15 Great Movies from the Milwaukee Film Festival’s History

Milwaukee Film, the purveyors of the Milwaukee Film Festival, took over daily operation of the three-screen Oriental Theatre in July.It’s a new era for Milwaukee Film, the parent organization for the Milwaukee Film Festival. By taking over the daily operation of the three-screen Oriental Theatre in July, the nonprofit has fortified its position as a major cultural institution and secured a path to long-term sustainability. Right now, it’s the future that’s most exciting about Milwaukee Film. But as the festival nears a milestone—its 10th edition opens Oct. 18—perhaps I can be forgiven for looking backward rather than forward.

Turns out that I’ve seen 325 features at MFF since its 2009 inauguration, a jolting number that probably gives my chiropractor the night sweats but gets me thinking more about my bloodstream: Which movies are closest to my heart? Below I’ve ranked my favorite 15 movies from the Milwaukee Film Festival’s history, excluding the many revivals and many new movies that weren’t new to me. (That’s why you won’t find on my list deserving works like “The Seventh Seal,” “The Man with a Movie Camera,” “I, Daniel Blake” or “Upstream Color,” among others.) Since all of these movies deserve to be widely seen, I’ve also noted where to find them today. The good news? Most are available to rent, buy or stream. The best news? Soon two of ‘em are returning to the Oriental Theatre, including one in 35mm, thanks to Milwaukee Film’s imaginative programming. (Capsules adapted from previously published material.)

  1. The Act of Killing (MFF 2013) / The Look of Silence (MFF 2015)

The Act of KillingSharing my top spot is Joshua Oppenheimer’s unforgettable diptych about the butchers who purged Indonesia of “undesirables” after Gen. Suharto’s anti-communist coup in 1965. In the first part, “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer locates former executioners who were eager to shamelessly re-enact their crimes for the camera. Their unrepentant boasting is stomach-turning, but the movie’s real revelation of evil is how the people of Indonesia rewarded these killers with decades of comfort and power. Today, they remain powerful, revered elder statesmen of Indonesian society. At the film’s center is Anwar Congo, a former death squad leader who clearly still enjoys the spoils of war. Here is a film about murderers who prevailed, and, shockingly, are now keen to re-stage their crimes for Oppenheimer’s benefit, in elaborate skits complete with costumes, bloody makeup, and abominable clichés lifted from Hollywood gangster and war movies. It’s easy to picture Congo doing his best Alfonso Bedoya imitation: Qualms? We don’t need no stinkin’ qualms!

There’s a touch of ethical queasiness in the way Oppenheimer provides a forum for these unrepentant men to boast about evil—and I have lingering concerns about whether the film merely records their tone of flippant nostalgia or inadvertently participates in it—but their reenactments no doubt provide valuable insight into how these killers choose to imagine and remember their deeds. By contrast, survivors and victims’ families are less willing to speak about the genocide; their fearful silence communicates volumes about life inside a country where the killers’ version of history is widely corroborated by a complicit citizenry.

To explain his zeal for sadistic stagecraft, Anwar Congo says this history must be recorded for posterity (in fact, he insists that his young grandchildren watch the tapes), but eventually we begin to suspect that his real reason for making these mini-movies is to put some kind of barrier, some kind of artifice, between him and the facts of his past; he is a killer who may have evaded justice but not inner damage. In other words, “The Act of Killing” is about how the imagination can be misused to refract, replace, or deny reality so that coping becomes possible, for one man or an entire nation.

The Look of SilenceNow that the men are elderly and facing their own natural purging, Oppenheimer fears in “The Look of Silence” that their deeds and testimonies will irretrievably mutate into national myth. (Early in the film, a teacher tells Indonesian schoolchildren that these men are “heroes who struggled to make our country a democracy.”) This time the director turns interviewing duties over to Adi Rukun, a traveling ophthalmologist—his profession almost too perfect a symbol for a society that sees its history through failed eyes—who pays house calls to the local men responsible for the slaying of his brother.

Most of these figures now hold positions of influence and none of them express remorse, even after Adi reminds them that an estimated 1 million citizens were murdered. “That’s politics,” replies one. They all say that they were patriots following orders and that it’s best to leave the past alone. Such nonchalant myopia becomes Oppenheimer’s central subject. “The Look of Silence” is about the corrosive legacy of blood, about what happens to men, and communities, when they evade culpability—and about what happens to those who demand accountability. Many of these old men insinuate that violence might re-emerge if Adi continues his moral crusade.

The full facts about the torture of Ramli, the doctor’s brother, are withheld until Adi confronts the former commandant who ordered the assassination. In the presence of the murderer’s grown daughter, Adi unleashes a torrent of gory details, and for the first time the doctor’s calm veneer begins to crack. All three faces—Adi, the killer, the daughter—stay quiet, but for different reasons. That friction between grief, defiance, and shock is ultimately what gives “The Look of Silence” its exploratory power. Here is a profound, disquieting film that seeks to comprehend all of the brands of silence that might follow horror, and when the shaken daughter finally begs Adi to forgive her father, she stands in for a citizenry that remains unprepared to process or speak about the past. (“The Act of Killing” is available on DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes and PlayStation. “The Look of Silence” is available on DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes and PlayStation.)

  1. Cameraperson (MFF 2016)

CamerapersonI’m still grooving on what Kirsten Johnson achieves in “Cameraperson,” which can be categorized as a documentary but is closer to a personal, poetic memoir. For two decades Johnson has labored as a camera operator on notable nonfiction projects (“Citizenfour,” “The Invisible War”), and here she mines her archive for marginalia that have unusual beauty, raw intimacy, or private resonance. By presenting these snippets sans context, Johnson is able to assign them new meanings and re-consider them as artifacts of her own travels and experiences.

Arranged as a rhythmic, cascading collage with no chronology, “Cameraperson” owes a debt to both Agnès Varda and Soviet montage. Subtle themes emerge out of the ether, including how choices are made to compose or censor pictures, and how the act of recording, of merely being present, always transforms a moment. (Most directors would edit out an ill-timed behind-the-camera sneeze, but for Johnson that sneeze becomes the shot’s main subject.) What’s fascinating, though, is how Johnson seems more interested in exploring how her attendance at scenes of human crisis—war, death, poverty—ultimately changed her. She demystifies the emotional building blocks of cinema, the tools of outward expression, only to turn inward.

It’s no surprise, then, that motherhood becomes a recurring motif, from a women’s clinic in Alabama to a suspenseful baby delivery in Nigeria to affectionate shots of Johnson’s own twins. At one point Johnson records a fellow filmmaker who has recently lost her mother to suicide. As the woman’s resentment begins to squall—she tosses file folders around the room in a white blizzard of sadness—Johnson’s camera, with perfect timing, captures a sheet of actual ice sliding from the roof past a window. Both women gasp, aware of how this unplanned moment quickly switched from mourning to serendipity to shared ecstasy about the power of metaphor. But then Johnson cuts to footage of her own ailing mother. It’s a clarifying juxtaposition, but it’s also a kind of wishful resurrection, since Johnson had previously revealed that her mother is now gone. That’s a long way of saying that “Cameraperson” transcends resume—it’s no career retrospective—and instead aims to uncover the hidden ways that Johnson’s camera, an extension of her eye, continues to affect her. (DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and iTunes.)

  1. Closed Curtain (MFF 2013)

Closed CurtainAfter releasing five allegories critical of his home country of Iran, Jafar Panahi was banned from making movies for 20 years. Panahi’s response has been to keep working, in the form of covert, cheap, quickly-shot home movies that miraculously rank among his finest achievements. “Closed Curtain,” the second of four films he has so far managed to smuggle out of Iran, is richly allegorical. What begins as a made-in-secret, miniature allegory of Iranian repression—three people hide from authorities in a remote beach home on the Caspian Sea, using black drapes to avoid detection—eventually splinters into a Lynchian, psychological flight of the imagination starring Panahi as himself. By blurring fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, the movie pretzels into a surreal masterpiece about the psychological toll of official persecution. It’s no surprise that Panahi, one of the world’s greatest film artists, has turned to making outlaw movies to exorcise his deepest pain. Still, there’s something unsettling about how he has concocted such a loopy, fractured version of his own demons.

The final scene hints that Panahi has found a way to come to terms with the ban and to re-commit to his artistic impulses, but what lingers about “Closed Curtain” is something less certain: This movie goes to dark places, and, in the way the characters assume multiple, seemingly paradoxical sides of Panahi’s mental health, it becomes a terrifying portrait of a man freighted with an oversized burden. When one character in “Closed Curtain” says, “If things were okay with you, I wouldn’t be here,” it doubles for the audience, who are given the uncomfortable privilege of witnessing one of the greatest filmmakers alive plainly acknowledge that he might be disintegrating under the strain of tyranny. (Fandor, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and iTunes.)

  1. Faces Places (MFF 2017)

Faces PlacesTraveling the French countryside with her friend JR, Agnès Varda searches in “Faces Places” for ordinary people with enriching personal stories. The result is an idiosyncratic road movie that introduces viewers to farmers, factory workers and even JR’s grandmother. At the center, though, is the cross-generational friendship between Varda, the 89-year-old veteran of the French New Wave, and JR, the 34-year-old street artist known for pasting enormous black-and-white photographs onto public surfaces like buildings and cargo containers. Their bouncy camaraderie, which easily erases the age gap, gives the film a deceptive lightness—smiles abound, but “Faces Places” is a serious, discursive work about the power of creation, the fragility of life and Varda’s own denouement.

Much of the movie’s visual grandeur springs from how JR arranges the locals for new photos and then, using a large-format printer, posts towering paper murals in their communities. These statuesque art installations serve as companion pieces to Varda’s conversations with residents, magically transforming their quotidian stories about post-war life or working on the docks into triumphant testaments to both the past and present. What finally emerges is a shared sense of joy and honor, as Varda, JR and the villagers become co-conspirators in creating something—whether a mural, movie or memory—that wasn’t there before. Of course, JR’s delicate artworks won’t be there long. Like life, they are designed to end. In one case, the photo plastered onto a concrete German bunker on the beach is splashed away by the high tide; in another, the photos will be demolished along with an abandoned village. Such ephemerality courses throughout the film, a natural extension of Varda’s recognition that she is no longer young. That private subject has been embedded in her work since at least “The Gleaners & I” (2000), and, as always, Varda maintains in “Faces Places” a gentle, playful fortitude that tips toward wisdom. (DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, Kanopy, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, PlayStation and FandangoNOW.)

  1. City of Life and Death (MFF 2011)

City of Life and Death“City of Life and Death” is Lu Chuan’s unflinching historical drama about the Japanese siege of Nanjing in 1937, during which the army butchered an estimated 300,000 residents and raped thousands of women, sins compounded by decades of official denial. As a powerful, black-and-white chronicle of war crimes, the movie is within spitting distance of “Schindler’s List,” another film about the value of collective memory. Like Spielberg, Lu commits to a dynamic, stylized realism fueled by the tension between the unspeakable litany of abuses and the aesthetically pleasing cinematography. Still, it’s more instructive to notice the ways Lu diverges from Spielberg. Mining actual survivor accounts, Lu sees the warp and weft of the occupation but resists the impulse to weave his multiple protagonists into a single, reductive storyline. There is no commanding figure at the center, despite the Schindler-like presence of John Rabe, a real-life German consul who rescued thousands but here remains a supporting player. The closest thing to a traditional “hero” is a valiant Chinese resistance fighter who nevertheless winds up a corpse during the first third of the movie.

By choosing as his most affecting witnesses a naive Japanese sergeant and a Chinese secretary who sells out his countrymen to protect his own family, Lu refuses to make simplistic moral judgments.  That humanizing decision deepens rather than diminishes the horror on display, and a similar effect is achieved by presenting the atrocities in a clear-eyed, matter-of-fact fashion. The images of “City of Life and Death” might be monochrome, but there’s nothing black-and-white about the film’s dense interconnection of themes: death, remembrance, self-sacrifice and private conscience. (DVD/Blu-ray, Fandor and Kanopy.)

  1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (MFF 2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesApichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is some kind of doozy. Set in the jungles of Thailand, the non-linear plot concerns a dying man who is visited by the ghost of his dead wife and a monkey spirit that claims to be his long-lost son, but story is secondary to Weerasethakul’s interest in metaphor. While Boonmee’s various reincarnations represent pieces of Thailand’s (sometimes ugly) past, they also coalesce into a lush, transporting ode to the power of cinema. Split into six parts, each shot in a distinct style, the film evokes everything from costume epics to charming legends to the silent magic of Méliès. You gotta see the scene in which a talking catfish seduces a princess in an enchanted pool—it contains the same transfixing magic that courses through all of Weerasethakul’s best movies. (DVD/Blu-ray, Fandor, FilmStruck, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play and iTunes.)

  1. Katalin Varga (MFF 2010)

Katalin VargaSet in the mountains of Romania, Peter Strickland’s haunting revenge drama “Katalin Varga” takes the viewer deep into a modern fable. After her husband learns that their 10-year-old son is not his but the result of a rape, Katalin is expelled from her village and embarks on a lonely search for her assailants. What begins as simple, quiet rage—amplified by an aural landscape of droning music and the sounds of nature—slowly accumulates psychological complexity and genuine suspense. If Hitchcock had ever adapted Thomas Hardy, it might have looked something like “Katalin Varga.” Shockingly, the movie has never found U.S. distribution, not even after Strickland received international acclaim for his follow-ups “Berberian Sound Studio” and “The Duke of Burgundy.”

  1. Alamar (MFF 2010)

AlamarFrom Mexico came “Alamar,” Pedro González-Rubio’s turquoise, otherworldly hybrid of documentary and fiction. Playing versions of their real selves, five-year-old Natan and his father Jorge take one last fishing trip before Natan leaves for a new life with his mother in Rome. As Jorge passes down his knowledge and experience, “Alamar” captures the elemental ambience of existence on a coral reef, offering gorgeous images of marine life and instructive hints about how to scale fish, evade crocodiles, and scrub boat bottoms. Still, the movie’s real power lies in its emotional tension. After all, each act of love and teaching is really an act of farewell. Wearing only a patch of cloth and long curly locks, Jorge has a virile, imperious, shaman-like presence, and yet he regards his son with gentle affection. Their time together is leisurely—one minute they are spear-fishing, the next they are rough-housing inside their wooden hut—but each moment is heightened by Jorge’s awareness that making these memories will be his enduring legacy. Although it speaks softly, “Alamar” has much to say about blood bonds, separation and the impermanence of things, all symbolized by a friendly egret that Natan must learn to let go. (DVD, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Tubi TV, Sundance Now and iTunes.)

  1. The Beaches of Agnès (MFF 2009)

The Beaches of AgnèsEight years before “Faces Places,” Agnès Varda made this unique showbiz memoir. The idiosyncratic director of “Cléo from 5 to 7” and “Vagabond” takes a stroll down memory lane—she recalls her own family, her start in films, her marriage to filmmaker Jacques Demy, and her friends in the French New Wave—but refuses to arrive at a tidy summing up of a life. It begins with Varda, age 81, prancing on a beach, erecting dozens of rickety mirrors that will eventually be used to refract the screen image into something flat, broken, and disorienting. It’s a beautiful, unforgettable visual, but it also introduces how the movie is concerned with the mysterious nature of looking and remembering. Some movies are triumphs of coordination and coherence, but what makes Varda’s essay so rich and personal is that it regards free-associative digressions as the true windows into a life. Watching “The Beaches of Agnès” is rather like sitting at the kitchen table with your grandmother as she peruses old photographs and impulsively tells you all the weirdest stories from the margins of her past—if your grandmother was one of the most fanciful, jovial, wise artists of her generation. Composed of recollections, old photographs, and scratchy film clips, Varda’s discursive collage ponders the relationship between the present and the past but eschews answers, perhaps because true wisdom is gained in the rummaging rather than the solution. “The puzzle side of things interests me,” says Varda, and the disclosure sounds equally like advice. (Screening in 35mm Aug. 26 at the Oriental Theatre, DVD and Fandor.)

  1. Embrace of the Serpent (MFF 2015)

Embrace of the SerpentAmong the most majestic visuals ever presented at MFF were the lush rainforest landscapes found in “Embrace of the Serpent,” Ciro Guerra’s monochrome, hallucinatory adventure about a wary shaman who helps scientists search the Amazonian jungle for a plant with fabled healing powers. Through two episodic journeys separated by 40 years, the movie charts how 20th-century colonialism—especially the rubber industry—annihilated indigenous tribes and threw the river out of both ecological and spiritual balance. Still, it’s a spellbinding rather than blistering experience, one that catches the current between a Herzogian dream and a Lynchian nightmare. (DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes and PlayStation.)

  1. The Painting (MFF 2012)

The PaintingSpirited are the visionaries who conceived “The Painting,” a dazzling, animated ode to creativity that might appeal equally to 8-year-olds and connoisseurs of art history. Ensconced inside an unfinished painting are three castes: the fully painted Alldunns, the unfinished Halfies and the barely begun Sketchies. At first the story is familiar—the class struggles involve a forbidden romance—but eventually it expands into a political and religious allegory of surprising intricacy. The Allduns justify their tyranny by saying, “It is clearly the Painter’s wish,” but that established doctrine is challenged after several explorers tumble through the canvas into a forsaken studio. Seeking answers from the Painter about their purpose, these faithful adventurers enter the self-contained worlds of his diverse pictures. By the end, director Jean-Francois Languionie has tackled discrimination, war, fascism and democracy, alluded to Lazarus, Christ and the Pope, and gloried in the traditions of European painting. It’s a dense, lovely banquet for the eyes, mind and soul. (Screening Sept. 1 at the Oriental Theatre, DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play and PlayStation.)

  1. Charlie’s Country (MFF 2014)

Charlie's Country“Charlie’s Country” stars David Gulpilil as an aging Aboriginal man unable to adjust to the laws and regulations of Australian colonization. To my Midwestern eyes, the movie—which starts funny but carefully charts how Charlie’s mounting sense of persecution in his own land eventually goads him into lashing out—confirms Rolf de Heer as the leading filmmaker currently working Down Under.  Like de Heer’s earlier “Ten Canoes,” this new work is often utterly transporting. For example, a sequence depicting Charlie’s retreat into the bush becomes an impressionistic, sensory experience about birds, insects, flames, dark caves and the soil underfoot. Pouring rain slaps the foliage, and the noise is thunderous. When Charlie is later caged and forced to shave his head in front of an empty, black background, the contrast is telling; this Aboriginal man has been shorn of more than just his curvy gray locks. Equal parts adventure, comedy and protest, “Charlie’s Country” finally serves as a requiem. (iTunes and Sundance Now.)

  1. Les Démons (MFF 2016)

Les DémonsI responded deeply to “Les Démons,” a supremely accomplished story of summer leisure and malaise among kids in ‘80s Montreal, partially because it vividly recreated for me what it felt like to grow up in the ‘80s, including the socks, the shirts, the hair, and the way the Trans Am was a machine of almost mythical timbre. But mostly I was impressed by how those time-and-place vibes are used to expertly render interior states rather than narrative beats. With his controlled, elaborate formalism, it’s easy to see why Canadian director Philippe Lesage has earned comparisons to Michael Haneke. But he’s much less clinical, and in the way he prioritizes messy inner lives and shaggy vibes—you’ll be transported back to the classroom where you blasted wads of wet paper into the ceiling tiles—Lesage is perhaps more like an eerie hybrid of Truffaut, Vigo and Linklater. Those artists crafted some of the cinema’s most perceptive forays into childhood, and Lesage is equally committed to charting what it means to be young, confused and fearful. (Amazon and Vudu.)

  1. Violet (MFF 2015)

VioletMuch smaller in scale than “Les Démons” but no less hypnotic, “Violet” feels like an X-ray into the troubled psyche of Jesse, a teenager engulfed by anguish after his best friend is stabbed and killed. Director Bas Devos separates story from its usual time-and-place trappings, marshaling instead a series of voluptuous, impressionistic fragments that relay emotional rather than narrative detail. Each shot supplies a new visual or aural amazement—such as BMX bikes jumping among tree branches—but what’s remarkable is how all those stylized abstractions express what language cannot, deepening our comprehension of Jesse’s loneliness, heightened sensitivity and accumulating guilt. (DVD/Blu-ray, Amazon Prime and Fandor.)

  1. Manuscripts Don’t Burn (MFF 2014)

Manuscripts Don't Burn“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” is the most vicious Iranian movie I’ve ever seen, and it’s a shockingly frank attack on censorship from a national cinema known for burying its punches under many layers of allegory and abstraction. The story sounds like a political thriller: When a writer threatens to publish a memoir that will discomfit the Islamic regime, government henchmen come knocking—and learn that two more copies have been concealed in the homes of anonymous collaborators. But what starts as a smart cat-and-mouse escapade eventually gives way to a slow, severe death march. In other words, Rasoulof uses the genre trappings to convey what it feels like to live under the thumb of totalitarianism. “I can’t work under these conditions. I’m determined to publish without permission,” says one character, but it sounds instead like the voice of Rasoulof, who, like Jafar Panahi, was arrested in 2010 for creating “propaganda” against the state and banned from making films in Iran. He then made this movie in secret with actors whose names are redacted from the credits to guard against reprisal. For me, watching “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” felt like hearing a wounded cry emanating from a rooftop halfway across the globe. (DVD, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and iTunes.)