Perhaps there are too many movies.
When I started writing professionally about cinema 24 years ago, seeing all the key films that received North American distribution—blockbusters, indies, foreign releases—was a feasible proposition, but now that technology has democratized the medium and swelled access to motion pictures of all stripes, it’s impossible to stay ahead of the avalanche.
In 1995, U.S. theaters presented about 300 films, according to TheNumbers.com. It’s only October, but 2015 has already doubled that number—and that excludes the bottomless menu of new works available via on-demand platforms. This abundance has both liberated and bewildered viewers. Even the New York Times has thrown in the towel, having cancelled in February its inveterate policy of reviewing every new theatrical release.
How should consumers navigate a movie landscape that offers more diverse choices than ever before? Netflix estimates that 75 percent of viewer activity is driven by its recommendation algorithm, which suggests how audiences crave guidance but also reveals how specialized pathfinders have usurped the role of professional critics.
Curation is what matters now, and for film lovers in southeastern Wisconsin, there are few exhibits more dependable than the Milwaukee Film Festival.
During its seventh season, which closed Oct. 8, the two-week festival presented 118 features and 185 short films from 50 countries. That’s a daunting inventory, and in the interest of steering filmgoers in the right direction, this year the festival introduced pre-show movie trailers and also an expanded, eerily accurate “Quick Picks” list moved to the front of the program book. (Why yes, MFF, I am a “person who cares what festival juries think,” and all 10 suggestions under that banner were on my wish list.)
Given its status as a young regional festival—meaning it showcases titles from the global circuit rather than premieres—Milwaukee has always punched above its weight. It’s larger and longer than most of its rivals, and again this year operations were smooth and the programming both erudite and electric. Maybe I was only lucky, but of the 41 features that I managed to catch, nearly a third of them deserved very high marks.
The Top Five
Best of all was “The Look of Silence,” which rightfully earned the festival’s inaugural Documentary Jury Award. The movie is the second half of Joshua Oppenheimer’s diptych about the butchers who purged Indonesia of “undesirables” after Gen. Suharto’s anti-communist coup in 1965. In the first part, 2012’s “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer located former death squad leaders who were eager to shamelessly reenact their crimes for the camera. Their unrepentant boasting was stomach-turning, but the movie’s real revelation of evil was how the people of Indonesia rewarded these killers with decades of comfort and power.
Now 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 one 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 reemerge 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.
Self-serving silence becomes a weapon for the fallen Catholics who intersect at a seaside monastery in “The Club,” Pablo Larrain’s severe indictment of the Church in Chile. The residents are mostly disgraced priests sent to the coast by the Church in order to save face, but their comfortable, unholy existence is threatened when a young investigator, Father Garcia, starts asking questions. With its washed-out, colorless cinematography, the movie starts grim and only grows bleaker, culminating in an astonishing sequence of violence and retribution. Larrain flirts with sacrilege—one potent image has Father Garcia washing and kissing the feet of a beaten man—but there’s an authentic anger fueling his allegory of how the Church covered up cases of child sexual abuse, and he’s serious about examining what it truly means to be a person of faith.
“I’d like to see you all in prison, but I love the Church and don’t want to hurt it,” says one character in “The Club,” and the line might as well be a deliberate echo of the Indonesian prison guard in “The Look of Silence” who declares that he was only protecting the state. Somewhere in between Oppenheimer’s searching, mournful tone and Larrain’s controlled fury lies “Cartel Land,” a bracing documentary about the U.S.-Mexican border that could round out a triple bill of movies about institutions that are unwilling or unable to stave off corruption.
Two men are at the center of “Cartel Land.” In Arizona, an anti-immigration survivalist begins patrolling the border with his small band of self-appointed sentries. In Mexico, a doctor organizes a large, well-armed militia that travels town to town to force the Knights Templar drug cartel out of the region and pry local governments away from crooked officials. Both vigilantes cast themselves as flag-wavers bringing order to the Wild West, but Matthew Heineman’s dense, inquisitive work of journalism presents a far more complex and compromised portrait. It’s also coursing with danger, jackknifing viewers into scenes of real-life street gunfights, civic demonstrations, and night-time meth cooking in the desert. Of all the questions “Cartel Land” provokes, perhaps the most insistent is, how did they get that jaw-dropping footage? Worth noting is how Heineman, a reporter first but also a first-class image maker, somehow reconciles the raw immediacy of his scenes with the incongruous beauty of their carefully composed, very cinematic shots.
The most majestic visuals of the festival, though, 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.
Much smaller in scale 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. It’s a knockout.
“Violet” announces Devos as a major talent, so why hadn’t I heard of it until now? One of the quandaries created by today’s glut of movies is that even masterpieces can get lost, overlooked as a matter of routine. That’s why the service provided by the MFF programmers is more crucial than ever. At this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, it felt like a privilege to be shepherded by such knowledgeable and discerning curators.
Five Favorite Films at the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival
- The Look of Silence / dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark
- Embrace of the Serpent / dir. Ciro Guerra, Colombia
- Violet / dir. Bas Devos, Belgium
- Cartel Land / dir. Matthew Heineman, USA
- The Club / dir. Pablo Larrain, Chile