The Seattle International Film Festival is back. Out of the many films screening during week one, here are the ones we loved.

Share story

The Seattle International Film Festival is back, with a packed slate of screenings running May 17-June 10. Here are the festival’s early highlights from film critics Moira Macdonald, Brent McKnight, and J.R. Kinnard. For more information, see

“American Animals” ★★★★

Director Bart Layton’s heist yarn is an exhilarating exercise in art imitating life (that was imitating art). In 2004, four Kentucky college students robbed the rare-book collection at Transylvania University in Lexington. Using their encyclopedic knowledge of heist films as inspiration, they concoct a goofy scheme that ends with predictably disastrous results. These weren’t criminals; these were bored little boys desperate to see “what’s on the other side of the line.” Layton uses an ingenious blend of dramatization and actual interviews with the four robbers to craft a thoughtful commentary on disaffected youth that still delivers genuine thrills. Layton is scheduled to attend both screenings. (9 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 1:30 p.m. May 20, Pacific Place) – J.R. Kinnard

“Blindspotting” ★★★½

With three days left on parole, Collin (Daveed Diggs) navigates the changing streets of Oakland, California, with his chip-on-his-shoulder lifelong bestie Miles (Raphael Casal). Written by longtime pals Diggs and Casal, “Blindspotting” plays like a buddy comedy spliced with raw, intense looks at race, class, police brutality, toxic masculinity and gentrification. The leads have easy chemistry, sprinkling in improvised raps, and director Carlos López Estrada’s stylistic embellishments enhance thematic concerns. More than a treatise or answer key, it’s a palpable blast of frustration and rage that shakes you — and should vault Diggs to the top of every casting agent’s list. López Estrada will attend both screenings. (6:30 p.m. May 19, Egyptian; 4:15 p.m. May 20, Egyptian) — Brent McKnight

“Breath” ★★★½

“The Mentalist” star Simon Baker makes his directorial debut with “Breath.” Two young Australian surfers discover freedom on the waves and adopt a mysterious local (Baker) as their guru. He pushes the boys to their limits, physically and emotionally. Think a more thoughtful “Point Break” with less bank robbery — it displays quieter machismo. With elegant surf photography and a confident hand, Baker proves adept behind the camera. Strong performances by Samson Coulter, Ben Spence and Elizabeth Debicki anchor a delicate coming-of-age story that explores masculinity and fear, and, like surfing, is equally about what’s beneath as on the surface. (9:30 p.m. May 24, Uptown; 3:45 p.m. May 25, Uptown; 8:15 p.m. June 3, Kirkland Performance Center) — B.M.

“Disobedience” ★★★½

Chilean-born filmmaker Sebastián Lelio (“Gloria,” “A Fantastic Woman”) makes his English-language debut with this vivid tale of a love triangle set in an Orthodox Jewish community in London. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) are childhood friends long separated; quickly we learn why — they were once in love, and their connection remains electric, though Esti is now married to their mutual friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivolo). Lelio and the actors tell the story through fraught silences and meaningful glances, with Weisz and McAdams movingly conveying the feeling of being lost — and found — together. (6:45 p.m. May 20, Egyptian; 6:30 p.m. May 21, Ark Lodge) — Moira Macdonald

“First Reformed” ★★★★

Ever the provocateur, writer-director Paul Schrader delivers a religious drama sure to polarize audiences. Part rumination on faith and part environmental diatribe, “First Reformed” pushes a troubled reverend (Ethan Hawke) to confront his feelings of spiritual abandonment after one of his parishioners — a radical environmental activist — commits suicide. Schrader dissects the roots, hypocrisies and virtues of Christianity through a series of increasingly troubling symbols. As the façade is peeled away and the good reverend grows more unhinged, we find ourselves uncomfortably close to the heart of radicalism. Not an easy watch, but required viewing for ambitious cinephiles. (4 p.m. May 18, Egyptian; 7 p.m. May 22, Uptown) – J.R.K.

“The Guilty” ★★★½

One man sitting in a single location talking on the phone for 85 minutes isn’t usually thrilling, but here’s Danish director Gustav Möller’s minimalist Sundance favorite, “The Guilty,” which basically takes place in a cubicle. A cop assigned to desk duty at an emergency dispatch center laments the lack of action, until he answers a call from a kidnapped woman that creates chaos. Möller squeezes every drop of tension out of the concept, and then finds ways to suck the air from your lungs again. The film veers in unexpected ways and showcases star Jakob Cedergren, who delivers a stratospheric turn. (7 p.m. May 18, Majestic Bay; 9:30 p.m. May 25, Uptown) — B.M.

“The Last Suit” ★★★½ 

Seventy years ago, in the filthy basement of a Polish tenement, Abraham Bursztein promised a dear friend that he would one day return. With dry humor and unflinching candor, director Pablo Solarz shows us exactly why it took Abraham — a Holocaust survivor — 70 years to fulfill his promise. Much like David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” a broken-down Abraham is forced to accept the kindness of strangers along his journey. In return, this proud Jewish tailor bestows the life wisdom that came at a terrible price. Bring a full box of tissues. (7 p.m. May 23, Uptown; 4 p.m. May 25, Egyptian; 6:00 p.m. June 3, Kirkland Performance Center) – J.R.K.

“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts” ★★★½

After surviving an attack from a group of entitled local men — and making short work of them in the process — recently widowed Marlina sets out on a quest for justice and retribution, a dangling severed head and very pregnant sidekick in tow. In this spare, stunning Indonesian neo-spaghetti western, Marlina discovers that entrenched patriarchal power structures aren’t easy to topple in a world where cops care more about stolen livestock than sexual assault. With a Morricone-inspired score, gorgeous cinematography that screams to be witnessed on a big screen, and bleak humor, this film’s tightly executed, meticulously controlled surface barely contains the seething fury within. (11 a.m. May 28, Pacific Place; 9:15 p.m. June 1, Pacific Place) — B.M.

“On Chesil Beach” ★★★½

The great Saoirse Ronan, whose delicate voice here contains a universe of pain, turns in another heartbreaker of a performance in Dominic Cooke’s quiet British drama, set in 1962 and based on Ian McEwan’s novel. She’s Florence, a very young newlywed; Billy Howle is Edward, her also very young husband. Their wedding night turns into an excruciating symphony of awkwardness; flashbacks show us, subtly, the overwhelming baggage each of them carries. “It’s a series of questions,” Florence says, describing a piece of music; so, hauntingly, is the film — you wish Billy could just lose himself, as we do, in her eyes. (7 p.m. May 25, Shoreline; 3 p.m. June 2, Uptown) — M.M.

“People’s Republic of Desire” ★★★½

In China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people slotted into a rigid social structure, livestreaming is a fashionable means for ordinary citizens to transcend poverty. Director Hao Wu’s glitzy documentary follows several young internet hosts as they negotiate a virtual minefield between the demanding agencies that bankroll them for millions and the adoring fans who look to them for inspiration. “All I know is how to make money,” a singer of questionable talent admits. In a digital fantasy world where culture has been abandoned in favor of commerce, talent is the cheapest commodity. Director Hao Wu is scheduled to attend both screenings. (6 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 3:30 p.m. May 20, Lincoln Square) –J.R.K.

“Revenge” ★★★½

Not an easy watch by any measure, the reason SIFF scheduled Coralie Fargeat’s “Revenge” for a midnight screening is obvious. It’s a trippy, sun-bleached, balls-to-the-wall slice of savage French exploitation and certainly has a very niche audience. When an idyllic desert vacation with her rich but married boyfriend goes horribly awry, Jen (Matilda Lutz) plunges into a hyperstylized saga of violence, survival and retribution that subverts rape-revenge tropes and pushes the limits of plausibility in its depiction of how much blood the human body holds. Gore-soaked and transgressive, “Revenge” will test your stomach’s mettle — in a variety of ways. (11:59 p.m. May 18, Egyptian) — B.M.

“Sweet Country” ★★★½

Uncompromising, deliberate, and eerily beautiful, director Warwick Thornton’s rugged Australian Western puts a new spin on an old story. After an Aboriginal ranch hand violently defends his family against a white rancher, he must flee into the Outback to avoid a bloodthirsty posse. The unrelenting savagery of the land forces both fugitive and pursuer to re-evaluate their definition of justice. Thornton’s stark imagery, like a single drop of venom dangling from a scorpion’s stinger, is a haunting reminder that death is always near. More pointedly, it challenges the audience to understand the impossibility of justice in a society predicated on inequality. (12:30 p.m. May 19, Uptown; 6:30 p.m. May 26, Ark Lodge) – J.R.K.

“Three Peaks” ★★★½

Young Tristan is conflicted about his mother’s new boyfriend, Aaron. He’s still loyal to his displaced father, but Aaron is younger and full of playful energy. Over the course of summer vacation in the picturesque Italian Dolomites, Tristan tests Aaron’s dedication in increasingly dangerous ways. Director Drei Zinnen, with an assist from cinematographer Axel Schneppat, manifests the fears of this struggling family in every mountain, snow drift, and dying tree. What begins as a frolic in the sunshine grows progressively darker, until the entire landscape is obscured by an impenetrable fog that threatens to swallow them all. (4:30 p.m. May 22, Majestic Bay Cinemas; 9:30 p.m. May 29, Uptown) – J.R.K.

“Three Identical Strangers” ★★★½

What’s crazier than finding a long-lost twin? How about a long-lost triplet? With a story so bizarre it can only be true, Tim Wardle’s documentary, “Three Identical Strangers,” tells the tale of three young men who discover they’re actually identical triplets separated at birth. But what begins as a light and fluffy, too-weird-to-be-fiction story goes unimaginably deeper, stranger, darker. It’s best to go in as cold as possible, to try (and likely fail) to guess what comes next, and to prepare for a wild, twisting nonfiction ride. (7 p.m. May 22, Egyptian; 4:30 p.m. May 23, Uptown) — B.M.

“Under the Tree” ★★★½

Tragic losses never mourned, unrelenting Icelandic gloom, and one enormous tree loom over two families pitted in an escalating battle of wills. Hafsteinn Sigurðsson’s film begins as a trifling neighborhood dispute about an overgrown shade tree and ends as a violent tug-of-war with alarmingly high stakes. Darkly comic and submerged in irony, events unfold with the inevitability of a slow-motion car wreck. When the emotional and physical carnage finally recedes, Sigurðsson leaves us with one haunting image that proves the universe has a sick sense of humor indeed. (9:30 p.m. May 18, Egyptian; 3:30 p.m. May 20, Uptown) – J.R.K.

“We the Animals” ★★★½

Adapting Justin Torres’ autobiographical novel, Jerimiah Zagar crafts a haunting, singular coming-of-age story. Three rowdy but close brothers run wild through their working-class town in upstate New York, trying to survive their parents’ explosive relationship — by turns abusive and manically passionate — and stay afloat financially. All the while, Jonah, the youngest, attempts to wrap his head around his burgeoning queer identity. Dreamy and impressionistic, interspersed with fantastic bursts of animation, “We the Animals” plays like a gauzy, mesmerizing, half-remembered experience from childhood. Writer Daniel Kitrosser will attend the May 25 screening. (7 p.m. May 25, Pacific Place; 12:30 p.m. May 26, Uptown) — B.M.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” ★★★½

OK, did you know that Fred Rogers did all the voices of the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe? Despite growing up with Mr. Rogers’ kindly voice, this revelation kind of blew my mind, in a gentle Mr. Rogers-ish way. Morgan Neville’s warmhearted documentary brings to life the man who helped so many of us through childhood, believing that his role was “to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.” By the end … no, I wasn’t crying, there was something in my eye. Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) will attend both screenings. (6 p.m. May 26, Uptown; 1:30 p.m. May 27, Uptown) — M.M.


Seattle International Film Festival

May 17-June 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown,  SIFF Cinema Egyptian, SIFF Film Center, Pacific Place, Majestic Bay (May 18-23), Ark Lodge (May 18-24), Lincoln Square (May 18-31), Kirkland Performance Center (May 31-June 3), Shoreline Community College (May 25-June 2). Individual tickets are $11 for weekday matinees ($9 SIFF members), $14 evening/weekend shows ($12 SIFF members);  various ticket packages available. Box office: 206-324-9996, or at festival venues.