A first look at the 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival
The sprint to get your head around a nearly 150-title lineup begins. | By Grant Phipps, Edwanike Harbour, Chris Lay, and Scott Gordon
The 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival, running April 5 through 12 at Madison's AMC 6 and several venues on the UW-Madison campus, rolled out its schedule today online and in print. (The latter is tucked into this week's Isthmus.) Tickets go on sale on Saturday, March 10, so as usual festival-goers have a pretty tight window to make their choices from among almost 150 feature-length and short films.
After taking a quick spin through the festival lineup, here are some of the standouts: A documentary about Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor? (which might just be the hottest ticket of the fest); Don Hertzfeldt's animated sci-fi follow up to his fantastic World Of Tomorrow short, World Of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden Of Other People's Thoughts; mumblecore progenitor Andrew Bujalski's exploration of titular double entendres, Support The Girls; the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG (a film that will surely go over like gangbusters); Studio Ghibli's Harry Potter-ish homage Mary And The Witch's Flower; Claire Denis' most recent feature, Let the Sunshine In (which earned Juliette Binoche a Best Actress nomination from the European Film Awards last year); something old (1978's Blue Collar) and something new (First Reformed) from occasionally embattled director Paul Schrader; a one-two punch of early Kubrick short features (1951's Day Of The Fight and 1953's Fear And Desire); a Jean-Luc Godard biopic, Le Redoutable, from Michel Hazanavicius (the Oscar winning writer/director of The Artist); and a whole lot of Hal Ashby in the form of two lesser-known films (The Last Detail and The Landlord) and Hal, a whole feature-length documentary about the director behind classics like Harold & Maude and Being There.
As we work to digest the festival alongside you, here are further thoughts on a few more selections that stand out.
Beauty And The Dogs
The latest thriller from Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania stands as urgent advocacy for women's rights in North Africa. With its basis on true events and the source text of Coupable D'avoir Été Violée [Guilty Of Being Raped] by Meriem Ben Mohamed, the film chronicles, in nine extended and immersive takes, a traumatic night in the life of Mariam (a fearless Mariam Al Ferjani), who is sexually assaulted by policemen following a university party she helped plan. Hania and her co-director Khaled Walid Barsaoui craft an unrelenting psychological portrait that details the inherent misogyny and tragic bureaucratic corruption currently instituted in Tunisia. As Mariam cannot be admitted to a hospital without proper identification, she also realizes that she requires a police station statement from the very men who violated her. What makes Beauty And The Dogs' sharp socio-political analysis even more potent is the narrative's turbulent emotional framework within the fluidity of its cinematic construct, one that has earned comparisons to another contemporary feminist Tunisian film, As I Open My Eyes (dir. Leyla Bouzid), which premiered in Madison last year as part of the Directress Film Festival, and to Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. —Grant Phipps
Bridey Elliott has been making waves in television for the past few years with guest appearances on Silicon Valley and Search Party. But her creative passion is clearly in the cinema, writing and directing the short Affections in 2016 before beginning the development of this playfully absurdist debut feature of metacinema, Clara's Ghost, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Starring herself (as Riley Reynolds) and real-life family, sister and SNL alumna Abby Elliott (as Julie), veteran actor-comedian father Chris Elliott (as Ted), and mother Paula Niedert (as the titular Clara), the film hones their improvisational chemistry and dynamic dysfunction into a wry meditation on fame and reality television. Taking place over a single night in their suburban family home in Connecticut, the film taps into the supernatural as a means of guidance rather than horror. Seeking to escape from the celebrity status that her husband and daughters, beaming stars of the fictitious show Sweet Sisters, have brought, Clara becomes the vessel or medium for an unhappy apparition (Isidora Goreshter), who still dwells within the house's walls. In an effort that at times recalls Aronofsky's recent and divisive mother!, Bridey Elliott progressively channels a nervously funny, claustrophobic chaos, which is complemented by Stella Mozgawa's heavily percussive score. —Grant Phipps
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here rounds out a strong set of releases from female directors in this year's festival. This narrative feature stars Joaquin Phoenix as an emotionally scarred war veteran who takes on the work finding missing girls to make ends meet. It is not for the squeamish and Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin) is no stranger to violence. Inevitably, the film will draw strong comparisons to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and rightfully so. Phoenix's performance might not outdo Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle, but it's still pretty stellar. —Edwanike Harbour
In conjunction with the Wisconsin Film Festival's two reappraisals of Hal Ashby's lesser-known early work, The Landlord (1970) and The Last Detail (1973), Amy Scott's debut documentary on the acclaimed director from Utah is also screening. Ashby, who's probably most recognized for Harold And Maude (1971) and Being There (1979), was a key component of the "New Hollywood" and American auteur movement that arose in the late 1960s. Director Scott focuses not only on the relationship between Ashby's artistic vision and those of his contemporaries of the time (Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, and Dennis Hopper) but on the successes and struggles that resulted in some of his most riveting and inventive films throughout the 1970s as well as commercial failures of the ensuing decade before his untimely passing in 1988. While linear recounts of filmmakers' careers can be seen as primers for those peripherally or marginally familiar with their work, Hal is also a literal love letter for devotees and cinephiles. In officially partnering with the Ashby estate, Scott was given access to witty archival audio seminars and personal letters (read tenderly and emphatically by actor Ben Foster)—and she applies them here in a boldly comprehensive celebration of the man and his art. —Grant Phipps
I Am Not A Witch
Rungano Nyoni's debut feature set in Southern Africa turns a potentially harrowing scenario surrounding witchcraft on its ear (but not quite as far as something like Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell's famous TV spot). In writing and directing I Am Not A Witch, Nyoni detours from the expectation of heavy moralistic drama or Salem-inspired horror of Robert Eggers' The Witch (2015) to dive into magical realism and black comedy. In the writer-director's native Zambia, nine-year-old Shula (Margaret Mulubwa) is accused of witchcraft after a trivial incident and must subsequently stand trial before she is taken into state custody. After this preposterous ordeal, she is exiled to a "witch camp" in the desert where she must choose between embracing her purported supernatural abilities to live as a sorceress or defy them and be transformed into a goat. The satirical handling of the latter premise evokes Yogos Lanthimos' most famous feature, The Lobster (2015), but there's ultimately a darker and more grounded quality to I Am Not A Witch in the reality of its hearsay with deep ties to sexism in Zambia and the literal witch camps that inspired Nyoni in the country of Ghana. Further, cinematographer David Gallego (of Embrace Of The Serpent) helps marry the film's beautifully tangible imagery with elusive folkloric symbolism. —Grant Phipps
Let The Corpses Tan
Since their first feature Amer in 2009, the French creative team and couple of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have been putting their own surrealistic mark on the Italian "giallo" (horror-thriller) genre film popularized by Mario Bava in the 1960s. This decade, after writing-directing a segment in the extensive anthology film in The ABCs Of Death (2012), they produced the unquestionably kaleidoscopic nightmare fuel that is The Strange Colour Of Your Body's Tears, which had its Madison premiere at UW-Cinematheque in the fall of 2014. The couple's gonzo filmmaking style has led them to take on the acid and Spaghetti Western in Let The Corpses Tan, an essential homage to Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker (1971) and El Topo (1970) by Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, father of the midnight movie. As in their prior work, Cattet and Forzani favor a minimalist narrative channeled through their love of painterly, color-saturated close-ups and imposing architectural ruins in an unknown and lawless Mediterranean town adjacent to the sea. The mysterious Luce (character actress Elina Löwensohn), her unnamed lover (Michelangelo Marchese), drunken writer Bernier (Marc Barbe), and crime boss Rhino (Stephane Ferrara) round out a group of restless, ruthless outcasts bent on double-crossing one another over the claim to 250 kg of gold bricks. —Grant Phipps
Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom has earned a reputation for her steadfast attention to the natural world, whether concerning her debut Miracle On Everest (2008) about the miraculous true tale of mountain climber Lincoln Hall or the recent Sherpa (2015), which is once again fixated on Everest, but rather on a more sensationalist story about a brawl 21,000 feet up. Peedom's latest takes a broader and more awestruck approach to the alpine subject matter, emerging as a sort of self-reflective essay about mankind's fascination with snowy, majestic summits where certain men and women have dared to tread. Driven by the contemplative, personifying narration of Willem Dafoe and the sweeping cinematography Renan Ozturk (who also shot Meru, another WFF selection from 2016), perhaps the film's most affecting element is the symphonic sense of peril and wonder crafted by string accompaniment by the 17-piece Australian Chamber Orchestra. For viewers who have been entranced by the work of Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) and Murat Eyuboglu's The Colorado (WFF 2017), which features narration of the history of the Colorado River Basin by Mark Rylance and the distinctively stirring, jarring performances by modern a cappella octet Roomful Of Teeth, Mountain also appeals to those resplendent physical and emotional heights. —Grant Phipps
The new drama from German writer-director Valeska Grisebach has become one of the most internationally celebrated since its premiere at last year's Cannes. With her methods firmly rooted in the astute Berlin School associated with the likes of Christian Petzold (Phoenix, WFF 2015) and bolstered by a production credit from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann), Grisebach uses and transcends the genre tropes of its title in broad visual landscapes. However, Western is also elegantly tweaked with a sobering perspective and use of non-actors like principal horse-riding construction worker Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann). He and fellow German itinerants are sent to a remote Bulgarian village to build a hydroelectric plant near the Greek border. What separates Meinhard from his colleagues is his simultaneously more hardened, inscrutable demeanor and yet benevolent attitude towards the Bulgarians, who are inherently suspicious of the migrant workers. As his seemingly innocent gesture to the natives stirs further tensions, Grisebach masterfully integrates elements of the thriller and subverts expectations with complex characterizations. In the mind of critic Haden Guest, the film has earned enthusiastic comparison to the work of Kelly Reichardt, who's similarly reapplied the hallmarks of the Western genre in a most invigorating postmodern context (see Meek's Cutoff, WFF 2011). —Grant Phipps