The theater may be closed, but the show must thankfully go on. That's the case with this year's Milwaukee Film Festival, which has shifted to a virtual edition due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
You'll have to pop your own popcorn this time around. You'll have to make your own introductions thanking various sponsors and reminding everyone in the crowd to silence your cell phones. Instead of loitering in the lobby for 30 minutes after the movie, debating your latest selection's merits and mistakes, you'll have to meet on Zoom to chat with your fellow movie lovers – or maybe have the debate with yourself in the mirror. (Personally, I don't recommend the latter; I've found that guy is ALWAYS wrong.)
Yes, the Milwaukee Film Festival may look very different this year, but one thing is very much the same: They have a preposterous number of good movies for you to watch.
The lineup for 2020 boasts nearly 200 movies of all shapes, sizes, themes and topics (including one about a woman dating a theme park ride). And this year, with all of the movies showing in one place – online – you don't have to decide between certain showings and locations, wishing you could defy space, time, physics and the need for sustenance and sunlight. No, you can binge through as much Milwaukee Film Festival as you can handle this year, no panicked car races or saving seats necessary.
As a result, don't be fooled into thinking this year's a scaled-down edition; there's actually never been more options and better availability. Want to watch from the comfort of your couch or bed or outdoor projection screen or shower TV? You can do that! Want to watch the film festival with your dog? You can do that! Don't want to wear clothes during your movie? Uhhh, OK, that's odd ... but you can do that! (Maybe with the shades closed; there's already one super secret showing reveal this festival, I assume your neighbors don't need there to be two.) The possibilities are, indeed, endless with this year's festival.
That being said, that kind of freedom can also be intimidating and overwhelming. There are almost 200 movies to watch, whenever I want to watch them? Where do I start? Which ones will I forehead-smackingly regret skipping come end-of-year best-of list season? Which ones will be the big hot debate topics? And were you serious when you said there's a movie about a lady dating an amusement park attraction?
To answer that last question: Somehow, yes. And to answer the other two questions, here are the ten movies I'm most excited to see this film festival season – from thought-provoking docs to funny romps to a glorious excuse to watch puppies being adorable. And remember: This is just the tip of the iceberg. Be sure to check the whole list for yourself for your own finds and discoveries, be sure to buy your tickets and passes here, and most of all, be sure to enjoy the show.
1. "Black Bear"
If there's one thing you'd think people would've learned by now, it's don't go into the woods. It never ends well. The starry and Sundance-approved psychological melodrama "Black Bear" brings a few new twists to that familiar formula, though, as a filmmaker (Aubrey Plaza, "Parks and Rec") ventures into the woods for a creative break, only to find new drama of a very real and unscripted variety with her host couple (Sarah Gadon of "Enemy" and Christopher Abbott of "It Comes at Night"). OR IS IT!? With twists and turns that look ready to bend the characters' and the audience's sense of reality into pretzels, "Black Bear" looks like a thrillingly unpredictable watch – and an exciting dip into a dramatic and darker new shade for Plaza as a performer. (Though she's also great in "Ingrid Goes West," another movie about growingly unwanted house guests.)
It's that classic romance formula: Girl meets tilt-a-whirl. Girl loses tilt-a-whirl. Girl gets tilt-a-whirl back. Wait, that can't be right. Hold on ... nope, that's actually the premise of the eye-catching Cinema Hooligante selection "Jumbo," as a shy young woman (Noémie Merlant of "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" fame) becomes romantically infatuated with the local carnival's latest attraction. It certainly sounds strange and one-of-a-kind – especially since the Milwaukee Film program booklet implies that our romantic, half-robotic leading pair will, uh, go for a ride – but from the (very French) clips and interviews, "Jumbo" doesn't appear to be just freakshow fascination, but a remarkably genuine and earnest love story about a woman seeking connection. Who knows? By the end, we too may hope to find a ride-lationship with our own tilt-a-soulmate.
3. "I Used to Go Here"
Milwaukee Film Festival may not be hosting a typical opening night this year, complete with the revelry and excited crowd packed in the Oriental Theater main house and the afterparty and all those things that sound terrifying in the midst of a pandemic. But there is at least an opening night movie. "I Used to Go Here," an indie comedy about a woman, feeling lost in her life after her fiance unexpectedly leaves, who visits her old college stomping grounds ... and doesn't particularly want to leave. The pick looks like a gentle, kindly comedy with an impeccable cast filling out the lineup, from star Gillian Jacobs from "Community" returning to school to "Flight of the Conchords" icon Jemaine Clement as the friendly (and flirty) professor encouraging her to move into teaching. And while we may not be able to gather to watch this opening night selection, it sounds like a wonderful and winsome way to start your film festivities on Thursday. Or Friday. Or any night you choose.
4. "Us Kids"
It may be a strange year for the festival, but the documentaries selections are yet again another highlight, especially when it comes to delivering powerful, persuasive, impactful and important true stories about the issues facing our society today. From "Ahead of the Curve" about the famous lesbian lifestyle magazine to "Coming Clean," the festival's centerpiece selection focused on the opiate addiction crisis from a personal, on-the-ground level, to "Landfall" about Puerto Rico's struggles after Hurricane Maria, to the investigation into police bruality that is "Down a Dark Stairwell," the film festival has a thoughtful, humane and enthralling documentary diving into just about every topic that's been on your mind in recent years – and beyond.
The one I'm most intrigued by, though, is "Us Kids," a buzzy Sundance selection about the brave student protesters in Parkland and throughout the nation crying out for gun control and attempting to make the U.S. a safer place for everyone. For those struggling with the news of the day, "Us Kids" might just be the hopeful salve you need, a look at inspiring young people turning their pain into political might and the next generation's passion to become the last generation affected by our national plague of school shootings.
5. "About Endlessness"
Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson returns with another batch of wry, philosophical and gorgeously filmed short stories about life, death and the bizarre existence we go through in the middle in "About Endlessness." From the small to the surreal, the ordinary to the otherworldly, I'm intrigued by another dose Andersson's takes and notes on our strange place in the world, always with black humor and tremendous beauty, his vignettes all almost looking like paintings breathing to life within the frame. And for those reading the title and worried about the running time, "About Endlessness" is a clean 78 minutes – so not endless at all!
You may not know the name Carlos Lopez Estrada – but you will. The director made his feature-length debut with the highly buzzed 2018 festival favorite "Blindspotting" starring "Hamilton" spark plug Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, and while it's a messy movie, it's also one with vision, style with both visuals and dialogue, and pasion radiating through the screen (aka what you want to see from a big screen debut). Since then, he took the helm on an eerily effective Billie Eilish music video and an episode of the mind-bending FX show "Legion," as well as co-directed "Raya and the Last Dragon," a new original animated adventure arriving next year from fledgling studio (*checks notes*) Disney.
So he's right on the border of a breakout – and "Summertime" could be a part of that. It's an ensemble dramedy about 25 Los Angeles residents coming and going about their days and in and out of each other's lives, told mostly via spoken word poetry written largely by its stars. (That explains the wild 30 credited screenwriters on IMDB.) The concept sounds exhilarating – and like the perfect refined outlet for everything that thrillingly worked about "Blindspotting" – so snag yourself a ticket for the movie and on the bandwagon.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain is one of our most visually adventurous and unpredictable filmmakers working, going from the lo-fi political dramedy "No" to the brutally grim claustrophobia of "The Club" and the pristine haunted house of "Jackie." And now he's taking another hard turn to the bright and bold world of dance with "Ema," a rhythmic and colorful melodrama about a dancer trying to mend her relationship with her choreographer partner (Larrain regular Gael Garcia Bernal) after giving up their fire-starting adopted son ... all while also plotting to get their son back using increasingly chaotic methods. I'm thrilled to see a new palate on Larrain's canvas – and plus, I'm always thinking that dramas about emotionally devastated families could use exhilaratingly choreographed reggaeton dance sequences.
8. "Golden Arm"
Sad about Netflix cancelling (or more like un-renewing) the women wrestling dramedy "GLOW"? Well, after you sign your petition to Netflix to bring it back, watch the next best thing to a new season of the show: "Golden Arm." The South By Southwest selection – or at least what would have been if such festivals had existed in 2020 – follows a trucker and arm wrestling aficionado who tries to get her meek friend to take her place in the National Ladies Arm Wrestling Championship after an injury.
The premise sounds like all the excitement of a sports drama combined with the charm and humor of a buddy comedy – all viewed through the all-too-rare lens of female friendship. Plus, with its spotlight shining on the unheralded subculture and science of competitive arm wrestling, maybe I'll learn some tips and tricks in between laughs. Then I'll just need a time machine to go back to sixth grade, teach Young Matt what I've learned and become the most popular kid in school and lord of the lunchroom! Wait, did I just accidentally write my own indie comedy premise ...
9. "Coded Bias"
A sci-fi thriller dressed up a documentary's clothes, "Coded Bias" is one of the most fascinating festival films in a lineup already filled with engrossing options. The tense real-life tech drama follows programmer Joy Buolamwini as she discovers that the up-and-coming world of facial recognition technology has alarming racist biases, particularly toward those who have darker skin and female faces. It's an eerie sci-fi dilemma – and the world of facial recognition software was already creepy before we discovered these glitches built into the system – that looks thrillingly told. It digs into our misguided assumptions of technology as a neutral, objective force in the world and introduces audiences to a compelling leading subject in Buolamwini and her Algorithmic Justice League.
10. "We Don't Deserve Dogs"
We don't deserve dogs ... but maybe considering how fully trash this current year has been, we at least deserve a documentary about them? This globe-trekking feature travels across continents and throughout different nations to find lovely relationships between man and his best friend, finding out why it is dogs and man have grown so close and how different cultures express that mutual affection. It's a documentary premise so sweet and warm-hearted, about animals so sweet and warm-hearted, that you'll want to cuddle your own four-legged furry pal the entire running time – and since this film festival is virtual and screened at home, you'll be able to!
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.