OKAY, quick show of hands: Has sitting in the dark and temporarily saying goodbye to reality ever seemed like a better idea? Whatever your leanings may be, the Northwest Film Center’s 40th Annual Portland International Film Festival has you more than covered. Featuring over 160 features and shorts, this year’s PIFF lineup offers healthy, yuge doses of compelling fiction, strange facts, and pure escapism.
The positives begin on opening tight, with the terrific Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Working off an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, director Raoul Peck creates a brilliantly absorbing history of American racism, bolstered by Samuel L. Jackson’s impassioned narration. (If you can’t get in, don’t fret—it’ll be in more theaters soon, and is also screening as part of the Portland Black Film Festival.) Meanwhile, there are plenty of other movies on the schedule you might not get another crack at. Check out the Northwest Film Center’s site for complete listings, but for starters, here are some recommendations that are well worth crawling out from under the bed and leaving the house to attend.
Apprentice (Singapore)—A novice prison guard gets taken under the wing of a legendary executioner—for reasons that may not be all that random. A big hit at Cannes, Apprentice manages to be both strangely compassionate and tough-minded (the matter-of-fact preparation of the gallows will not soon be forgotten).
Buzz One Four (US)—Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick tells the story of his grandfather, a military airman whose B-52 crashed in the Maryland woods during a routine flight in the winter of 1964. That’s intense enough, but then comes the revelation of what the hell they had down in the cargo hold.
Dead Slow Ahead (Spain/France)—The gargantuan cargo ship Fair Lady makes its lonely, dangerous way across the Atlantic, replete with extended hypnotic shots of strange machinery untouched by human hands. The best movie I’ve seen this year, director Mauro Herce’s documentary shifts between micro and macro perspectives with startling, unsettling ease. At any given moment, it feels like it could transform into sci-fi or horror.
The Human Surge (Argentina/Brazil/Portugal)—A decidedly strange intermingling of three stories—all about coexisting with technology—that span three countries. More than a little pretentious (and surprisingly sexually explicit), The Human Surge spills over with long passages that lock into a mesmerizing groove. Plus there’s a severely cool bit with ants.
Kati Kati (Kenya/Germany)—A woman wakes up in a mysterious, sparsely populated desert village, and the off-kilter elements start stacking up from there. A sterling example of how to concoct a complete world on a micro-budget, with a mixture of creepiness and empathy that would do Rod Serling proud.
Kedi (Turkey/US)—Full disclosure: I haven’t actually had a chance to see this documentary about cats running wild through the streets of Istanbul. Everyone I know who has, however, tends to describe it in the same dizzy tones of someone who just found two golden tickets in their candy bar. Some things you just have to take on faith, really.
Made in Oregon (US)—This homegrown collection of short films boasts an impressively varied lineup, including a first date gone rapidly thermonuclear (Incendio), an enigmatic look at the events following a car crash in the middle of the Ochoco Forest (The Child and the Dead), and an extremely relevant documentary about the struggle to make abortions safe in Kenya (Kuwepo). Best-in-program honors, however, fall to the wonderfully named Carnal Orient, which, in the space of a few icky minutes, ramps up to full Lynchian food porny weirdness.
Obit (US)—An unvarnished, proudly geeky look at the history of the newspaper obituary and the deadline-plagued reporters responsible (with a heartbreaking segment on David Foster Wallace).
The Teacher (Slovakia/Czech Republic)—An outwardly twinkly middle school teacher uses her Communist party connections to drain every charitable drop from her students and their parents. It’s both darkly funny and quietly unnerving, with a fascinating monster at the center.
We Are The Flesh (Mexico)—After the apocalypse, a not-well-at-all man coerces a brother and sister into doing pretty much every depraved thing imaginable. (Yes. Even that.) Every festival needs a grosser-than-gross endurance test/conversation piece, and director Emiliano Rocha Minter’s visually hellish, oozingly metaphorical debut more than qualifies. Reactions will vary, obviously.
Without Name (Ireland)—While trying to get some distance from his fragmenting home life, a surveyor discovers something markedly unpleasant lurking in a remote patch of woods. The plot may be thin, but the strobing visuals are impressively disorienting—even before the protagonist starts heedlessly chowing down on mushrooms.