'Fanie Fourie’s Lobola'
'Fanie Fourie’s Lobola'

The sprawling 39th Seattle International Film Festival, at 25 days the largest in the United States, wrapped up on Sunday. At the annual awards brunch at the Space Needle, director Carl Spence, jury members and some of his programming team of 25 announced the winners of the SIFF 2013 Competition and Golden Space Needle Audience Awards.

The fest launched on May 16 with Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing," one of the more popular films at the fest, which ran over 447 films from 85 countries, including 49 World (18 Features, 31 Shorts), 48 North American (38 Features, 10 Shorts), 17 US Premieres (6 Features, 11 Shorts), and over 700 screenings. Spence thanked Delta Airlines for making it possible to bring in more talent and industry pros than ever before. The fest closes Sunday night with Sofia Coppola's Cannes selection "The Bling Ring."

Strikingly, the audience award-winner, "Fanie Fourie's Lobola," came from the first-ever African Pictures program of 18 films, which was made possible by a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Programmers scoured festivals and traveled to several African countries to find the best films available. Distributors are hovering over this engaging South African romantic comedy, which earned a standing ovation Saturday. Director Henk Pretorius promised to change the title "because nobody gets that name right."

Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg

The high point of the festival for me was watching Victor Sjöström’s must-see 1928 classic film "The Wind," starring Lillian Gish as a young woman trying to stay sane on the lone prairie, accompanied by a rousing, driving live score by the country western rock band The Maldives. Unforgettable. I also enjoyed a painstakingly restored digital print of Marcel Carne's "Port of Shadows," starring iconic Jean Gabin and Michelle Morgan, a controversial film that was mangled on its initial release.

Several message films about cancer were in the program, including popular "Decoding Annie Parker," starring Helen Hunt and audience Best Actress award-winner Samantha Morton, based on the true story of the 15-year push to find a genetic marker for breast cancer, which is handed down in many families. At the first SIFF showing June 6, geneticist Mary-Claire King (played by Hunt) finally met the real Annie Parker (Morton).

Also playing at the fest was "The Girl with Nine Wigs," a German film based on the true story of a 21-year-old who fights a rare and aggressive cancer with intense chemo therapy and radiation, and adopts multiple personas to go with her colorful wigs. Writer Sophie van der stap created a blog about her experience which she turned into a bestselling novel. Model Lisa Tomaschewsky initially resisted shaving off her gorgeous brown mane, but after reading the novel she willingly went bald on camera for her first feature film role. The source material is stronger than the execution for this TV movie, which does not measure up to the similar "50/50."

I enjoyed the Saturday night gala film "Drinking Buddies," 31-year-old Joe Swanberg's four-hander starring Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston, which played to a packed house. (Our SXSW review here.) It's fascinating to watch Swanberg's evolution from microbudget improviser to managing a higher-cost production with a larger cast and 40-person crew. It requires writing things down, Swanberg admitted. But that's for the crew--there's still no dialogue for the actors. For those wondering, yes they all drank real beer provided by many breweries during production. "As my movies get bigger I have to fight for smallness," said Swanberg, who recognizes that his strength is in the every day, the real. He's sticking to that.

The narrative jury's New Director's Award went to Emir Baigazin's debut feature "Harmony Lessons," which "set the bar for all the films for the narrative jury," said jury member Thelma Adams. The film about the struggle for survival of a bullied Muslim boy in rural Kazakhstan deals with societal dominance and submission and the hierarchy of male bullying male. Adams described it as "quietly terrifying." The film is a backed by funds from Kazakhstan, Germany and France.

The doc jury prize went to Penny Lane's all-archival documentary "Our Nixon," which portrays the unraveling of the Nixon presidency via super-8 footage from three White House aides. A special jury prize went to Lucy Walker's "The Crash Reel," which shows snowboarder Kevin Pearce's journey back from traumatic brain injury thanks to a healing family.

The Fipresci critics jury awarded Best New American film to Kyle Patrick Alvarez's "C.O.G.," which is based on an essay on youthful self-actualization by David Sedaris, and will soon be opening Outfest in LA. 

Another film that played well in Seattle was Moroccan film "The Horses of God," which won the audience Golden Needle Award for best director, Nabil Ayouch (see runners up below). Continuing its successful run on the fest circuit is Morgan Neville's "20 Feet from Stardom," which won the audience award for best doc. The audience voted "Still Mine" star 

James Cromwell as Best Actor, narrowly beating out "Hannibal" star Mads Mikkelsen in "The Hunt." "Who will tell Mads?" asked Spence.
See the SIFF winners announcement below.