective "awwww" from the audience in its opening moments, but this engaging film is for dog people and the pet adverse alike. "Litter" frames its story around five puppies training to become guide dogs for the blind to reveal the rigorous trials they must overcome if they are to be entrusted with the lives of their blind owners. The charm of "Litter" is the result of the film's success in building a connection between audience and the dogs.
Screens May 20, May 24 and May 26
This Italian drama perfectly balances complex, interweaving story threads against a brilliantly simple premise: people make a deal with a mysterious man - but in order to get what they want, they must complete some task. What follows is a riveting, warped psychiatry session, where characters are compelled to act against their nature and desperate people justify their decisions. The man becomes a mirror for the characters as they reconcile how far they would go to get what they want.
Screens May 19, May 24 and May 30
Textured and fueled by desperation, this lived in sci-fi Western flick pits a quick-witted girl in an utterly impossible scenario after a quick mining score on an alien world goes terribly wrong. "Prospect" just drops the audience into an established and fleshed-out planet in a serious win for cinematic world building. Newcomer Sophie Thatcher heroically carries this intense ride on her back - a film that fires right out of the starting gate and doesn't relent until its closing moments.
Screens June 8 and June 9
Don't let this drama with a soft touch fly under the SIFF radar. Kelly Macdonald's grounded and utterly human turn as a dowdy housewife thrust into a midlife crisis is too good to miss. The small changes her character that snowball into a personal awakening is executed with grace and patience. Not all movies must have life-or-death stakes -- "Puzzle" beautifully captures a woman finding something she truly loves and saving herself from a quiet, isolated desperation.
Screens May 18 and May 20
This crime drama of a girl and her bank robbing boyfriend is perfectly fine if you leave after the first half. Its characters are thin and the story is mired in ridiculous melodrama. But worst of all, every plot point and choice of this purported "love story" is rooted in a hollow love story defined by a few sex scenes and minimal chemistry. It's difficult to care about anything that happens when the love story's very foundation is so flimsy.
Screens May 18
If ever there was a hybrid of art house cinema and exploitation flick, it's this bloody ride. This story of a rape victim left for dead by three men unfolds exactly as expected - but "Revenge" is more than its violent premise. It invests time in revealing how plot turns affect and change the characters, often letting scenes linger and allowing them to soak in what's happening. And yes - there's tons of gore and so much blood that characters actually slip in it at one point.
Screens June 8 & June 9
A documentary about traffic shouldn't be this captivating. "Rush" follows three people from different countries as they endure hours-long commutes each way to their jobs - but the heart of the film is the emotional and physical toll of these soul-crushing commutes. Its three subjects impress the universal sacrifices made everyday. This beautifully shot documentary captures an existential, daily grind that imposes a cost far more taxing than just the time wasted traveling by car, train or bus.
Screens June 2
No plot synopsis can possibly do justice to this ridiculous, hyper-stylized, high-concept comedy. "Bother" holds a surreal, twisted mirror up to social expectations - a film that's absurdly hyperbolic in execution, yet whose scathing commentary hits terrifyingly, uncomfortably too close to reality. Director Boots Riley's feature film debut is a gleefully outrageous, charged, quick witted, audacious and cynical satire - and if nothing else - it's an utter and undeniable original. Audiences will leave the theater wondering what just hit them.
Screens May 25 and May 26
The unpretentious Spanish family drama "Summer 1993" is a vignette of genuine, melodrama-free moments. The relateable hardship of a child trying to start anew is compounded by the stigma of being the orphaned daughter of an AIDS patient. "1993" paints a thoughtful portrait of a girl trying to start a new life, unable to let go of her old life - and acting out.
Screens May 22 and May 23
Just the first act alone of this stranger-than-fiction true story is too incredible to believe. "Identical Strangers" is an exercise in compelling storytelling, where an astounding and preposterous personal interest story slowly evolves into a tantalizing and dark mystery. As the mystery unfolds and new information is unearthed, initially light-hearted moments take a new, more menacing tone. Director Tim Wardle crafts a fun and engaging first act that seamlessly takes on a sinister twist.
Screens May 26 and May 27
Make sure to bring some tissues and be ready to cry happy tears of joy and inspiration. This moving tribute to the PBS icon is a celebration of Mister Roger's legacy as well as a rallying cry for kindness and empathy. "Neighbor" beautifully deconstructs the famed show's intentionally compassionate message, offering insight into what compelled Fred Rogers to craft his show out of love and why his philosophies remain timely and relevant today (perhaps now more than ever).