2014 Milwaukee Film Festival: Week One Picks

Eric Beltmann covers the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival.Maybe close your eyes and start throwing darts at the program guide.

It’s tough to choose movies to see from among the 276 feature and short films being presented at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. Selecting at random can be a rewarding methodology—after all, the potential return rises with an increase in risk—but there’s equal joy in chasing a promising lead. Sometimes an intriguing movie review, or a prior award, or a friend’s recommendation can turn us on to a film that we’d otherwise overlook.

To that end, let me offer one suggestion for each of the next seven days of the fest, which opened Thursday and runs through Oct. 9.

"Manuscripts Don't Burn"
“Manuscripts Don’t Burn”

Friday, Sept. 26

Dissident Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof was detained in 2010 for “propaganda against the system.” Like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, whose 20-year ban on filmmaking made international headlines, Rasoulof now lives and operates under the constant threat of imprisonment. His risky new drama, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” (Oriental Theatre, 4:30 p.m.), reportedly takes swipes at the oppressive nature of Iranian censorship and honors the more than 80 artists and activists who “disappeared” over a 10-year period. Few films at the festival promise to carry such towering personal stakes.

"Stray Dog"
“Stray Dog”

Saturday, Sept. 27

Jennifer Lawrence has three Oscar nods in her quiver, but she might owe all of them to Debra Granik, the “Winter’s Bone” director who skillfully steered the actress, then an unknown 19-year-old, to the first of those nominations. Four years later, Granik has returned with another story of Missouri turmoil. “Stray Dog” (Oriental Theatre, 7:15 p.m.) is a documentary portrait of Ron Hall, a leather-clad biker and Vietnam veteran who owns an RV park and suffers from PTSD. If you’d like to ask Granik in person about how she emphasizes authenticity in both fiction and nonfiction, tonight’s your chance.

"The Missing Picture"
“The Missing Picture”

Sunday, Sept. 28

In “The Missing Picture” (Downer Theatre, 11:30 a.m.), documentarian Rithy Panh attempts to plug the holes in the recorded history of atrocities committed in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. Actual footage is sparse, so Panh’s solution is simple—he carves tiny clay figurines and stages scenes that were expunged from official accounts but not his own memories. His terrible tableaux bear more reality and truth than the regime’s phony propaganda newsreels, which makes the dioramas, in their own way, beautiful to behold. This ranks among the best films I’ve seen all year.

"The Tribe"
“The Tribe”

Monday, Sept. 29

I’m eager to catch “The Tribe” (Oriental Theatre, 4:30 p.m.), a Ukrainian crime picture that won the critics’ prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in a boarding school for young deaf students, the story is told entirely through sign language without the aid of on-screen subtitles. That sounds like a gimmick, perhaps, but advance buzz indicates that the experience is utterly gripping and—fair warning—quite harrowing.

"Man with a Movie Camera"
“Man with a Movie Camera”

Tuesday, Sept. 30

Your ears will thank you for attending “Man with a Movie Camera” (Oriental Theatre, 7 p.m.), since MFF is presenting Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent classic with—wait for it—live musical accompaniment by the world-famous Alloy Orchestra. The film captures the Soviet Union at a transitional chapter, but its main subject is a fascination with machinery—the engines of revolution, the levers of labor, the gears of cinema. What emerges from the endlessly innovative photography and editing is a crushing critique of Lenin’s failures, yes, but also a new way of speaking with film. Once you’ve seen this proletarian symphony, it’s hard to quarrel with a recent international poll that crowned it the greatest documentary of all-time.

"Top Secret!"
“Top Secret!”

Wednesday, Oct. 1

When I was 10 years old, I knew there were two kinds of people: Those who recognized 1984’s “Top Secret!” (Oriental Theatre, 7 p.m.) as the greatest spoof comedy ever made, and morons. Sure, the story, which simultaneously parodies Elvis musicals and Cold War espionage thrillers, lacks a sturdy spine. But it’s also teeming with madcap inspiration (an underwater barroom brawl), ambitious sight gags (a station that leaves the train), and a hilariously overcommitted Val Kilmer in his first role. Co-directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (the first two will attend) are Shorewood natives famous for their rapid-fire gags. Their real brilliance, though, is in puncturing the genre clichés we didn’t even know existed.

"Horses of God"
“Horses of God”

Thursday, Oct. 2

Eleven years ago, Nabil Ayouch’s lovely urban fable “Ali Zaoua, Prince of the Streets” was my favorite movie of the Milwaukee International Film Festival. Ayouch’s latest work, “Horses of God” (Oriental Theatre, 9:30 p.m.), is less masterful, but at least it swings for the fences. By charting how several slum dwellers evolve into suicide bombers who carry out the real-life 2003 attacks in Morocco, the film tries to comprehend, with pity rather than anger, the interrelationships between youth, desperation, and zealotry.

The full festival lineup can be accessed online at mkefilm.org.

Venues include the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill; the Times Cinema; and the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres. Tickets are $10, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at each theater box-office. Screenings routinely sell out, so buy your tickets now.