A huge component of the film festival experience is taking a flier on a film you’ve never heard of, seduced by either an intriguing premise or the promise of something you’ve never seen before. Equally integral to the festival-going experience, however, is the opportunity to see classic cinema on the big screen. Milwaukee doesn’t have an outlet for dedicated repertory screenings, so the festival is one of the best times of year to either return to a great classic or see it for the very first time in the setting it was meant to be seen – towering above you projected on the big screen while surrounded by like-minded movie nerds in a packed house. The 2014 vintage of vintage films might just be the best spate the festival has had to offer yet, with nearly a dozen films whose only connective tissue is that they’re each fantastic in their own right. Let’s go day-by-day:
The first Saturday, and third day overall of the festival, sees the first two classic screenings of the festival, with director Debra Granik’s (who is scheduled to attend this screening) Oscar-nominated Ozarks noir Winter’s Bone playing at the Downer at 11:30 a.m. If you haven’t yet taken in the movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Granik takes great care in immersing the audience in the film’s rural setting, and all of the performers turn in fantastic work, perhaps none better than John Hawkes. Later that afternoon, Michael Haneke’s masterful Code Unknown plays at the Oriental Theatre at 4:45 p.m. as the special selection of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris in addition to his State of the Cinema address. Morris is one of our most articulate and thoughtful critics working today, and I can’t wait to hear him wax philosophical on Oscar-winner Haneke’s slow-burn portrait of a disparate group of characters colliding in a brief moment in time and the reverberations that follow (the first of two Juliette Binoche performances to be savored at this festival).
On Sunday, Sept. 28 a sing-a-long edition of Mary Poppins will be playing at the Oriental at 4:30 p.m. Say what you will about the recent Saving Mr. Banks and its possible whitewashing of P.L. Travers’ actual reaction to having her preciously personal work turned into Disney fodder, but it’s hard to deny Poppins status as an effervescent joy, and this interactivity-encouraged screening looks to fully embrace that fact. Tuesday the 30th finds two more classic films screening at the MFF with the Alloy Orchestra performing an accompaniment to Dziga Vertov’s classic experimental documentary Man with a Movie Camera at the Oriental at 7 p.m. followed by a 9:30 p.m. showing of Rob Reiner’s highly influential mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. It would be challenging to program a more stylistically disparate double feature, but both films are massively influential classics in their own regard. Many consider Alloy Orchestra’s work on Man (recently voted the best documentary of all time by the BFI) to be their finest and you’re always assured of a memorable film experience when they come to town. And what can be said about Spinal Tap? The mode in which it communicates comedically has become so ingrained culturally (look at Modern Family or Parks and Recreation for two examples of its persistence) that it could almost prove in danger of becoming a relic if the film didn’t still work like absolute gangbusters and deserve to be seen with a crowd.
The following night (Wednesday, Oct. 1) sees a tribute to ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker) that features Q&A alongside what I consider to be their finest work together in Top Secret! Featuring the big screen debut of a young Val Kilmer as a rock n’ roll secret operative sent behind the Iron Curtain to retrieve a scientist. While Airplane! is well-deserving of the accolades and popular culture cribbing it’s received (including that befuddling wholesale rip-off placed smack in the middle of Ted) over the years I find the hit-to-miss ratio of Top Secret! preferable while also admitting a larger affinity for the genres being spoofed in this picture versus their most famous triumph. Even though it’s well-liked, Top Secret! is underseen and this MFF screening should go a long way towards rectifying that. Friday, Oct. 3 brings two more exciting screenings to the festival, a 7 p.m showing of the classic comedy Hollywood Shuffle as well as a 10 p.m. screening of Stanley Kubrick’s work of black comedy perfection, Dr. Strangelove. Director/star Robert Townsend will be coming to town for this special screening of Shuffle, yet another unfairly forgotten comedy that deserves wider recognition. The satire stings just as hard today, with representation still an unfortunate sore spot in the Hollywood machinery (festivals like this are a necessary corrective to the predominantly male and white cinema you are otherwise treated to), which should make for some particularly lively post-film discussion. And John Axford’s choice of presenting Dr. Strangelove can’t be argued with – it’s one of the best movies ever made, full stop (like so much of Kubrick’s work), and a movie that will floor you with its perfection. After the wondrous 2001 screening of last year, it would be foolish to miss a chance to see a genuine masterwork on the big screen.
Saturday, Oct. 4 brings a special repeat screening of the classic Talking Heads concert doc Stop Making Sense (it also played at last year’s MFF and had the audience dancing in the aisles) to the Oriental at 10:30 p.m. with Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison in attendance. Jonathan Demme’s deft editing of two separate performances together into one magnificent experience just builds and builds over the course of its runtime, proving its well-earned status as one of (if not the) best concert documentaries ever made. The following evening sees Terry Zwigoff’s great documentary Crumb screen at the Downer at 7 p.m. as part of the Art + Artists series of films – although the story of Zwigoff telling Crumb to make this movie or he’d shoot himself has proven apocryphal, the sense of urgency and necessity in bringing Crumb’s story to life is so strongly felt throughout it isn’t surprising the story lingers. Finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 7, director Marshall Curry (yet another guest of honor for a stacked year of MFF attendees) will present his Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight (along with his latest work Point and Shoot) at 4:15 p.m. at the Oriental. This is simply one of the most engrossing political documentaries of our time, or any other for that matter, a real-life Mr. Smith Goes to Washington situation as we see Cory Booker’s 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark, NJ as he fights against the entrenched self-interest of a 16-year incumbent. It’s as thrilling as any story Hollywood could’ve cooked up and is the perfect capper to a particularly strong slate of screenings this year devoted to previously released classics. So do take the time to make a little room in your stuffed MFF schedule to see one (or all!) of these choices — seeing these films in the format they were intended to be seen allows you the opportunity to look at them anew!