Fifteen days, hundreds of screenings, and an unspeakable amount of caffeine later, we’ve finally closed the book on the 2014 edition of the Milwaukee Film Festival. It was another year of exponential growth, with more screenings, more locations (The Times Cinema proved to be a perfect local venue for the festival) and more attendees. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn or exaggerating when I say this was the best year for the festival yet, with an eclectic slate of programming whose only connective tissue was a shared level of high quality. I saw nearly 50 films at the festival, a mere drop in the bucket considering the massive amount of films screened, but the fact that I’d only consider one film I saw as ‘bad’ (its identity will remain a mystery!) is a barometer of particularly high quality. But I won’t force you to read a daily diary or blow-by-blow account of the cinematic overdose I gave myself over these two-plus weeks, instead I’ve narrowed my festival experience down to a handful of moments and a list of what I consider to be the best of the fest.
FIVE MEMORABLE MFF2014 MOMENTS:
1) Film subjects Bonnie & John Raines being received rapturously following the opening night film 1971
– While the film that covered their heroic exploits, the documentary 1971 didn’t end up being one of my favorite films of the festival, I found the reaction to their appearance post-screening to be incredibly moving. In an era where whistleblowers are being used as scapegoats that distract from the shocking information they reveal, it was heartening to see this couple receive a hero’s welcome after a film that detailed the break-in and subsequent revealing of sensitive government information that was discovered during the act. As was very astutely pointed out during their Q&A, part of what made their act so powerful was the fact that they were never discovered, allowing the information they unveiled to guide the narrative instead of their personal lives.
2) The Alloy Orchestra kills it with their accompaniment to Man with a Movie Camera
– The Alloy Orchestra have brought the goods in both of their previous appearances at the MFF (2012’s Blackmail and 2010’s Metropolis) so it isn’t surprising that they once again brought the house down with their pitch-perfect accompaniment to a classic silent film. But their industrial sound was such a perfect match with Dziga Vertov’s documentary/city symphony Man with a Movie Camera, a performance that kept gaining momentum before finally cresting in a final explosion of sound and ecstatic edits, that it would be hard to argue that this wasn’t their best performance yet as part of the MFF. Hopefully they keep returning year after year to blow us further away with their virtuosity.
3) The Tribe takes home the $10,000 Herzfeld Competition Award
– One of the values of a local film festival is to encourage audiences to challenge themselves with cinema they would otherwise not choose to see or that multiplexes would simply not program due to their niche value that are nonetheless important works of cinema. As I’ve previously stated, The Tribe is one such important movie, an unflinching portrait unlike anything I’ve seen before on the big screen, a movie whose central premise (told entirely in Ukrainian sign language without subtitles) forced rapt attention only to then gut punch us with a brutal conclusion. I was glad to see such daring filmmaking rewarded by the Herzfeld Competition panel, and hope that bodes well for similarly daring cinema at future festivals.
4) A unique roster of special guests that captivated post-screening audiences
– A trend I noticed at this year’s festival was a dedicated focus on bringing the subjects of documentaries as special guests to help foster discussion after the screenings. While directors and actors can prove very interesting, I think it’s a smart move to bring in people who were deemed interesting enough to have an entire film centered around them to speak – be it Ron Hall, the titular “Stray Dog” of Debra Granik’s warm documentary portrait holding court after a screening or magician The Amazing Randi bending spoons and escaping binding in front of an appreciative audience, the festival has found a sweet spot of bringing endlessly fascinating subjects to the MFF alongside their films in an effort to provide an experience that you simply couldn’t have huddled on your couch with a Netflix account.
5) Strong attendance makes for an engaged audience and memorable screenings
– The festival continues to grow with each passing year, and never was this more apparent than during the odd hours of the festival, your 11:15 a.m. or 9:30 p.m. screenings on a weekday/weeknight that would’ve been ghost towns in previous years proving to be well-attended screenings during this iteration of the festival. The best part of the film festival, even setting aside the bells and whistles of special guests and unforgettable events (an audience of children enraptured by Mary Poppins or the massive dance party breaking out at Stop Making Sense), is being set down in the dark with a massive group of like-minded individuals all interested in being transported by the stories being told on a screen that looms large above us all. So the fact that such an experience is being continually proven to be an important one for the community at large bodes well for the festival in the years to come.
My top 10 (new) films of the festival (in alphabetical order):
An Honest Liar – This moving portrait of escape artist/debunker of false spiritualists and mediums James “The Amazing” Randi didn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of documentary filmmaking, but when the central character and story you’re following is as compelling as he is, it doesn’t matter. This story of a man whose life was dedicated to exposing frauds with a massive secret at the center of his own life was immensely satisfying.
Art & Craft – Another documentary, this time about art forger Mark Landis, whose compulsive creation of said forgeries has proven legally blameless thanks to his proclivity for taking on false identities and donating these plagiarized works to various museums across the country. Landis is an absolutely fascinating film subject whose been given a jazzy take on his story, and those who sought to expose his misdeeds come to the same conclusion as we do as an audience. This is a wonderful, gentle man whose unassuming nature eventually wears them down just as he had us.
Ernest and Celestine – A gorgeously animated tale of the tentative friendship between a grumpy/hungry bear and an artistically inclined orphan mouse is a delight for kids and adults alike. With a design that made each sequence feel like lovingly-crafted watercolors and a delightfully irreverent sense of humor, this was the best all-ages experience of the fest.
The Expedition to the End of the World – Reviewed here.
Meet the Patels – Despite the specificity of its story, this documentary following a young first-generation Indian American and the attempts of his parents to set him up for an arranged marriage (hey, it worked for them!) felt applicable to anyone who loves and is driven crazy by their family in equal amounts. It said important things about love and acceptance while remaining endlessly entertaining, quite possibly the funniest film I saw at this year’s fest.
Mood Indigo – Michel Gondry’s latest is something of a gut-punch, regaling you with an hour-plus of surrealistic whimsy before pulling the rug out from under you with a fast descent into darkness in this tale of young love cut short by an exotic illness. I believe subsequent viewings of this amazing work will reveal that the sadness was peeking out from the corners of this narrative very early on, but even if that doesn’t prove to be the case, this is the best work Gondry has produced in many years, visually astonishing without losing sight of the characters at its center.
The Overnighters – The comparisons reviewers have been making to a modern day Steinbeck story are very apt as this story of a small American town and the controversy that brews when a pastor opens his doors to the masses that have come seeking employment covers so many aspects of modern American life that it feels massively emblematic and important by film’s end. A challenging portrait of morality whose twists and turns are best left for you to discover. If you didn’t get a chance to catch this documentary during the festival, I’ll keep you abreast of whether or not it returns to the Milwaukee area or becomes available on demand or through physical media.
The Tribe – Reviewed here.
We Are the Best! – Lukas Moodysson adapted his wife’s graphic novel with panache, telling the simple tale of three young female outcasts coming together under the auspices of forming a punk rock trio colorfully and energetically. An empowering tale regardless of gender and a movie well worth seeking out if you missed it.
Wetlands – Reviewed here.