Like it did last year, the 2016 Portland International Film Festival, now in its 39th iteration, offered Portlanders a glimpse into a realm of cinema typically inaccessible, providing a non-market-based three weeks (or so) of, undoubtedly, some of the best contemporary films the world has to offer. As the festival details, “…through 97 features and 62 short films from three-dozen countries, the Portland International Film Festival explores not only the art of film but also the world around us, no matter the place or the language spoken.”
“There are several of us who have our eyes on films all year long,” says Nick Bruno, Publicity and Promotions Manager at the Northwest Film Center, the indispensable organization behind the festival each year. “A few of us travel to festivals around North America scouting for movies. And, of course, we also have an open submission period for the festival—we received around 900 submissions for this year’s festival.” The Center’s goal, as it has always been with PIFF, is to expose regional audiences to films and film culture otherwise unavailable in the Metro area. Because, for as artistically inclined as Portlanders often insist they are, rarely do many of the celebrated films that hit Cannes, Berlin or Toronto ever make it to the City of Roses.
Which means that, long after the bidding wars and hype of higher profile festivals have thankfully died down, PIFF offers an unsurprisingly comprehensive idea of the state of world cinema. Asking Bruno what he saw in international film, if anything, that could be construed as a through line, he responded:
Perhaps what has most changed is Portland itself. Housing prices have risen to a worrying degree in the past year, largely due to the city’s boom in major tech companies breaking ground, with much of the Portland’s available (and non-available) real estate going to condo developments. Blame Portlandia, blame the “Dream of Portland,” blame whatever—regardless, the face of Portland is changing drastically. “I spent most of my festival time at Cinema 21 this year, since that’s where PIFF After Dark, which I program, happened,” Bruno explains after he’s asked if he’s seen this change somehow manifest in the festival itself. “The main thing that I noticed that was different was a lot of younger faces attending those screenings. My impulse was to assume that the huge influx of people moving to Portland was somehow fueling that change, though there may be other factors involved.”
This year, the partnership with Voodoo Doughnuts may suffice as another sign of New Portland. The doughnut seller, now well known to tourists and cable TV subscribers alike, has become ubiquitous when thinking of Portland as a destination. Bruno described the festival’s alignment with the confectionery giant, “Our festival design team (Sandstrom Partners—who we’ve work with for decades now) floated the idea of the ‘international’ doughnuts leading up to last year’s festival. We went with a different idea then, but returned to the doughnut theme for this year’s festival. The Northwest Film Center’s director Bill Foster approached Voodoo with the idea and they loved it.” Not only did Voodoo sponsor the festival and provide a particularly delicious theme (“Each of those doughnuts featured in the design was hand crafted by Voodoo and then photographed and digitally perfected by Sandstrom,” remembered Bruno), but they posted up doughnut food trucks outside of certain showings. No matter how big Portland gets, one can’t escape the city’s sense of community.
Otherwise, PIFF was as dependable as ever, drawing crowds to such beloved theaters as the aforementioned Cinema 21, as well as Fox Tower, Roseway, and Whitsell Auditorium in the Portland Art Museum, where an extra dose of whimsy was added to one’s viewing experience via the so-called “greatest cat painting ever made,” which sits right outside the theater doors. The focus of the festival was of course access and comprehensive content, but special events popped up all over town, from Man vs Snake directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy (who worked together on Battlestar Galactica) hosting a midnight Q&A at Cinema 21 on the festival’s last night, to documentary short directors and Portland natives Irene Taylor Brodsky and Skye Fitzgerald showing their films, Open Your Eyes and 50 Feet from Syria respectively, before a crowd of supportive friends and fans—which led naturally into a reception hosted by a mighty proud HBO Documentary Films. Fitzgerald even brought along the subject of his film, hand surgeon Dr. Hisham Bismar, to talk about his time serving Syrian refugees in Hungary.
But really, the star here is the Northwest Film Center. As late as this coverage can seem, and as redundant as these lists can feel given much of their coverage elsewhere—with many reviews of these films featured on this site already—the point, we hope, in so obligatorily picking our favorites is to point out just what a phenomenal event the Film Center puts on each year. Which of course doesn’t end with PIFF: Among its current list of showings and series are a complete viewing of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, a Wim Wenders retrospective, a showcase of Bollywood films, a collection of picks from the UCLA archive, and, every second Friday of the month, a film discussion “club”—this week is Otto Preminger’s Laura. So, in other words, if you’re going to take one thing from this article, we hope it’s a renewed support and enthusiasm for Portland’s foremost film resource.
And so, as always, we missed a handful of films we shouldn’t have missed—notably Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, Radu Jude’s Aferim!, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, Peter Greenway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato and Marcin Wrona’s Demon—but we did catch like 30-something titles, 15 of which we’ve included in the following pages as our favorites, showcasing the sheer breadth of stuff to find at the festival each year. Films worth checking out that we haven’t listed are Johnnie To’s 3D musical Office, which is a welcome departure for the director but one that struggles to compare to the precision of his Hong Kong action films, and Lee Joon-Ik’s The Throne, an affecting period piece that loses all earned melodrama in its bloated final 10 minutes. Plus, if you’re going to watch one Ghanaian Pidgin musical in your lieftime, make it King Luu’s Cuz Ov Moni 2: FOKN Revenge, whose soundtrack (by stars Fokn Bois) is on Spotify and is magnificently, grotesquely catchy—especially if you prefer your musicals beginning with its two main characters on the toilet, talking about their shits.
With that, the following films are our favorites at this year’s PIFF, beginning with Dom’s picks for the 10 best narrative features, followed by our five full-length documentaries. Covering everything from Oscar nominees to the final works of film legends, these films should be considered a primer to the best of what’s to come for 2016 as far as wide release foreign films. In other words, if any of these show up in your town, go while you still can: