The Best Movies of the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival

Before I share my favorite films of SIFF 2014, let me preface this by admitting I was only able to get to 25 films out of the 435 featured at this three-week film festival.  Although I love short films, I did not get to any of the 163 short films. There were 198 feature films, 60 documentary features, and 14 archival films (old classics).  Forty-four of the films were world premieres, 29 North American premieres, and 13 U.S. premieres.  Keep in mind that some big films get their starts at film festivals.  The Empire Strikes Back was a SIFF world premiere in 1980 and Braveheart was an opening night film at SIFF in 1995.

Of the 25 films I saw, six were documentaries, the others all feature films.  Of the feature films, I saw four comedies, one comedy-horror, one horror, a bio-pic, two adventure thrillers, nine dramas, and one romantic drama.  Of the 83 countries represented, I saw films from 19 different countries, 5 continents.  Here is my top ten list:

1. Belle et Sebastien

My very favorite film of SIFF 2014 was Belle et Sebastien (France), a delightful as well as dramatic family film reminiscent of an earlier generation’s Heidi, set in the French Alps.  Boy (Sebastien) must save misunderstood dog (Belle), a magnificent Great Pyrenees who mountain folk believe is killing their sheep. Added to this tension, Nazis are trying to close an over-the-mountain escape route for Jews.  Dog and boy must save the day—but can they do it?  Totally a winner with magnificent cinematography and wonderful acting by the boy (Félix Bossuet) and his grandfather César (Tchéky Karyo).  The only drawback for young viewers is that the film is in French with English subtitles, but I hope the film is not remade with English-speaking actors or dubbed—the young actor is just too good in his role.

2. The Grand Seduction & 3. One Chance

One Chance (UK) and The Grand Seduction (Canada) are comedic movies.  Both are very funny despite some underlying serious issues—bullying in the first, and a depressed fishing economy in the second.  One Chance will come out in theaters about late summer and I highly recommend it to viewers of all ages.  A feel-good inspirational film without a lot of mushy sentimentality, it is based on the true story of Paul Potts, an opera-loving and accident-prone boy from an industrial Welsh town who goes on, as an adult, to win the first “Britain’s Got Talent.”  The casting is perfect with James Corden playing Paul, Alexandra Roach as his girlfriend, and Colm Meaney as his tough, “how-did-I-get-such-a-girly-boy” son as his father.  I cross my fingers that this is a hit at the theaters.

The Grand Seduction is just plain funny.  It was first made in 2013 in French, a Quebec film, and then remade in English with a different cast and director, filmed in Newfoundland.  The English version is just out at theaters.  You should recognize Brendan Gleeson as the main character, an out-of-work fisherman in a harbor village where most everyone else is out-of-work as well.   A petroleum company wants to open a petroleum-recycling plant in their community, but one requirement is that they must have a permanent resident doctor.

The comedy comes in the great lengths the locals go to in order to lure a young doctor (played by handsome, charming Taylor Kitsch from NBC’s “Friday Night Lights”) to come to their derelict harbor.  Except for a few actors, all the characters are real Newfoundlanders.  This played to a full house at SIFF and judging from the laughter from the crowd (including mine), I feel safe to say the film was well-received.

4. Sold

Of the dramas I saw, I liked Sold best.  This is an all-round professionally-made film that is expected out at theaters later this year to be accompanied by a global outreach campaign against human trafficking.  With the same setting as the documentary Born in the Brothels, this feature film follows a young Nepalese girl Lakshmi, age 13, whose family is deceived by a woman who promises her a housekeeping job with a fine Indian family only to find herself enslaved in a brothel.

One would expect a movie with this theme to be utterly depressing, but it is not.  The film exposes the horrors children and women face as enslaved prostitutes, but also shows how the human spirit strives to stay alive and find meaning in one’s life in even the grimmest of situations.  Lakshmi never loses hope of a rescue or an escape and we hope along with her.

There are some familiar names in the film—Gillian Anderson and David Arquette—but the star is Niyar Saikia (Lakshmi).  I voted for her as Best Actress at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) 2014, and the director Jeffrey Brown as Best Director.  They didn’t win—those honors went to Patricia Arquette (Best Actress), director Richard Linklater (Best Director), of the film Boyhood (Best Film)—winners of the popular vote at the festival.

5. One Upon a Forest

My favorite documentary, which I feel confident will see a theater release, is Once Upon a Forest, by the director Luc Jacquet of March of the Penguins fame.  This doc combines incredible aerial and close-up photography of rainforests—the plants and animals that live within—plus intricate drawings, animation, and a lively narrative to express botanist Francis Hallé’s dynamic perspective garnered from 50 years of studying the world’s tropical rainforests.

The film acknowledges the disastrous destruction to which humans continue to subject these mighty forests, but also imparts hope for the forests’ ultimate rebirth and healing.  This is no dry documentary but full of movement, power, and vitality.

Reviews of all the films listed above will appear on this website shortly.  Here’s a brief summary of the other five films on my list:

  • The Sunfish is a quiet Danish film about a middle-aged economically-challenged fisherman and the perceived enemy of fisherman—a marine biologist, part drama, part romance.
  •  First Snowfall is also a quiet film, set in the Italian Alps, about an unhappy African immigrant forced to raise his baby daughter alone who begins to work for an elderly Italian man on his mountain property.  There he befriends a troubled fatherless boy, grandson of his employer.   This film is suitable for all ages except the youngest and the most sheltered, as it does deal with serious life issues.
  • Willow Creek is a comedy-horror film with great naturalistic acting by its two main characters, a boyfriend/girlfriend out searching for Bigfoot, filmed in Blair Witch style.  Very funny until it isn’t.
  • Big in Japan stars a real Seattle band called Tennis Pros who are coaxed by a dubious promoter to improve their chances of success by touring in Japan.  The promoter is played by Alex Vincent, who in real life was a member of the Seattle band Green River and later spent years with the music industry in Japan.  The band members play themselves, and at least one real wife and child are in the film as well, which is half-fiction, half-real-life.  It is quite funny and very human.  After the film at SIFF, all the band members and the director did a Q&A, which was fun.
  •  The Rooftops is filmed on the rooftops of Algiers:  five separate dramas all taking place in one day, measured out by the five daily calls-of-prayer, directed by Algeria’s leading director Merzak Allouache.  Not a happy film, but quite compelling.

If you have never been to a film festival, I would highly recommend you find one in a city near you.  You may see future Academy Award-worthy films a year or two before their mainstream release.  You will surely see films with exotic settings, unusual characters, and with out-of-the ordinary themes.  Some will, unfortunately, never be seen anywhere else.  These films provide a healthy counterpoint to the frenetic, adrenaline-driven blockbuster movies by the major studios.

By Karen Samdahl
Related categories: Comedies, Documentaries, Drama Movies, Movies, Top 10 Movie Lists