Our most-anticipated Wisconsin Film Festival 2016 selections
A curatorial first look at WFF’s schedule before it drops in full this Thursday.
Taking that first long run through the Wisconsin Film Festival lineup is always a disorienting experience. The programmers cover a vast amount of thematic territory, including everything from films (both fiction and non) still warm from accolades from fests like TIFF and Sundance, regional “Wisconsin’s Own” delights from our own backyard, digressive oddball genre cinema deep cuts, third-tier director-specific rarities, and a healthy dose of current world cinema the likes of which would not normally screen within a hundred miles of Madison. It’s always a wild and surprising grab bag of goodies, and the city is right to rally around the event with dozens of screenings selling out, some practically immediately.
The fest is back this year from April 14 through 21. Between features and short subjects, we’ll get more 150 films spread across eight days, and this year the festival has added the Barrymore as a cross town venue to snag East Siders too lazy to trek across the Isthmus for offerings scheduled at Sundance Cinemas. I got an early look at what’s screening, and there are more than a few clear standouts worth getting worked up over a full month out from the fest’s proper kickoff. Click on a title and you’ll get the trailer for the film (if there is one). This is honestly just a smattering of what spoke to me off the bat, so make sure to carve out some time on Thursday to really pore over the full festival lineup when it drops on Thursday and start asking off from work to disappear into darkened theaters for days on end.
From 2014, Frédéric Tellier’s L’Affaire SK1 is a stylish true-crime procedural that tensely follows the folks chasing one of France's most notorious serial killers, Guy Georges, who was known as the "The Beast of the Bastille" for killing seven women from 1991 to 1997.
Marking his first time behind the lens, actor-director Steve Oram (eagle-eyed WFF veterans might vaguely remember him from 2011’s hot-ticket screening Kill List) frantically swings for the fences with Aaaaaaaah!, a wild and barbaric yawp of trash cinema that's overstuffed with a crack team of British comedy actors, most notably reuniting Mighty Booshers Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt for the first time since 2009’s Bunny and the Bull.
Channeling the essence of Pere Portabella’s 1971 experimental doc Cuadecuc, vampir, Bring Me The Head Of Tim Horton, the latest from Guy Maddin (and co-directors Galen Johnson & Evan Johnson), exceeds all imaginable expectations its beginnings as a “making of” featurette for Paul Gross’s comparatively forgettable 2015 war drama Hyena Road might suggest.
Controversial Polish art-house legend Andrzej Żuławski passed away just last month, leaving Cosmos, based on the 1965 novel of the same name by Witold Gombrowicz (who co-wrote the screenplay) which squeezes black comedy out of paranoia and confusion, as his final work.
Stretching Mads Mikkelsen’s tremendous range as an actor deep into some darkly humorous territory, Anders Thomas Jensen’s Men & Chicken is about as heartfelt a warning against getting to know your family tree as you’re likely to ever see on screen.
With its massive star power (Salma Hayek! Vincent Cassel! John C. Reilly! Toby Jones!) and over-the-top production design that looks like a magical blend of Tarsem Singh and Guillermo del Toro, Matteo Garrone’s Tale Of Tales is my personal odds-on favorite for 2016’s hottest ticket, so act accordingly once things go on sale or else you might regret it.
Invoking the spirit of campy 1960s technicolor cult sleaze, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch speaks the language of slick pulpy cinema so well you might easily forget this tongue-in-cheek erotic thriller about a woman using the dark arts to get men to fall in love with her is from this century.
It’s hard to tell if Frank And The Wondercat, which relies heavily on VHS tapes to explore the life of Frank Furko, the octogenarian owner of the 20-pound performing house-cat and Pittsburgh semi-celebrity Pudgie Wudgie, is going to live up to its quaintly kitsch subject matter. But even failing that there’s guaranteed to be some excellent video of a fat cat wearing sunglasses and hats and stuff, so it’s a win win all around.
Another recently departed director’s final film (along with Cosmos), Albert Maysles’ In Transit is a gently rocking and deeply felt look at the salt of the earth out there riding the rails on America’s busiest long-distance train route, known as The Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle.
This American Life fans might have listened to the recent “Same Bed, Different Dreams" episode’s first act story about Kim Jong-Il kidnapping a famous South Korean director and forcing him to work with the director’s actress ex-wife. If you thought it would make an excellent topic for a documentary film, then you’re in luck because Robert Cannan and Ross Adam’s The Lovers And The Despot is exactly that.
Last year the film fest and UW Cinematheque marked Orson Welles’ centennial with a grip of hard-to-find Welles films, and this year we’re getting a bunch of Robert Altman’s lesser-known (but decidedly not lower-tier) works. The fest’s Altman offerings this year span from a bunch of early shorts on up to feature films like 1974’s card shark road movie California Split, 1978’s taut thriller Remember My Name (produced by Altman, directed by Alan Rudolph, and featuring a memorably forceful performance from Geraldine Chaplin), and 1980’s long-lost boomer spoof Health.
Cramming a whopping “15 star cast!" into a few short minutes, Ernst Lubitsch’s segment steals the show (with an assist by Charles Laughton) from those of seven other directors in 1932’s pre-code comedy anthology If I Had A Million. The film follows the moolah after a dying businessman decides to dole out $1M each to eight people selected at random from a telephone book.
Tom Schiller, the writer behind classic SNL shorts “Don’t Look Back In Anger” and “Love Is A Dream," among others, also wrote and directed a wonderfully surreal feature film, 1984’s Nothing Lasts Forever. It developed cult status after Warner Brothers notoriously shelved it despite the film sporting a cast that includes Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sam Jaffe. So you should relish this impossibly rare opportunity to watch this insane, dreamlike story, which begins with an artist directing traffic in the Holland Tunnel because he failed a drawing test, and eventually winds up on the moon.
One of those wildly left-field selections you just have to trust the Wisconsin Film Fest programmers on (think last year’s Z-grade curio The Astrologer), 1984’s Death Wish Club is a cautionary tale that garishly advocates against falling in love with pianist porn stars whose sugar daddies are demented Russian roulette aficionados, as if that were a lesson worth expounding upon in the first place.
Its hard not to love the vibrantly deadpan energy that musician-turned-director and comically oversized suit owner David Byrne brings to his kaleidoscopic gaze at America’s flyover country with 1986’s True Stories which, since it’s only out there on a DVD that came out back before “interactive menus” came standard, should look mighty fine presented theatrically.