By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Sep 03, 2015 at 4:56 PM

There's no way the festival can do it again. 

Every year, just as the summer blockbuster season starts to settle down to just three explosion apocalypses-type movies, the Milwaukee Film Festival starts creeping around the corner. And each year, I think that there's no way they can put together another lineup as strong as the year before, one that has me camping out at the Oriental as though they're releasing the new iPhone and running excitedly from theater to theater to get to the next movie with just enough time to compare notes with the people in line with me about what they've seen too. 

And every year, I'm proven wrong, calling my family to let them know I won't be seeing them for about two weeks and staring at a highlighter-slathered program book schedule, trying to figure out which meals I can sacrifice to fit in just one more movie (the answer is always, "All of them").

2015 is no different. What the lineup may lack in big huge show-stopping picks – "He Named Me Malala" is probably the closest this year's festival has to "The Imitation Game," the big preview ticket from last year – it more than makes up for in smaller films with big intrigue and even bigger potential.

Here are 10 of the movies I'm most looking forward to come the end of the month.

Before we begin, a brief note: I left off "Jaws," "The Shining," "The Seventh Seal" and "Safety Last!" Obviously I'm super pumped about all of those – I've been throwing confetti ever since they've been announced, much to the chagrin of my roommates and workmates – but you don't need me to tell you that, eh, seeing Spielberg or Kubrick on the big screen in 35mm might be worth your time.

The same goes for "Youth," Raiders!" and "Peace Officer," the opening, closing and centerpiece selections. There's a lot to be excited about with those three too – Paolo Sorrentino's last film "The Great Beauty" was just stupidly gorgeous – and I definitely recommend checking them out. But no one's overlooking the films in their lofty positions. You shouldn't let these 10 picks slip through the cracks either.

"The Russian Woodpecker"

My significant other got an awesome gig working for Sundance this past winter. When she came home from Mormon country, it wasn't the run-ins with celebrities or the fresh mountain air she couldn't stop talking about. It was "The Russian Woodpecker," South Milwaukee native Chad Gracia's debut that took Park City by storm, snatching the festival's Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema-Documentary. 

Gracia's paranoia-soaked thriller of a doc follows Ukrainian performance artist Fedor Alexandrovich as he attempts to uncover the mysteries of his past and his home country's relationship with Russia. Fedor may seem like an oddball (what else would you expect from a child of Chernobyl?) but as his investigation goes on – ranging from the infamous nuclear disaster to the looming defunct Cold War signal blocking device that gives "The Russian Woodpecker" its name to the current Ukraine-Russia tensions – he might just convince you his conspiracy theories are onto something. 

"Welcome to Leith"

Another documentary that scored plenty of buzz out of Sundance – plus several other festivals – "Welcome to Leith" tells the true story of a small North Dakota city – so small, its population couldn't fill a 53-man football team roster. The tiny town faces a big problem, however, when Craig Cobb and his fellow white supremacists try to take over the tiny town and turn into their own stronghold of hate.

The Nazis may make bad neighbors, but from all the early raves for "Welcome to Leith," they seem to make good documentary material. Just based on the trailer and early festival reports,  Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker's film sounds a lot like a darker companion piece to last year's MFF selection "The Overnighters," another true tale of a small town on the brink and the often grey ideas of morality and freedom. And in case you didn't see it (it's on Netflix Instant, so you can and should fix that), being reminded of "The Overnighters" is the opposite of a bad thing. 

"The Look of Silence"

Two years ago, director Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated documentary "The Act of Killing" offered a terrifying, unblinking glance into the mind of true evil. It was as hypnotic as it was horrific.

So who's ready for round two?!

While "The Act of Killing" (also available on Netflix) focused on the leaders of a genocide in Indonesia gleefully recreating their crimes without a care, Oppenheimer's follow-up "The Look of Silence" follows a family confronting those men who killed their brother long ago. The two films are far from easy watching – even with Oppenheimer's beautiful cinematography and utterly unique storytelling approaches – but they are necessary watching, probing deep inside the human psyche the way few other art forms can. The two films may show mankind at some of its worst, but they also demonstrate filmmaking at some of its best. 

"Finders Keepers"

The Russian-Ukraine conflict, Indonesian genocides, white supremacists: Man, this list is just a glimmering ray of carefree sunshine so far, isn't it? Well, how about a pick to lighten the mood?

How about the story of a legal battle over a severed leg? No, really. 

The leg in question belongs to John Wood ... or does it? Because that leg somehow ended up in a BBQ smoker Shannon Whisnant bought, and since his macabre discovery became a media and even tourist sensation, he would like to keep it. Who will get a leg up – oh man, I am so sorry about that – in this weird and wacky real-life courtroom drama that sounds more like a Christopher Guest movie? I can't wait to find out – even if it costs me an arm and a ... oh. 

"White God"

The making of the Hungarian thriller "White God" required the use of 274 dogs. That's quite the cavalry of canines, but don't be thinking this going to be some adorable puppy-palooza. There's a reason this is in the Cinema Hooligante section, the program dedicated to all things dark, disturbed and downright snooker-loopy.

The favorite from the Cannes Film Festival – where it came away with the Prize Un Certain Regard – follows a dog taken from his family due to a harsh tax and mistreated by man in captivity before gathering that previously mentioned herd of hounds to get revenge of those who mistreated them (and possibly all those screenwriters who keep killing them in movies). It's certainly far from "Air Buddies," but then again, "Air Buddies" didn't have a scene where hundreds of actual dogs storm through the streets. Your move, "Air Buddies."

"Turbo Kid"

Does the world need more '80s nostalgia? If it looks as fun as "Turbo Kid," sure; why the hell not? This Cinema Hooligante pick looks like a blood-splattered smash-up of '80s sci-fi, comic book nerd-dom, retro video game references and grindhouse levels of gore – all served up just right. Also: Michael Ironside is here! Film festivals often get a reputation for being hoity-toity, beret-wearing snob-a-thons; Milwaukee Film Festival is far from that. A giddy plasma-gushing selection like "Turbo Kid" is handy evidence why. 

"Call Me Lucky"

Comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait is one of cinema's most clever, darkly comedic minds (your honor, I submit "Shakes the Clown," "God Bless America" and "World's Greatest Dad" to the jury). However, his latest trip behind the camera, "Call Me Lucky," takes a turn from the blackly comic to the, well, still blackly comic, but this time in documentary form, chronicling the life and times of fellow comedian Barry Crimmins. According to the strong early buzz out of Sundance, expect the same biting social wit and fearless edge with an extra dose of real-life warmth. 

"Imperial Dreams"

Before "Attack the Block" star John Boyega explodes in popularity this Christmas with a small space conflict movie that I believe is projected to make all of the money, maybe check him out in this small indie drama – one that's a part of both the Black Lens program as well as the Competition program, so it must be good.

In "Imperial Dreams," Boyega plays Bambi, a recently released ex-con who returns to his old neighborhood with the goal of staying out of trouble and making a career in writing to help support his young son. Anyone who saw "Attack the Block" knew Boyega was a star in the making. Obviously "The Force Awakens" will help make that potential finally come to fruition – seriously, Hollywood, what took so long? – but it'll be nice to see it in action in a project a little more down to Earth as well. Quite literally. 

"He Named Me Malala"

The odds of "He Named Me Malala" coming to Milwaukee after the film festival are as close to 100 percent as you can get. Davis Guggenheim's documentary – following the inspiring young woman who was shot for speaking out against the Taliban occupation and its treatment of women, survived and went on to continue speaking out, creating schools for girls and earning the Nobel Peace Prize, all before turning 18 – will certainly be an Oscar contender and will get the fitting theatrical push. So don't feel too sad if you can't get a ticket.

But if you want to beat everyone else to the punch and be insufferably smug about seeing an Academy Award contender before everyone else, this is the ticket to get. Plus, there's pretty much no way the doc won't be gob-smackingly, "What am I doing with my life; no really, what have I done" inspirational. In fact, I'd be willing to bet Guggenheim might have another Milwaukee Film Festival Audience Award to put next to the one he received back in 2010 for "Waiting for Superman."


A low-key documentary about an aging fashion icon – even one as incredible as Iris Apfel – doesn't likely scream off the page as a must-see pick. It's the name on the director credit, however, that makes it almost essential: Albert Maysles. It's not a household name, but he – along with his brother David – helped influence, shape and craft the world of documentary like few others have or will. From "Gimme Shelter" to "Salesman" to "Grey Gardens," their observational and humanist style of real-life storytelling has left a permanent mark. Sadly, Albert passed away this year at the age of 88 – David died of a stroke in 1987 – with "Iris" as his last film. I can think of no better tribute to him than seeing his final work on a big screen worthy of a quiet cinematic giant. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.