It's always a funny thing coming back from a film festival and joining the land of the living. Watching 22 movies in 6 days just isn't healthy, right? Health concerns aside, attending the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival was a blast of pure, unadulterated cinematic joy. In fact, as one of the fellow Wisconsin locals remarked earnestly during the screening intro video, "once the festival went from the four days to the full week, it was absolute nirvana." No truer words were ever spoken, my friend.
Along with the Minister of Film, Ian Thomas (a nickname, incidentally, he claims sprung from lore rather than self-imposition), we attended the festival with a firmly pro-foreign bias. Meaning, the majority of the flicks we saw were non-American features; a sure-fire way to eliminate material which would undoubtedly disappoint. In between blurry-eyes, restless legs, and adverse reactions to Dunkin Donuts Turbo, we were able to break away from film-watching from time to time to indulge in the following:
Falafels. Holy shit. Wisconsin knows how to falafel.
Smoothie King. Hands down, the best pure fruit/veggie smoothies I've ever encountered. Saved my waning vital signs during a bout of allergy-related illness towards the end of my trip.
Le Tigre Lounge. A dimly lit, retro bar filled to the brim with tigers. Stuffed tigers. Mounted tigers. Tigers playing the piano. Tigers on patrol. The bartender had a killer chic pea joke. Simply put, a kitschy delight and allegedly David Lynch's favorite hotspot.
Of course, there were the films. 22 in fact, as I mentioned before. Here is the full list, ranked from personal favorite to least appealing. Not all of these titles have distribution yet, mind you.
- Tharlo (dir Puma Tseden)
- The Apostate (dir Federico Veiroj)
- Aaaaaaaah! (dir Steve Oram)
- Kill Me Please (dir Anita Rocha da Silveira)
- Valley of Love (dir Guillaume Nicloux)
- Comos (dir Andrzej Zulawski)
- Tale of Tales (dir Matteo Garrone)
- Love & Peace (dir Sion Sono)
- The Academy of Muses (dir Jose Luis Guerin)
- Mountain (dir Yaelle Kayam)
- Louder Than Bombs (dir Joachim Trier)
- Lo and Behold (dir Werner Herzog)
- The Love Witch (dir Anna Biller)
- Chevalier (dir Athina Rachel Tsangari)
- The Lovers and the Despot (dir Robert Cannan, Ross Adam)
- Sunset Song (dir Terence Davies)
- Viva (dir Paddy Breathnach)
- 600 Miles (dir Gabriel Ripstein)
- I Promise You Anarchy (dir Julio Hernandez Cordon)
- The Club (dir Pablo Larrain)
- Age of Cannibals (dir Johannes Naber)
- Men & Chicken (dir Anders Thomas Jensen)
While nothing at the festival truly blew me away, Puma Tseden's Tharlo; a slow-moving, visually breathtaking black and white feature from Tibet, had me entranced. If you can get on the film's languid wavelength, the simple story of a humble sheep herder struggling with old-world spirituality and new-world temptations is simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking. The cigarette-smoking, motorcycle-riding, karaoke-singing, ponytail-chopping film of the fest.
Federico Veiro's The Apostate, about a philosophy student going up against the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church by renouncing his faith, displays a deft combination of absurdism and intellectual stimulation that keeps you off-kilter. There are shades of both Bunuel and the Coen Brothers here, but Veiro never completely tips his hand in regards to his influences, and his film is constantly surprising you as it navigates a tricky tone between satire and realistic character drama.
By far the funniest and strangest thing I've seen in a long time, Steve Oram's directorial debut Aaaaaaaah! takes no prisoners and offers no apologies for it's unbridled weirdness. Basically a lo-fi experiment in which every human character acts, thinks, and behaves like apes, this thing feels like a drunken cinematic dare that went too far. Think: grunting, chirping, snarling, sniffing, smashing shit, throwing feces, and other uncontrollable animalistic urges, all set to a bizarre score and wonky retro filmmaking techniques. Gross, hilarious, and absolutely singular.
Equally impressive, albeit in a completely different way, was Anita Rocha da Silveira's debut feature Kill Me Please from Rio de Janeiro. Essentially a coming-of-age High School drama with slasher film undertones, Silveira's greatest strength is balancing the psychological relationship her mostly female characters have to a string of gruesome murders with the idea of their developing sexuality. Aestetically bold; with elements of farce punctuated by garish pop tunes and darkly beautiful imagery, Kill Me Please has cult favorite written all over it.
Then there's Valley of Love, an enthralling chamber piece which sees Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert playing quasi-versions of themselves as famous French actors dealing with the recent suicide of their son. Set entirely in California's Death Valley, director Guillaume Nicloux's film allows two great actors the freedom to fully inhabit their characters while also spinning a yarn about past regrets, aging, denial, and even elements of a supernatural ghost story. Deeply felt, emotionally wrought, and surprisingly haunting.
Other highlights include Polish auetur Andrzej Zulawski's first film in 15 years Cosmos; a story about a dropout law student staying in an eccentric family's guest home that starts out strange and then devolves into all-out nonsense. Weird, compelling, humorous nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless. Utterly unclassifiable and all the better for it. Meanwhile, Love & Peace is another movie predicated on nonsense, but cult Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono is at least attempting to concoct a linear narrative. Of course, when the narrative involves a disgruntled former rock star, his pet turtle, kaiju attacks, and an underground sewer tunnel which houses dozens of talking puppets, then you know you have something singularly odd on your hands.
All in all, the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival was a complete success. There were only a handful of films I disliked, and aside from the totally inept Men & Chicken, starring Mads Mikkelsen's goofy mustache, even the misses had certain aspects to recommend. So, until the next falafel-hunting, smoothie-slurping, tiger-decorating adventure set in the great Midwest, I bid the Wisconsin Film Festival adieu. I promise upon my return to see more than 22 films, stay away from Dunkin Donuts Turbo, and resist the temptation to become a festival "button glutton."