In a world where arts and culture is often devalued, there is truly nothing like going out to experience the transformative power of cinema at a festival. The vast medium boasts works that can move us to tears just as it does those that may melt your face off. This year, the 50th Annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has films that do each of those things and, in extra special cases, both at the same time.

Taking place in theaters from May 9-19 and virtually May 20-27, SIFF's got a whole lot in store—261 films in total. Not only is it a really strong year of films, but the even better news is the SIFF Cinema Workers Union recently ratified their first contract after coming together to form a union last year. Now that they’ve got better working conditions and the full lineup is out, with tickets currently on sale for members before being available to the public starting Thursday (all of which can be purchased online through their website or at any SIFF venue), here are some of the standouts you won’t want to miss.

While it had already been announced last month that Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow would be showing at the festival, it’s best to start there as it is the most exciting film to shout from the rooftops about. First premiering back at this year’s Sundance, it’s a striking work of art that takes us into the lives of Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) who become utterly enthralled by a show called The Pink Opaque. This fictional show, which Schoenbrun has made feel oh so very real, is merely the beginning of the duo reflecting on reality itself and their own evolving places in it after it gets canceled. Oh, and Fred Durst pops up too. Though certainly more expansive than Schoenbrun’s previous feature, the wonderful We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, it maintains the same incisive ability to get at the way culture, identity, and isolation all can become intertwined. Whatever path you end up taking through the festival, it is essential that you make sure to carve out time for this brilliant film. 

Horror fans won't want to miss Oddity at SIFF. Courtesy of IFC

For those looking for some more horror in their life, the two to see at the fest are In a Violent Nature and Oddity. The first also premiered at this year’s Sundance and takes a classic slasher story then turns it on its head by accompanying a brutal killer who is roaming through the woods. Rather than see it from the perspective of the young partiers who are unaware of his presence, this is a film that puts you in the shoes of the force of nature that is picking them off one by one. Even as someone who has seen more than my fair share of gruesome and gory genre entries, Chris Nash’s feature debut is in a category all its own. When it comes to Damian Mc Carthy’s Oddity, which premiered at this year’s SXSW, the horror is more supernatural though no less sinister as we get taken into a remote house in rural Ireland where something is amiss. Specifically, there is a wooden mannequin that looks to be just on the edge of coming to life. Much like McCarthy’s previous film, the delightfully creepy Caveat, the patience with which the paranormal takes hold is nothing short of spectacular. Prepare to find yourself squirming in your seat. 

Stepping away from the genre stuff for a bit, two feature debuts that would make for one hell of a double feature are Annie Baker’s Janet Planet and India Donaldson’s Good One. The former premiered at Telluride last year and the latter at Sundance this year where each proved completely shattering. While they have drawn some comparisons to a filmmaker like Kelly Reichardt, a high compliment if there ever was one, each’s work is distinct in its own way. Janet Planet is about a matriarch, brilliantly played by the veteran performer Julianne Nicholson, whose life has been about bringing people into her orbit before they drift away while Good One is about the young Sam, who is given authentic life by a relative newcomer in Lily Collias, discovering that her father is maybe not a reliable person to look up to. Each is understated though no less magnificent, delicately sneaking up on you before laying you completely flat. 

To shift back to what can loosely be called a genre entry, one would be remiss not to note that the maniacs at SIFF have decided to show Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft one time only at the SIFF Cinema Downtown (formerly known as the Cinerama that the organization announced the surprise acquisition of last year). Shot in infrared, it is a film that is ostensibly about a Miami assassin hunting down a crime lord that looks like a demon though is also just about the vibes. It is something that Korine himself has said is something where he “was really trying hard to not make a film” and boy can you tell. When I saw it at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it was the film that had the most walkouts of anything I’ve ever seen. Is it a good film? Brother, it’s barely even a film. Is it an experience that is unlike anything you’ll see at the festival that is being presented in what may be the most wild to take it in? Absolutely.

To close, there are a couple of other films that will already be more widely available by the time they show here like Seagrass and Stress Positions that are still worth checking out. However, of the informal group that are films that start with the letter S, it is the closing night film Sing Sing that is the best of this bunch. Starring the always compelling Colman Domingo as Divine G, a man who is incarcerated at the Sing Sing maximum security prison, it takes us inside the theatre group where he has found purpose and connection. Based on the real-life program, it also features many of the alumni playing themselves and doing outstanding work. Rather than being broadly inspirational in a way that papers over the injustices of incarceration, it is a work that is grounded in people and the truths of their lives. Not only does this make it a great film with which to close out a really strong year for the festival, but it’s a reminder to reflect on how many do not have access to art like this as well as why it is that so many would keep from them.