The Seattle International Film Festival gets underway this week at screens all over town. Here are a few highlights from movie reviewers John Hartl, Moira Macdonald, Brent McKnight and Michael Upchurch. For more information, see siff.net. For tips on how to navigate the festival, go to seattletimes.com/movies.
“500 Years” ★★★
In 1983, director Pamela Yates came to Seattle to show “Guatemala, When the Mountains Tremble,” her feature-length history of the largely Mayan country that has been dominated for centuries by a handful of wealthy families. This week she’s returned to fill in those missing years of genocide, corruption and disappearances (it’s estimated that 100,000 have died this way). The protests that lead to the overthrow of a president carry hard-to-avoid echoes of recent demonstrations in the U.S. Yates is scheduled to attend both screenings. (6 p.m. May 25, Uptown; 3:15 p.m. May 26, Uptown) — John Hartl
The final film of acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s near 70-year career presents a warts-and-all portrait of revolutionary avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Boguslaw Linda embodies the aging artist who struggles against the rising tide of Communist censorship, inspires awe and devotion in his students, and has an almost hostile relationship with his young daughter. He’s simultaneously charismatic, sympathetic and maddening. Deliberately paced, bleak and a touch repetitive, “Afterimages” is a swan song from one of the greats, who, much like his subject, leaves viewers with a treatise on how to look at the world. (9:30 p.m. May 24, Pacific Place; 3:30 p.m. May 26, Uptown) — Brent McKnight
“After the Storm” ★★★½
Japanese filmmaker Hirozaku Kore-eda’s gentle, quietly profound films (“Our Little Sister,” “I Wish,” “Like Father, Like Son,”) are of a piece: domestic tales of families and children, in which the camera — and its extension, us — becomes another member of the clan. Here, a divorced father struggling to get his life on track (“It’s not that easy growing up to be the man you want to be,” he muses) finds himself unexpectedly reconnected with his family after a storm forces them together. Quiet revelations and fleeting poetry — a lottery ticket, we’re reminded, is a piece of a dream — pleasingly ensue. Kore-eda is scheduled to attend both screenings. (7 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 4 p.m. May 20, Egyptian) — Moira Macdonald
“Backpack Full of Cash” ★★½
The debate over the increasing privatization of public education in America is the divisive, hot-button topic at the center of Sarah Mondale’s documentary. Narrated by Matt Damon, the film explores the rise of charter schools, vouchers, online programs and other for-profit models; growing educational inequality, especially in urban areas; and the devastating impact it has on the poorest, most at-risk students. Occasionally repetitive and sloppy, a fiery passion shines through to highlight this vital, complex, difficult to address topic. Mondale is scheduled to attend the screenings on June 6 and June 7. (3:30 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 7 p.m. June 6, Pacific Place; 4:30 p.m. June 7, Pacific Place) — B.M.
“Becoming Who I Was” ★★½
As playfully time-oriented as its title, “Becoming Who I Was” makes reincarnation a central part of its story about a journey through more than one life. Whether you buy it depends largely on your feelings about karma and related ideas that can sound like child abuse in this context. While the child hero grows up on-screen, his teacher has a creepy weakness for death-defying ritual. Director Jin Jeon will attend the screenings at 7 p.m. May 24 at the Majestic Bay and 4:30 p.m. May 25 at Pacific Place. The film plays again at 6:30 p.m. June 1 at Shoreline Community College. — J.H.
“The Bloom of Yesterday”★★½
A Holocaust-research rom-com may sound like a non-starter — but after several swerving left turns, this German film finds and almost holds its center. A meltdown-prone historian (Lars Eidinger) is demoted as organizer of a conference on Auschwitz and saddled with an equally volatile young female intern (Adèle Haenel). Together they try to persuade a skeptical Auschwitz-surviving actress (a scathingly tart Sigrid Marquardt) to participate in the event. Result: a savage yet wacky look at who gets to wield a “moral cudgel.” (9:30 p.m. May 22 and 4 p.m. May 25, SIFF Cinema Uptown; 6:30 p.m. May 24, Lincoln Square) — Michael Upchurch
In concert, she would walk out from the wings and spread her arms wide, “like a dove,” said an admirer, as if embracing the audience. This tuneful portrait of Chavela Vargas, “born singing” in 1919 Costa Rica, admiringly explores her impact on the world of Mexican music as an out lesbian (wait until you hear who she says she woke up with after Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding), a charismatic figure and a great artist whose burnished voice “always sounded as if she’d been torn apart.” Director Catherine Gund is scheduled to attend the May 19 screening. (6 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 11 a.m. May 20, Pacific Place) — M.M.
After a post-divorce suicide attempt, sad-sack Ben (Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley”) goes on a quest to find the “sister” his parents almost adopted. He also has arguments with his skeptical bathroom-mirror reflection and fends off the attentions of a nosy neighbor who’s obviously smitten with him. The script isn’t great, but the plot turns and visuals can be striking, and Jess Weixler has fun as the bad-girl sister Ben finds. Director Jason James is scheduled to attend the May 19 and 20 screenings. (9:15 p.m. May 19, Majestic Bay Cinemas; 2 p.m. May 20, SIFF Cinema Uptown; 9:15 p.m. May 24, Lincoln Square) — M.U.
“Ethel & Ernest” ★★★
Suggesting a matchup between Archie Bunker and Gracie Allen, “Ethel & Ernest” is a sweet British memoir/cartoon about an ordinary couple who survive the Blitz along with their growing son. Mother (voiced by Brenda Blethyn) daftly thanks Hitler for bringing “Mein Kampf” to their shores, while Dad (Jim Broadbent) is shocked that their boy prefers art school to an office job. The three of them get by in spite of their cluelessness. The dry, quirky script is based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. (1:30 p.m. May 19, Pacific Place; noon May 21, Uptown) — J.H.
“The Fabulous Allan Carr” ★★½
This exuberantly trashy documentary was directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (“I Am Divine,” “Tab Hunter Confidential”). This time the focus is on the gaudy showman of the 1970s/1980s, Allan Carr. The cast includes Goldie Hawn, John Travolta, Steve Guttenberg and the late Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, who gives it a touch of class. The survivors are especially effective at recalling the “life is a cabaret’’ momentum of the period. Carr reached his high point promoting “The Deer Hunter” (1978), which won the Oscar for best picture, and his nadir with a 1989 Academy Awards production number that still invites shudders. In between came his biggest hit, “Grease.” (7 p.m. May 19, Egyptian; 11 a.m. May 20, Egyptian) — J.H.
“The Farthest” ★★★½
Imagine the late Chuck Berry and Carl Sagan dancing to a cosmic beat, and you’ve caught the central idea behind “The Farthest,” an irresistible NASA instant classic about the conquest of space — via the Voyager missions. Sagan is captured in one of his goofier moods, behind a desk that makes him look like an earnest schoolteacher. Berry is Berry. They’re the most famous faces in this celebration of scientists and imagers who gave us our first close-ups of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and some of their highly unusual moons. Director Emer Reynolds will attend the screenings May 19 and 20. (4 p.m. May 19, Majestic Bay; 5 p.m. May 20, Uptown; 4 p.m. May 24, Uptown) — J.H.
“Food Evolution” ★★★
“What if while trying to do the right thing, they got it wrong?” asks narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson, in Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s unexpectedly gripping documentary. He’s speaking of anti-GMO activists, many of whom, the film tells us, may be ignoring or dismissing data indicating that GMOs are not harmful. It’s a compelling argument, in a film that may well change a few minds — or at least inspire some heartfelt post-screening arguing. Kennedy (“OT: Our Town”) is scheduled to attend both screenings. (7 p.m. May 19, Pacific Place; 11:30 a.m. May 20, Uptown) — M.M.
Filmmaker Ivan Sen is a quadruple threat as writer, director, composer and cinematographer of this wily Australian thriller. Corrupt forces are at work in a desolate desert mining town where the mayor (Jacki Weaver) is smiling, cake-baking evil incarnate and the lone local policeman (a cagey Alex Russell) may be not be squeaky clean himself. When an outsider “blackfella” detective (Aaron Pedersen) comes to investigate the disappearance of a young Chinese woman, things get sticky. My nominee for best overhead shots in world cinema. (4:30 p.m. May 19 and 8:45 p.m. May 24, SIFF Cinema Uptown; 7 p.m. May 22, Majestic Bay Cinemas) — M.U.
“Heal the Living” ★★★★
Visually extraordinary when it needs to be, and with a laser-sharp focus on its characters’ quirks, ethical dilemmas and emotional complications, this French film tells the story of a heart transplant. Every participant — donor, donor’s family, recipient, recipient’s family, doctors, nurses, transplant coordinator — is given his or her full due. The result is a marvelously specific look at how a dramatic medical procedure fits into the ordinary fabric of these people’s lives. Includes graphic heart-surgery images. (8 p.m. May 21, SIFF Cinema Uptown; 4:30 p.m. May 23, Majestic Bay Cinemas) — M.U.
Tunisian Peugeot salesman Hedi is about to get married — and it seems more his overbearing mother’s idea than his. So it makes sense that, when he falls for a hotel entertainer on a business trip, he starts tearing the whole fabric of his life apart. Actor Majd Mastoura makes pouting, uptight Hedi a completely unpredictable force in the film, while director Mohamed Ben Attia subtly weaves the seismic social changes brought on by the Arab Spring into this sly, poignant drama. (9:30 p.m. May 24 and 6:30 p.m. June 11, Uptown; 1 p.m. May 27, Shoreline Community College) — M.U.
“Hello Destroyer” ★★½
When a minor-league hockey player critically injures an opponent, the incident throws his entire life into upheaval. Isolated and alone, he spirals downward toward rock bottom. Lead Jared Abrahamson delivers a quiet, roiling performance — think a mumblecore take on hockey. Director Kevan Funk presents an occasionally powerful, if slow-moving and overlong meditation on violence and toxic masculinity. Aesthetic choices distance the viewer — interiors are dim to the point where all you see are silhouettes; and intentionally close shots create intimacy in scenes, but feel claustrophobic in others. Funk and producers Hayden Wazelle and Daniel Domachowski are scheduled to attend both screenings. (9:30 p.m. May 20, Pacific Place; 3 p.m. May 21, Uptown) — B.M.
“The Man” ★★★½
Sparks fly when street-artist Casper turns up on the doorstep of his world-famous-artist dad, Simon, who ditched Casper and his mother years ago. Prickly and paranoid, Simon is a womanizing mess. Quiet Casper is a much cooler customer. Every father-son exchange feels loaded, especially once Casper starts taking a sexual interest in his father’s second wife and young mistress. Sly performances and a wily script are the draw here. The artwork is big fun, too. (8:30 p.m. May 21, Majestic Bay; 4:30 p.m. May 23, Uptown; 8:15 p.m. June 4, Kirkland Performance Center) — M.U.
When a grieving mother (a gut-wrenching Emmanuelle Devos) tracks down the people she believes responsible for the hit-and-run death of her teenage son, she weaves herself into their idyllic lives, methodically plotting her revenge. Director Frederic Mermoud, working from a script based on a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, mixes slow-burn tension with devastating emotion. More an affecting meditation on grief and coping with loss than tale of vengeance, “Moka” is a lean, taut dramatic thriller that continually offers delicate surprises as it shifts and evolves, building toward an unexpected yet wholly satisfying conclusion. (6:30 p.m. May 19, Lincoln Square; 9 p.m. May 20, Uptown) — B.M.
“Nowhere to Hide” ★★★★
A profoundly brave film. In 2011, after U.S. troops left Iraq, director Zaradasht Ahmed gave a camera to a kindly emergency medic and asked him to document postwar life in his Central Iraq town. The medic’s initial focus was on lives damaged by “the American War.” But as sectarian violence intensified and ISIS invaded, he and his family became refugees themselves. His extraordinary presence of mind in perilous conditions and his eye for ordinary details of the lives being annihilated around him tell you more than a zillion news reports could. Includes graphic war imagery. (9 p.m. May 19 and 6:30 p.m. May 20, SIFF Film Center) — M.U.
Based on actual events from 1978, director Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s (“Insomnia”) psychological thriller tracks a tight-knit Norwegian coastal community terrorized by a string of arsons. Behind the fires is Dag (Trond Hjort Nilssen), the 19-year-old son of the local fire chief. An outsider in a town where everyone knows everyone, the villagers don’t know him as well as they thought. With fantastic sound design — Dag’s fires sound eerily monstrous and alive — and gorgeous photography, “Pyromaniac” loses focus in the back half. The measured pace and minimalism isn’t for everyone, but the firebug’s escalating, evolving motivations keep the film engaging. (1 p.m. May 20, Majestic Bay; 6 p.m. May 22, Uptown; 6:30 p.m. May 31, Shoreline) — B.M.
Amanda Lipitz’s blink-away-the-tears documentary, a special jury award winner at Sundance earlier this year, isn’t really about step dancing, though its storyline follows a team of Baltimore high-school girls on the road to a step-dance championship. It’s about three remarkable young women — Blessin, Cori and Tayla — on a far more complicated road: to college, and to their dreams. Like them, the film is inspiring and funny and lovely, and you may find the words of one of the girls lingering: “If you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense.” Lipitz is scheduled to attend both screenings. (6 p.m. May 21, Uptown; 4 p.m. May 22, Uptown) — M.M.
“Struggle for Life” ★★½
When the Ministry of Standards sends a hapless, too-old-for-his-role intern to oversee the construction of an indoor ski resort in French Guiana, the result is best described as an unrelenting, absurdist “Apocalypse Now.” In this world, bureaucracy runs wild, to the point where there are parking meters in the jungle, and a vengeful tax assessor pursues the protagonist into the wilderness. This is pure farce in the vein of Jerry Lewis and “The Pink Panther,” but while there are delirious comic bullseyes, it misses the mark as often as it hits and overstays its welcome. (6:30 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 6 p.m. May 20, Majestic Bay; 4:30 p.m. May 22, Uptown) — B.M.
“Those Redheads from Seattle”
Every year, SIFF”s archival offerings include some ultrarare treats. This one has a local flavor: The first movie musical to be filmed in 3D (“Kiss Me Kate” was released just weeks later), “Those Redheads from Seattle” premiered right here at the Paramount Theater on Sept. 23, 1953, with Agnes Moorhead (some of us might remember her from “Bewitched”) starring as the mother of four redheaded singing-and-dancing daughters. It had the misfortune of hitting theaters just when 3D was going out of style, and quickly disappeared from view. But now it’s back, in a 3D restoration that just had its world premiere in April at the TCM Classic Film Festival; should be a kick. Film restorer Robert Furmanek is scheduled to attend the screening. (6:30 p.m. May 23, Uptown) — M.M.
“Two Irenes” ★★★
This leisurely Brazilian coming-of-age story has an explosive secret at its heart. Petulant 13-year-old Irene, the squeaky wheel in her otherwise smoothly functioning family, stalks and befriends another 13-year-old, also named Irene, who lives in the poor part of their small town with her single mom. The intensifying bond between the girls leads to actions their parents don’t see coming. Understated performances and a vivid sense of place make this an appealing package. Actor Priscila Bittencourt is scheduled to attend. (9 p.m. May 25, Lincoln Square; 6 p.m. May 30 and 4 p.m. May 31, SIFF Cinema Uptown) — M.U.
Black-and-white coming-of-age movies are a film-festival staple, but Bruce McDonald’s “Weirdos” sets itself apart with warmth, affection and by being narrated in part by the spirit of Andy Warhol. In 1976, two teens, Kip and Alice, set off on a road trip full of self-discovery and the joyous highs and mournful lows of youth. Their bittersweet journey — photographed like an art book and featuring a stellar period- appropriate soundtrack — captures an earnest hope for the future. The young leads are charming and authentic, and the film reminds us all to embrace our own weirdness. (7 p.m. May 25, Pacific Place; 4:15 p.m. May 27, Pacific Place) — B.M.
“The Winter” ★★★
An Argentine film of rigorous beauty, “The Winter” focuses on an old, cranky Patagonian sheep-ranch foreman who is replaced by a younger man with his own good reasons for avoiding company. Less a thriller than a gradual unveiling of parallel fates, “The Winter” examines the tricks of fighting to survive when you don’t know exactly who your enemy is or what the rules are. The setting is bleak but spectacular; the pacing is slow but deliberate; the performances are non-actorly in the best sense possible. (7 p.m. May 19, Majestic Bay; 9:30 p.m. May 23, SIFF Cinema Uptown; 1 p.m. June 3, Kirkland Performance Center) — M.U.