Let me backtrack a bit. Every year, the Northwest Film Center puts on the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF)—a massive, ungainly blob of cinema from all over the world. For steadfast devotees of the Northwest Film Center, PIFF is the highlight of the year. For everyone else, it more or less doesn't exist.

Facts are facts: Despite cramming a ridiculous number of hard-to-find films into a relatively short timeframe, PIFF simply isn't on the radar for most Portlanders. One can blame the marketing, the venues, or the films, but regardless: While PIFF has always had the potential to be one of Portland's defining arts events, instead, it's usually content to shuffle past in the background, largely unnoticed.

But this year, people are talking about PIFF—and more surprisingly, talking about going. Admittedly, this shift is mostly due to one movie, and one that, it should be noted, is hardly representative of PIFF as a whole. But still, this marks a pretty important departure from PIFF's staid status quo—and offers some hope that this year, PIFF might become the film festival that Portland deserves. Call it the Coraline Effect.


The Northwest Film Center has never selected PIFF's films based on premiere status—instead, they book films that have already made their rounds on the festival circuit. They also rarely select films based on whether or not they'll pull crowds—instead, they usually show little-known flicks from countries most famous for their waffles, or the sort of movies you'd take your mom to if she were in town. (Regarding the former, this year's PIFF program touts Eldorado, "a droll and idiosyncratic addition to the Belgian noir tradition" [fucking seriously?]. Regarding the latter, and based on my intimate experiences with her, I'd say it's a pretty good bet your mom will love Taiwan's Cape No. 7, a "heartwarming tale of music and longing.") But while many PIFF films seem to be chosen with the Matlock set in mind, the fest deserves credit for taking steps to broaden their audience in recent years—and nowhere is this more evident than with this year's opening film, Coraline, which seems a clear attempt to make PIFF more relevant and welcoming.

Let's put it this way: Coraline is not a droll addition to the genre of Belgian film noir. Instead, the 3D, stop-motion animated film is based on a book by Neil Gaiman, helmed by The Nightmare Before Christmas' genius director Henry Selick, and is the first feature from Laika, the animation studio in Northwest Portland that used to be Will Vinton Studios, back before Nike kazillionaire Phil Knight bought it, fired Vinton, and got into the movie business. Seventy million dollars later, Laika has produced the gorgeous, inventive, and melancholy Coraline—a film that's fantastic to look at, gives Pixar a run for its money in the creativity department, and reminds everyone how cool animation used to look in those prehistoric days before CG.

Coraline is a huge deal for the local film scene—and snagging the premiere is a huge deal for PIFF, which is outfitting the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with digital projection in order to host the film's red-carpet premiere on February 5. Coraline opens nationwide the next day—which is also when PIFF begins in earnest, showcasing almost 80 features and 37 short films.


I'll admit to my weaknesses—one of them being that if you show me a phrase like "the Belgian noir tradition," I'll inevitably make fun of it. (I can help doing so no more than I can resist making stupid puns about Laika and rolling stones. Apologies.) But snark aside, there's some genuinely cool stuff at PIFF this year: Check out Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany), a smart, visceral thriller about left-wing terrorists the Red Army Faction. Also see Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah (Italy), a brutal, sprawling epic about gangsters and wannabe gangsters in Naples. There's also the impressive "urban fairytale" Mermaid (Russia), and the excellent baseball drama Sugar (United States), which comes from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who last made 2006's phenomenal "My teacher smokes crack!" drama Half Nelson.

Meanwhile: First-time director Steve McQueen scored accolades at Cannes for his raw, depressing-as-hell Hunger (Great Britain), about the Irish Republican Army's 1981 hunger strike; low-key comedy O'Horten (Norway) is offbeat and charming without being twee; and Dream Weavers: Beijing 2008 (China) documents the Beijing Olympics, from "the grueling regime of young female gymnasts" to "the training of the Beijing SWAT team." There's also Sundance fave King of Ping Pong (Sweden), which (A) should get some sort of prize for having the goofiest-sounding foreign-language title (dude! "Ping-pongkingen" was totally the name of my junior high prog-rock band!), and (B) sounds like a promising drama about a tubby teenager who, despite his family troubles, "rules all" at ping pong.

Obviously, once Coraline's end credits roll, you'll need to shift gears a bit—PIFF won't be showing many other films with Hollywood-sized budgets, or that won't require you to put on your subtitle-readin' glasses, or that were made next door to your apartment. (Though there is one program of shorts—Short Cuts II: Oregon Made—that will show off a bit more of Portland's homebrewed cinema.) Still, while Coraline will undoubtedly put asses in the seats, those who stick around afterward will find other worthwhile stuff to watch.

The Mercury has been pretty critical of PIFF over the past few years, and only partially because Belgian noir is such an easy target. No—mostly we grumble because year after year, it's frustrating to catch glimpses of how kickass PIFF could be if it was an event the city cared about. When PIFF does stretch its resources, expand its focus, and seek out new audiences—as they're doing with Coraline—the festival can be one of Portland's most unique and rewarding experiences. Here's hoping that this year, one high-profile film will introduce Portlanders to everything else that PIFF does—and could—offer.