Our Top Picks for the Portland International Film Festival

First cows, first loves, and bloodthirsty puppets—we break down a robust PIFF lineup.

By Conner Reed March 5, 2020

Orion Lee (left) and John Magaro in Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, which screens March 13 at Cinema 21.


The 43rd Portland International Film Festival kicks off March 6, which is good news for Reichardt-heads (coining this) and fans of star-studded six hour musical podcasts. Northwest legend Kelly Reichardt will screen her fantastic new feature First Cow (which we take a look at in this month's issue) next week, and Shrill star John Cameron Mitchell will camp out at Kennedy School this weekend for an all-day listening party of his musical podcast Anthem: Homunculus.

There's also a free community screening of the new Pixar flick, a whole workshop series, and... movies! From all over the world. This year's lineup includes titles that would typically screen at the Northwest Filmmakers' Festival, because new NW Film Center director Amy Dotson chose to fold that festival in to PIFF. She says it helps PIFF meet the dual goals of amplifying local voices and bringing international talent to Portland's attention.

“It’s much more of a mixup and a mashup than it’s been,” Dotson says. “We’re showing some amazing international cinema. We’re also showing Purple Rain.” 

Under her guidance, this year’s PIFF’s will also include its first-ever jury. The three-person body will award filmmaking prizes alongside a series of brand-new honorific Cinema Unbound Awards, which will go to Portland-connected heavy-hitters like director Todd Haynes, animator Rose Bond, and Emmy-winning costume designer Amanda Needham. 

Spread across 10 days and several venues, the PIFF lineup is rich and a little overwhelming. Here’s what we’re most excited for—take it as you will, and check out the full schedule here.


7:15 p.m. Fri, March 6, Whitsell Auditorium & 8:45 p.m. Sat, March 14, Cinema 21 

One of four opening night films (alongside shorts The Giverny Document and America and buzzy feature The Climb), Clementine looks like a seedy slow burn about budding same-sex romance in remote Oregon. Indie distributor Oscilloscope scooped it up after it premiered at Tribeca last year, and it’ll hit PIFF before expanding wider in the coming months. 


3 p.m. Sat, March 7, Whitsell Auditorium 

Portlander Roland Dahwen’s first feature tells the story of a family in freefall with little dialogue and less drama. Shot in long, static takes on Super 16 mm film with a cast of non-actorsit’s a beautiful and molasses-slow look at private suffering that worms its way under your skin almost immediately. 


8:30 p.m. Sun, March 8, Cinema 21 

This all-puppet horror comedy about a demon’s descent on a quiet village looks promisingly batshit, and has if nothing else, earned the endorsement of Child’s Play director Tom Holland (no word from any dancers-turned-Marvel-shills who are also named Tom Holland). Made by local hands, it’s a nice nod to Portland’s emerging status as one of the great animation cities in the world.  



8:30 p.m. Mon, March 9 & 1 p.m. Weds, March 11, Whitsell Auditorium 

This fascinating doc-fiction hybrid is set on the German-Danish border as a tunneling project threatens to displace hundreds of families. An ethnologist catalogues and mourns the losses as she prepares to leave her own ancestral home. When it premiered at Switzerland's Locardo film festival last summer, Variety said Giraffe "poignantly explores place and belonging together with our evanescent impact on those who follow us."



8:30 p.m. Fri, March 13, Cinema 21 

Kelly Reichardt returns for another notch in her Northwest noir belt with First Cow, based on The Half-Life by Portland native/frequent collaborator Jon Raymond. It's a funny, harrowing hat trick, a warm fable that doubles a hard-edged social critique and triples as a gossamer-delicate friendship flick. It's among the best things Reichardt's ever made, and it's sure to kick off PIFF's closing weekend with sniffles, sighs, and endless love for Evie, the titular cow.


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