After 15 days of events, parties, panel discussions, and more movies than any sane human being could possibly watch (282 of them, to be exact), the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival came to a close last week Thursday. It was another stellar year for the annual fest, and one that will stick in our cinema-addled brains as we patiently tick off the days until the 2017 installment. Here are 13 of the many, many standout moments from the gone-but-not-forgotten MFF2016.
New Age Narcissism at the Opening Night Party
Don’t say we didn’t warn you. We don’t often go in for three-story parties with block-long queues of sharp-dressed folks waiting to get in, but this one happened to be a can’t-miss music experience as well. Not only were DJs Dori Zori (88.9 FM) and Timmy Jam (WMSE) each in command of their own dance floor, the main event was the full New Age Narcissism crew performing on the third-floor outdoor patio. Milwaukee’s premier genre-hopping collective could’ve played it safe and just trotted out the hits—and there were plenty of those, from Lex Allen’s “Cream And Sugar” and Lorde Fredd33’s “MWME” to Siren’s “Priestess” and WebsterX’s signature tune, “Doomsday.” But the fun part was Q The Sun’s persistent efforts to bring the crowd into the performance, instigating chants and movements, culminating in a brief circular dance mob towards the end of the set. It felt like an initiation rite for many of the confused cinephiles, a whetting of a new appetite that will surely lure some newbies out for another taste of the NAN experience. [Cal Roach]
The sponsor trailer, Alice Cooper, and “mill-e-wah-que”
Maybe we just love seeing our Lone Shoe Graphics-designed logo pop up on the big screen, but the annual unveiling of the new MFF sponsor trailer is one of the little things we love most about the fest. This year’s trailer—created by Purple Onion, Laughlin Constable, and Wonder Wonder—was a undeniable winner, looking far ahead to the future of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, as Milwaukee prepares to “do its part” for Election Day. Fittingly, Alice Cooper’s 1972 jam “Elected” plays throughout the spot, which is capped off with the rocker’s Milwaukee history lesson from Wayne’s World. Something we can all agree on, indeed. [Matt Wild]
Milwaukee Film Festival Sponsor Trailer 2016 from Purple Onion Inc. on Vimeo.
The Oriental at capacity for Milwaukee 53206
As if finding parking on the East Side wasn’t already a hassle, it was exceptionally hard to come by around noon on Saturday, October 1, as hundreds of people crammed the Oriental Theatre’s main room to capacity for the festival’s lone screening of Milwaukee 53206. The film champions a handful of residents of the country’s most incarcerated zip code and their efforts to effect positive change within a system that is set up to fail. After the credits rolled, all of the film’s primary protagonists took the stage, along with director Keith McQuirter and WUWM radio host Bonnie North, to discuss the movie and their ongoing efforts to seek justice and break the cycle of street life and community unrest. Most of the assembled crowd stuck around for this discussion and the one that followed, which in itself inspired a lot of hope that people are at least willing to listen and searching for ways to unify this most segregated of cities. [CR]
City Of Gold packing Downer 10 a.m.
This year’s Film Feast lineup of food-focused flicks was especially strong, and the turnout seemed to reflect as much. The main course was City Of Gold, a rib-tickling and—by film’s end—tear-jerking doc centered on Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times food writer Jonathan Gold and how the charming critic has changed the way we appreciate and evaluate food. Almost as impressive as the film itself was the packed house at Downer Theatre that feasted its eyes on the 10 a.m.screening during the fest’s first weekend. [Tyler Maas]
Black Lens Shorts
This year’s Black Lens Shorts Program did an excellent job of satisfying the long-held theory that a great movie (or shorts program) should make you think, laugh, and cry. #BARS4JUSTICE documents an incredible benefit show in Ferguson, Missouri, but most notably provides an efficient and energetic snapshot of the social atmosphere surrounding the event. The Big Chop is a funny and poignant exploration of an African-American woman’s relationship with her hair, which she has straightened for most of her life. The suspenseful Flowers seriously snuck up on us; a conversation between two young friends rapidly develops into a more serious situation with consequences you don’t get to understand right away, if at all. [Josh Hoppert]
A gorgeously shot documentary about thousands upon thousands of stray cats roaming through the streets (and sewers) of Istanbul? Sign us up. A gorgeously shot documentary that ends up being just as much about the people who love and look after the cats as the cats themselves? Like we said, sign us up. This doc was not only terrific on every level, but, during a standing-room-only screening at the Downer, it elicited the most “awww!”s and “ohhh”s we’ve ever heard at a movie. Four paws up! [MW]
The Herzfeld Competition Jury, in their collective wisdom, certainly got it right this year in awarding top honors to The Fits, even though every film in the Competition program was very much worth seeing (except maybe The Demons). Anna Rose Homer’s feature directorial debut keeps us guessing as to what genre of film it is. At first, it feels like a hard-knocks sports movie, then a coming-of-age tear-jerker, then maybe it’s going to turn into a dance-competition thing? No, no, it’s just setting us up for a gritty urban drama…oh shit, is this actually a horror flick? And whatever you ultimately decide it is, you find out in the end that you were wrong. What you’re left with is a riveting lead performance by Royalty Hightower, a thoroughly thought-provoking narrative down to its final moment, a powerful score, and effective shallow-focus cinematography that isolates the viewer within Hightower’s singular perspective. It’s an incredible psychological journey in a mere 72 minutes. [CR]
The Milwaukee Show I had a lot of great films, as always, but holy smokes, did Sam Kirchoff’s Synthase ever grab our attention. Now, we have to admit, we briefly started to glaze over early on as the experimental student film vibe started to show just a little. But then, a few absolutely beautiful shots dropped in, and the next thing we knew, we were absolutely hooked. Science is our favorite subject to pretend we understand, and this short is full of frog dissection shots, close-ups of very small plants and animals, and other striking nature images which illustrate a biology lesson that goes completely over our head. Hearing director Sam Kirchoff explain how he spent weeks setting up time-lapse shots of growing and dying organisms in his closet made us love it even more. [JH]
Seeing your favorite neighborhood hangouts on the silver screen
This year’s Cream City Cinema program was the festival’s most expansive and impressive display of local talent yet. Maybe our opinion is slightly skewed, however, due to the subconscious delight of seeing our favorite Milwaukee establishments popping up within multiple narratives on the big screen. How fun was it to watch Andrea Guzzetta traipse around various frigid neighborhoods in the funny/sad short @Me (part of The Milwaukee Show II)? Or WC Tank cruising down the 27th Street bridge in his killer video for “27th And National” (part of The Milwaukee Music Video Show)? Of course, documentaries like Milwaukee 53206 and Almost Sunrise showcased some Brew City locales, but perhaps most thrilling was the feature debut from directors Scott Cary and Martin Kaszubowski, Christopher Darling, a well-worn story about rock-star ego and debauchery that nevertheless came off fresh and authentic, featuring scenes shot in Mad Planet, RushMor Records, Shank Hall, and Frank’s Power Plant, among other notable local joints. [CR]
This commercial before every screening
Kudos to Associated Bank for casting an actor with the range that goes from tolerable to punchable in under 20 seconds. The irritatingly aloof server suited the bank’s “It’s For Real” spot—which aired before every screening—to blood-boiling perfection. It also helped the commercial stand out, which is almost impossible to do these days, especially at the local level. So way to go, Associated. Now please never show this to anyone again. [TM]
MFF’s live accompaniment screening has developed into a fan favorite annual event, or at very least, our favorite annual event. This year’s return of Metropolis, live-scored by festival veterans Alloy Orchestra, was another weird and wonderful chapter in the series. Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi masterpiece jumps between class conflict, “science,” romance, and seductive robot dance scenes; the Orchestra’s nimble performance had no trouble keeping pace. The nearly 150-minute screening was a ton of fun and the time just flew by. The funky tune the Orchestra dialed up every time the robolady danced will someday be our ringtone. [JH]
Spending an entire Sunday at Downer Theatre
Downer is the only theater involved in the Film Festival that doesn’t serve alcohol. There are no elephant sculptures inside, no reclining chairs, no twinkling stars on the ceiling. It feels like any nondescript theater on a nameless block of any big city, from a time before IMAX and Ultrascreens and eighteen-dollar bags of popcorn. Maybe that’s precisely the nature of its allure. Plus, you can walk across the street and have a beer in between movies, if for some reason you’re determined to base your entire day around four film screenings in the same building. Sure, maybe you feel a little strange ordering a Coke or a bag of popcorn from the same friendly concession-stand employee four separate times without any acknowledgement that she remembers seeing you three hours ago. Maybe it’s raining and you biked to the theater without a raincoat. Maybe there’s never quite enough time between movies to acquire any sort of meal. Maybe inadvertently going a full day without solid, un-popped nourishment isn’t a healthy lifestyle choice, but it was all worth it, just to be transported into the twisted Belgian black comedy of Death By Death, the murderous but cute ghost tale Liza, The Fox-Fairy, the striking collage of journalistic outtakes Cameraperson, and the agonizing account of a lost woman’s final days, God Knows Where I Am. Nobody ever said festival life was easy. [CR]
Watching the staff slowly start to lose it
The Milwaukee Film Festival runs an impressive 15 days. One of the hidden pleasures of the fest is watching the tireless folks that make up the Milwaukee Film staff slowly start to lose their minds—in a fun way!—as the days wear on. Sure, everyone is in great spirits for Opening Night, but after hundreds of films, discussions, events, parties, and midnight screenings, things start to get a little punchy. By the time the annual Stop Making Sense dance party rolls around, you have artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson giving a hilariously sleep-deprived and seemingly off-the-cuff introduction; by the time Blue Velvet rolls around, you have this. Thank you, Milwaukee Film. We don’t know how you do it, but we’re glad you do. [MW]