Sapphire represents September birthdays and fifth anniversaries, and while both meanings apply to this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, the real link is emblematic—like the blue gem, the festival is defined by its sense of constancy.
There’s a reason why the festival’s fifth installment feels like its tenth: Since many of the behind-the-scenes players cut their teeth working for the now defunct Milwaukee International Film Festival, the new organization hit the ground running in 2009 and quickly ripened into one of the city’s best, most popular cultural attractions.
For 15 days every fall, the festival showcases movies that lack box office clout but promise fresh techniques and bold philosophies. This year, more than 100 features and 130 shorts from 44 countries will screen between September 26 and October 10, including the U.S. premiere of Germany’s smash comedy “Break Up Man.”
As always, the something-for-everyone slate echoes the global festival circuit. For example, the Fiction Favorites division will present recent, celebrated works by major directors like Jafar Panahi, Johnnie To, Olivier Assayas, and François Ozon, but few out-of-nowhere discoveries.
Unlike, say, Cannes or Berlin, the Milwaukee festival has never been in the taste-making business. Blue chip films typically arrive here already garlanded with awards, international buzz, or distribution deals, which means the festival has little value as an industry marketplace. Frankly, mid-sized fests are powerless to outbid more prestigious festivals for the privilege of debuting works of consequence. (Yes, Milwaukee is screening Xavier Dolan’s “Laurence Anyways,” but the festival has been lapped by Venice and Toronto, which have already shown Dolan’s follow-up, “Tom at the Farm.”) This might explain why Milwaukee Film’s curatorial sensibility has always resembled a buffet more than a banquet. Still, its annual mission of bringing vetted world cinema to Milwaukee suits southeast Wisconsin and helps the festival focus on celebrating movie love rather than movie business.
That vibe has always been one of the main joys of the Milwaukee Film Festival. Chuck some popcorn from the Oriental Theater balcony and you’re likely to hit dozens of area movie lovers, a few filmmakers, and zero sales agents.
Flying snacks may actually be encouraged at films slotted in the festival’s anti-respectability Cinema Hooligante division. The centerpiece might be “The Rambler,” an episodic road movie that mixes, to spotty effect, gore comedy with surrealism, or “Sightseers,” Ben Wheatley’s latest deadpan black comedy. Fans of classic cinema, though, should relish the chance to see Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” on the silver screen.
Other archival programs include two of the most hallucinatory films of the ’80s: Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out,” about a sound effects man who inadvertently records an assassination, and Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” about two angels hovering above alienated Berliners. Best of all, the silent “Earth” will be presented in 35mm with an original live score performed by Milwaukee ensemble Altos. To my eyes, Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930 film remains a masterwork, simultaneously lyrical and realistic in its depiction of man, soil, and collectivization.
It’s tempting to quibble with the Competition strand, which carries a juried cash prize, since half of the eight selections are already available for home viewing. But the roster’s quality is sure-footed: “War Witch,” about militia conscription in the Congo, was nominated for an Oscar last year, while Sarah Polley’s personal documentary “Stories We Tell” and Shane Carruth’s genre-defying “Upstream Color” are easily among the best films of the year. Plus, cinephiles will be stoked to finally see the latest works by acclaimed directors Cristian Mungiu and Carlos Reygadas.
At first glance, the most promising line-up is Documentary Favorites, which boasts nearly 25 topical nonfiction films making the festival rounds. Of local interest is “Citizen Koch,” which uses Madison’s Act 10 showdown to argue that corporate money has undermined democracy, and “Bound by Flesh,” a chronicle of conjoined sisters that was partially researched at the Circus Museum in Baraboo.
A Milwaukee native made good, George Tillman, Jr. has long worked in Hollywood. The festival will pay tribute to Tillman with two films, including his new coming-of-age drama “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” which is scheduled for commercial release the day after the festival’s close. Other regional filmmakers will be honored in the popular Cream City Cinema division, which offers features and shorts made by local talent.
More than 30 area bands will take the stage at the Hotel Foster as a nightly extension of the festival’s Sound Vision category. (Joshua Miller, an old friend and contributor to “A.V. Club Milwaukee,” vouches for The Championship, Fever Marlene, and Painted Caves.) Sound Vision presents eight documentaries about musicians, from New Orleans piano man James Booker to power pop pioneers Big Star. Director Jonathan Demme’s new film about songwriter Enzo Avitabile will be featured alongside a screening of his earlier “Stop Making Sense,” a blissful experience about the Talking Heads that is perhaps the greatest concert film ever made.
The festival’s Passport cycle will spotlight films from Germany, including Cate Shortland’s first-rate “Lore,” an earthy, physical World War II drama. As she traverses war-ravaged military zones at the conflict’s close, a 15-year-old must confront her bankrupt Nazi upbringing. By interlacing unique angles on both Holocaust stories and coming-of-age stories, Shortland examines the psychological aftermath of the German surrender. The Holocaust also clouds over “Oma & Bella,” a brief, half-hearted documentary about two elderly women, both survivors, who spend their days in the kitchen—but the movie sparks to life when they finally open up to the camera about their war memories.
Families can make memories together by attending the Rated K: For Kids division. Viewers seeking to binge on short films can sign up for 13 different collections organized by theme. There will also be various panel discussions, a chat with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio (brother of Brewers owner Mark Attanasio), and a tribute to The Dissolve, a new website that fuses old-school movie criticism with the innovations of new media. Many screenings will feature appearances by filmmakers or audience conversations.
The full festival schedule can be accessed online at http://mkefilm.org/.
Venues include the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres on the East Side, and the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay. Tickets are $10, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. Insatiable filmgoers should cough up for a festival pass, which grants pass-holders unlimited access to all screenings for $350.