The thing I’ll miss about the in-person version of the Milwaukee Film Festival this year is the inconvenience.
Driving 90 minutes each way to Milwaukee, waiting in lines outside the theater, trying to fit in a quick meal between shuttling from one screening to the next — part of the fun of a film festival is overcoming the real-world obstacles to see good movies, right?
But not this year, of course. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival, running this Thursday, Oct. 15, through Thursday, Oct. 29, is entirely online, with nearly 200 films (including shorts) available for rental and viewing at home.
The big upside, of course, is that the festival is now very convenient for film lovers in Madison and elsewhere to enjoy. Most films are available to watch throughout the festival, not just on a certain day and time. Tickets are $8 per screening ($5 for a Milwaukee Film member), or $140 for an all-access pass, and go on sale the first day of the festival at mkefilm.org.
Organizers have done their best to recreate the Milwaukee Film Festival experience. For those missing filmmaker Q&As, the festival is hosting a nightly talk show, “The Nightcap,” at 8 p.m. each night of the festival that will be broadcast on its social media channels. Even the annual “Stop Making Sense” dance party will be recreated, albeit with everyone dancing in their own homes, connected by Zoom.
Here are a few highlights I saw looking through the schedule. It looks pretty strong, especially considering the circumstances.
“I Used To Go Here” — The “opening night” film (even though it’s available throughout the festival) is Kris Rey’s charming comedy about a thirtysomething author (Gillian Jacobs) who returns to the Illinois town where she went to college and starts to fall back into her old bad habits. Read my review.
“Small Town Wisconsin” — Milwaukee-born filmmaker Niels Mueller (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”) returned home for this charming comedy-drama about a ne’er-do-well, alcoholic, part-time mechanic (David Sullivan) trying to reconnect with his son. The film is an unabashed love letter to the city and its charms, with scenes shot at Miller Park, the Wisconsin State Fair, Hotel Pfister and the city’s lakefront. Read my interview with Mueller.
“Ringolevio” — Writer-director Kristin Peterson filmed her debut feature-length drama at Common Gardens farm northwest of Madison. An introverted artists goes to meet her girlfriend’s family at a farm in rural Wisconsin, and finds herself out of place as family dynamics reassert themselves. Read my interview with Peterson.
“Coming Clean” — Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s latest film looks at the opioid crisis in America from the perspective of several recovering addicts and of policymakers trying to resolve the issue. “Coming Clean” is the “centerpiece film” of this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.
“Down a Dark Stairwell” — With police shootings of Black Americans at the forefront of the national conversation, filmmaker Ursula Liang’s documentary takes a fresh look at the subject, looking at the clash between two communities in New York when an unarmed Black man is shot by a Chinese-American cop. (Note: This film is only available until Saturday, Oct. 18, and only for viewers in Wisconsin.)
“House of Cardin” — Get out of your sweatpants and into a new outfit to watch this dazzling documentary about fashion designer Pierre Cardin and his effect on global pop culture.
“Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story” — While the world knew Doc Severinsen as the bandleader for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” he was the former pops conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. This documentary follows Severinsen’s long career, and how, at the age of 93, he’s still blowing that horn. This screening is for Wisconsin viewers only.
“Stop Making Sense” — David Byrne’s new “American Utopia” album, live show and now HBO concert film shows how the former Talking Heads frontman has invigorated live performance, just like he did in 1982 with this iconic Jonathan Demme concert film. As is tradition, the festival is hosting a “dance party” screening at 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, and everybody’s encouraged to dance along on Zoom while they watch.
“The Twentieth Century” — Early 20th-century Canadian politics finally gets its cinematic due in this wild biopic that fictionalizes the rise of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, deviating wildly from the historical record and using a mishmash of cinematic styles reminiscent of Guy Maddin (“Brand Upon the Brain!”).
“We Don’t Deserve Dogs” — Isn’t that the truth. This documentary spans the globe to look at the bond that canines and people develop with each other. Bonus: Since this year’s festival is virtual, your dog can hop up on the couch and watch it with you!