The 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival is set to begin this Thursday evening at the Oriental Theatre, kicking off a fifteen day long cinematic bacchanal filled with nearly limitless options for immersing yourself in cinema. An excepting opening night (which features only the one screening, followed by an after party), we’re left with a mere 281 films spread out over 339 public screenings all taking place in the span of 14 days. The staggering amount of choice is enough to make even the most dedicated cinephile take to their fainting couch. Luckily for those overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of choice, I’ve created a handy guide to this year’s vintage, narrowing down each day to a single film choice I believe to be worthy of particular attention. And while any Johnny-come-lately could point you in the direction of some of the MFF2016’s lineup heavyweights such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Metropolis with live accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra or the closing night film Morris from America, I instead offer for your edification some under-the-radar selections for anyone with adventurous cinematic taste. So without any further ado, let’s jump to day two…
…And one of my most anticipated selections of the festival, the Iranian horror film Under the Shadow (9:45 p.m. @ The Avalon Theater). Currently sitting pretty at 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, this festival darling has been hailed as a slow-burn psychological pot-boiler much in the vein of my beloved The Babadook, similarly pitting a mother and her child against a supernatural entity in an isolated locale. But if horror doesn’t whet your cinematic appetite, try on this day three double feature on for size: first, take in the State of Cinema Keynote presented by John Ridley (1:30 p.m. @ Landmark Downer), as the Oscar-winning screenwriter (12 Years a Slave) waxes philosophic on the world of modern film. This will be followed by Jodie Mack: Let Your Light Shine (4:00 p.m., also at the Downer), an eclectic collection of experimental short films from the titular filmmaker that should beguile and confound in equal measures with their formal daring (one short requires the audience put on prismatic glasses to experience it in full) and jaw-dropping visuals. Day four brings us the festival’s penultimate screening of The Land (7:30 p.m. @ Oriental Theatre), an energetic coming-of-age drama executive produced by Nas surrounding a group of Cleveland-based inner-city youths who run afoul of a local drug queenpin, screening as part of the MFF’s phenomenal Black Lens program. Continuing the theme of massively acclaimed independent cinema, day five brings us yet another critical darling in The Fits (6 p.m. @ Oriental Theatre). Sure to make its way onto many critic year-end lists, be sure to catch this remarkable filmmaking debut now so you can lord it over your friends later.
Day six sees yet another debut film sure to be found on many year-end lists in Kaili Blues (8 p.m. @ Oriental Theatre). A poetic journey following one man’s attempts to locate an abandoned child, the film has been lauded for a show-stopping 40-minute long unbroken take as the man meanders through a dreamlike town. Patient theatergoers will be rewarded by the film’s elliptic and hypnotic style. Give yourself a pat on the back for your exotic taste and sit back and enjoy one of the festival’s many wonderful shorts programs on day seven, specifically the Shorts: Surprise, Surprise (9:30 p.m. @ Times Cinema): a series of hilarious, thought-provoking, taboo-breaking shorts including the show stopping Too Legit, which follows the magical thinking of our modern rape culture to a darkly comedic conclusion. Dip your toes in the festival’s Sound Vision category on day eight, with the inspirational documentary Miss Sharon Jones! (6 p.m. @ Oriental Theatre), following the inimitable singer as she battles pancreatic cancer with the same ferocity she attacks the stage with alongside her backing group The Dap Kings. Day nine brings The Love Witch (9 p.m. @ Times Cinema), a perfectly stylized pastiche of the gauzy erotic horror cinema of the 60’s and 70’s with a modern feminist twist perfect for anyone who luxuriates in impeccable set and costume design alongside an eye-popping color palette. There are shades of Spike Jonze’s Her in my day ten selection, the modern relationship drama Operator (7 p.m. @ Avalon Theatre), following a computer programmer who uses his girlfriend’s voice in his new project only to find himself engaging deeply with her digitized voice as their real-life relationship grows further and further apart.
There’s no let down in quality as we hit the home stretch of the MFF16, with day eleven bringing us the narratively daring Right Now, Wrong Then (7 p.m. @ Fox-Bay Cinema Grill) – a film which brings us a meet cute between a director and a local artist repeated twice, with subtle changes in the conversational trajectory bringing about vast differences between the two meetings. Day twelve brings forth the provocative documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (9 p.m. @ Oriental Theatre), a film that does more to explain our prison-industrial complex by focusing on aspects outside of the prison system itself (the struggle of reintegration, the success of a former inmate whose business specializes in prison-approved care packages), one that is sure to stir up conversation afterward outside the theater. Day thirteen showcases one of the films I’m most looking forward to in Ma (9:45 p.m. @ Oriental Theatre), an essentially silent modern retelling of the Virgin Mary’s pilgrimage as performed by an acclaimed modern choreographer. Fans of cinematic audacity will be kicking themselves if they miss it. Day fourteen is the perfect time for the darkly absurd Men & Chicken (9 p.m. @ Oriental Theatre), featuring a nearly unrecognizable Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Casino Royale) as one of two brothers on the hunt for their biological father, both hampered by their very specifically psychopathic behavior. And then wrap up your festival experience on day fifteen with Notes on Blindness (7:00 p.m. @ Avalon Theatre), a film with no less ambitious a goal then trying to create the sensory experience of blindness in the inherently visual medium of film. Love them or hate them (hopefully love!), these selections will be sure to stretch all of your movie-going muscles, be they crowd-pleasing, experimentally challenging, or thought-provoking – possibly all three at once! Enjoy the MFF16, everyone!
Tickets for the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival are on sale now at the Oriental Theatre box office and online here.