DOES ANYONE like February? Its disadvantages are fierce: the weather's awful, its most heavily advertised holiday snubs half the population, and its only attractive quality is its brevity. Wait—actually, it has two attractive qualities. In Portland theaters, at least, February is dominated by the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), currently in its 38th year. It's not the biggest or the best festival of its kind, but goddamn it, it's ours, and there's no better time than drab, busted February to explore the world from the vantage of a dark room.
If you've never been to PIFF, the intimidation factor might have something to do with it: It overwhelms with nearly 100 feature films, plus 60 shorts, most of which you've never heard of. That's why we here at the Mercury attend twice-daily press screenings for weeks, and generally try to see as many of PIFF's films as we can in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. (You'll find the fruits of those efforts in this week's Film Shorts.)
The festival itself also provides a few highlights that are easy enough to latch onto. Opening night, for instance, features the Pedro Almodóvar-produced Wild Tales, a darkly comedic anthology critiquing Argentinian society. There are models and plane crashes and rat poisonings, but if the opening night cover price ($25) is too steep, don't worry: There's plenty of well-rendered violence and misery elsewhere in the programming.
This year's PIFF also specializes in new Hispanic films, and at the tail end of the festival they'll have a "Cine-Lit" conference, where directors from Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Spain will present their films in conjunction with panels and papers by fellow directors, writers, and academics. Prefer to skip straight to the edgiest content? Start with PIFF After Dark, a showcase of films like Canada's Backcountry, in which a couple's camping trip goes horribly wrong; Japan's R100, about a secret S&M club that administers beatings to its clients at random points in time; the Australian post-apocalyptic romp Wyrmwood; and Darkness by Day, a slow-creeping Argentinian vampire/rabies horror flick.
That still leaves a lot of films, many of which won't ever show on movie screens in Portland again, so choose wisely. One to keep an eye on is The Look of Silence, the follow-up from Joshua Oppenheimer, who astonished audiences last year with The Act of Killing, and this time probes the massacres in 1960s Indonesia from the victims' point of view. Speaking of disturbing content, Russia's The Fool offers a tragic, violence-tinged indictment of small-town government corruption, the neglect of public housing, and the futility of trying to do anything about it. In Brazil's A Wolf at the Door, the confusing circumstances around the disappearance of a child unwind to a series of unconscionable acts with an unbelievably cold finale. Belgium takes on sex and murder with Alléluia, based on a real pair of serial-killing lovebirds, and the Stellan Skarsgård-starring Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance is a bloody, mobster revenge fest.
In slightly lighter fare, Italy's Human Capital examines the sometimes invisible divides between wealthy people and norms in the wake of a fatal bike accident, while Viggo Mortensen staggers through a Patagonian wasteland in avant-garde director Lisandro Alonso's Jauja. And if all the vicarious globetrotting has you homesick, PIFF also has some interesting stateside documentaries on everything from the guy who plays Big Bird (I Am Big Bird, aptly enough), to icons Iris Apfel (Iris) and Orson Welles (Magician), to BASE jumping (Sunshine Superman) and champagne (A Year in Champagne). Okay, technically that last one was filmed in France. But hey, it's February. Let's get out of here.