There is no such thing as an off or even slightly disappointing year for the city-uniting Milwaukee Film Festival, which released its program book to the public earlier this month at Good City Brewing. There are times when the great must-see movies immediately leap off the page, and there are times where maybe the greatness quietly waits to be found, hiding in plain sight before thrillingly surprising you and sending you back out into the world, changed, brain racing and desperate to find other people to share in your discovery. But a bad time? Never on the schedule.
Each year, I try to spin through the movie listings with a level head – and each year, I end up outraged at the heavens for not making 37-hour-long days, calling my family to let them know I’ll be missing Sept. 28 through Oct. 12, attempting to invent teleportation in order to get from the Times Cinema to the Avalon in two minutes and convincing myself that, yes, eating exclusively popcorn and Sno-Caps for 15 days totally makes for an acceptable and nutritious diet.
While we’re all assembling our screening schedules – whether you use an elaborate Excel spreadsheet or just an Office Depot's worth of Sharpies and highlighters – I’d like to do my part in helping you find the gems, both obvious and obscure, at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Here are my 10 must-sees – plus one bonus event featuring a pretty cool (and might I add ruggedly handsome) local pop culture writer.
The Milwaukee Film Festival is known for many things, but U.S. premieres generally aren’t among them. So when one does happen – like at the Oriental Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 30, for the documentary "Schumann’s Bar Talks" – it’s a guaranteed must-see for any Milwaukee movie fan.
So what’s the topic for this special Milwaukee screening? Booze. It’s like they know us so well!
The doc follows famed bartender supreme Charles Schumann as he tours some of the globe’s finest watering holes, finding out about the drinks they pour, the people who drink them and the culture outside the bar that brings everyone together inside. And in the very likely case that you walk out of the doc parched from watching all those tasty world-class concoctions, you can wet your whistle right down the street at the festival’s special "Craft of the Cocktail" party, featuring cool boozy creations from Bryant’s, Boone and Crockett, and more. It’s a movie night that’s sure to quench your thirst for potent film and potent potables.
2. "The Lost World" (with Alloy Orchestra)
There’s a unique magic at the Milwaukee Film Festival, sitting in a theater with a sold-out crowd of, in some cases, hundreds of strangers, all laughing, crying and perfectly reacting to a movie at the same time. That magic multiplies even more when it’s a classic silent film with a live orchestra, taking an entire audience back in time as one. It’s a marvelous moment that we’ve experienced in past festivals with "Metropolis," "Blackmail," "Man with a Movie Camera" and "Earth," and we’ll experience it again in 2017 with the essential old-school Arthur Conan Doyle adventure "The Lost World," about explorers who discover a world of ground-breaking stop-motion prehistoric monsters.
The Alloy Orchestra, returning to the festival, will serve as our tour guide for this incredible trip back in time – into the history of the planet and into the history of cinema. So plan to pack your (popcorn) bags on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
In case it wasn’t enough that John Ridley joined Milwaukee Film’s board of directors last year, helping to give back to the area that he once called home, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and critically lauded director and TV producer ("American Crime") keeps bringing his fascinating projects to the festival’s screens, from the 2014 centerpiece presentation of "Jimi: All Is By My Side" to this year's "Let It Fall."
His ambitious documentary follows the decade in Los Angeles leading up to the Rodney King trial and ensuing riots in 1992. A truncated version of the feature aired on ABC – which also helped produce the doc – earlier this year in honor of the 25th anniversary of the events, but for the story's full scope and Ridley’s full vision, you’ll have to hit the Milwaukee Film Festival.
You can barely turn your head at this year’s festival without seeing a Michael Cera movie, between "Lemon," "Person to Person" and his musical work for "Dina" – all strong candidates for this list. But it’ll be an even busier fest for Cate Blanchett, as Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto" answers the question: What’s better than one Blanchett performance? Answer: How about 13 Cate Blanchett performances?!
Hopping between a polished newscaster to a growling punk rocker to scraggly homeless person and more, Blanchett makes a feast of acting out more than a dozen artistic manifestos throughout history, each one challenging the audience’s notions on art and creation. Your move, Cera.
I feel like I’ve heard about Sonia Braga’s outstanding lead performance in "Aquarius" for eons. Even though the Brazilian drama – about a widow who refuses to sell her apartment to overambitious land developers – premiered at the Cannes Film Festival just last year, critics have been eagerly praising Braga at every opportunity. And, of course, being in Milwaukee, not exactly an essential indie release hotspot, we’ve been stuck patiently waiting to see "Aquarius" and this triumphant turn on the big screen – until now, thanks to the film festival. Here’s to finally seeing this powerhouse performance and killer character drama, and being able to join the throngs of praise.
The Milwaukee Film Festival will start on a high note with this inspirational documentary – complete with its incredible subject and filmmaker both expected to be in attendance. The movie follows Will Lautzenheiser, a college film teacher whose pulled muscle suddenly turns out to be a rare bacterial infection that leaves him without both arms and legs, leaving him limbless. So the next logical move for Will? Stand-up comedy, of course! But while he uses jokes to cope with his new reality, an experimental double-arm transplant appears on his radar – and, with it, the possibility of returning to his previous pre-surgery life.
Last year, the Milwaukee Film Festival opened up strong with inspiration in the form of "Life, Animated," leaving the Oriental floor soggy with tears. Based on what I’ve seen and heard about "Stumped," a pro tip for the ushers at the Oriental: Get the mops ready again for opening night 2017.
A horrible moment in Milwaukee’s recent history becomes a terrific documentary in "The Blood is at the Doorstep," the film festival’s centerpiece selection. Filmed across three tumultuous years, local director Erik Ljung chronicles the aftermath of the Dontre Hamilton shooting in Red Arrow Park through the family’s eyes – both the loud outcry for answers voiced in public and the quiet brutal emotions felt in private. Carefully capturing a critical moment in a nationwide debate that rages to this day, Ljung’s documentary tells an essential human story for the city, and the entire country, to hear – and now the Milwaukee Film Festival gives it its biggest stage.
No, "Columbus" is not a biopic about the controversial explorer who definitely did not actually discover America, much less set foot in North America. It’s actual a modest character drama about two young people (John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson) bonding in that famed exotic locale of … Columbus, Indiana? That boring state that goes on for seemingly years in between Illinois and Ohio? As it turns out, though, the modern architectural hotspot – no, really – provides the perfect backdrop for film essay extraordinaire Kogonada’s quietly moving big screen debut, giving the Midwest, the state of Indiana and the word "Columbus" all a good name.
The film world lost a pair of geniuses this past year with the tragic passing of both Jonathan Demme and Tobe Hooper, but you can give the two essential directors a fitting big screen salute at the Milwaukee Film Festival with "Poltergeist" and "Stop Making Sense" – and also just watch two incredible movies.
The former (sponsored by former Brewers pitcher and constant Cream City cinema supporter John Axford) is still an incredibly spooky horror classic, one that makes the supernatural as wonder-inducing as it is wet-your-pants-inducing, while the latter is the rare concert documentary that truly makes the audience feel like they’re at the show, on the stage and in the moment. Sure, "Stop Making Sense" shows every year at the film festival, but if there was ever a time to dance to Demme – or be horrified by Hooper – 2017 would be it.
10. "The Road Movie"
It’d be easy to pick "Landline," the festival’s closing night selection and the sophomore effort from the exceptionally talented writer-director Gillian Robespierre, for this final must-see. TOO easy, actually. So let’s go in a slightly different direction: insane Russian dashboard camera videos. Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s documentary "The Road Movie" gathers up some of the craziest dashcam clips into an odd reflection on life in Russia – with all of the insane freeway explosions, sledgehammer road rages and flaming falling meteors that includes.
Honorable mention: State of Cinema keynote addresses
The Milwaukee Film Festival offers not just one, but two State of Cinema public forums for this year’s edition. On Sunday, Oct. 1, Washington Post chief film critic Anna Hornaday, a key voice in the world of movies for decades, will discuss what it means to watch and write about cinema in 2017. Meanwhile, the day before, the festival will host a State of Cinema in Milwaukee keynote, chatting about what it means to watch and make movies in the Cream City with local filmmaker Dr. Susan Kerns and … OnMilwaukee pop culture editor Matt Mueller? That seems like a mistake. A typo maybe? No?
OK, well, come to both events and see Hornaday brilliantly dissect film discussion in an internet age, Dr. Kerns insightfully comment on being a filmmaker in Milwaukee and me overly elaborate about why 2005’s "Constantine" is the greatest work of cinema of the 21st century. And maybe touch on the state of cinema, streaming, the pros and cons of Netflix and being a film fan in a small-market city. But mostly the "Constantine" part.
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.