Choosing “Faces Places” as the best movie in this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival might be a bit of a cheat.
The latest work by Agnès Varda, a collaboration with the shades-wearing artist JR, wasn’t listed anywhere in the program book. No announcements were made. No tickets were sold. Nevertheless, a long queue formed Oct. 11 outside the Oriental Theatre that curved around the corner of Farwell Avenue and East Ivanhoe Place. Those expectant viewers all shared two traits: Everyone was clueless about which movie was about to show, and everyone was a member of Milwaukee Film, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the annual Milwaukee Film Festival.
During the festival, dues-paying members are invited to an exclusive Super Secret Members-Only Screening. Admission is free, but since the title remains concealed until everyone is seated and the projector is revved up, it’s always a gamble. Truth be told, recent picks have occasionally been underwhelming. I gasped, though, when Membership Manager Kristopher Pollard revealed “Faces Places” as this year’s selection. After all, Varda is a living legend and American cinephiles have been aching to view her new movie since it premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival.
Bringing “Faces Places” to Wisconsin only 10 days after it played the New York Film Festival was a major coup for Milwaukee Film. And the documentary is every inch a masterpiece, the uncontested champion of the 15-day fest that closed Oct. 12.
The Top Five
Traveling the French countryside with her friend JR, Varda searches in “Faces Places” for ordinary people with enriching personal stories. The result is an idiosyncratic road movie that introduces viewers to farmers, factory workers and even JR’s grandmother. At the center, though, is the cross-generational friendship between Varda, the 89-year-old veteran of the French New Wave, and JR, the 34-year-old street artist known for pasting enormous black-and-white photographs onto public surfaces like buildings and cargo containers. Their bouncy camaraderie, which easily erases the age gap, gives the film a deceptive lightness—smiles abound, but “Faces Places” is a serious, discursive work about the power of creation, the fragility of life and Varda’s own denouement.
Much of the movie’s visual grandeur springs from how JR arranges the locals for new photos and then, using a large-format printer, posts towering paper murals in their communities. These statuesque art installations serve as companion pieces to Varda’s conversations with residents, magically transforming their quotidian stories about post-war life or working on the docks into triumphant testaments to both the past and present. What finally emerges is a shared sense of joy and honor, as Varda, JR and the villagers become co-conspirators in creating something—whether a mural, movie or memory—that wasn’t there before.
Of course, JR’s delicate artworks won’t be there long. Like life, they are designed to end. In one case, the photo plastered onto a concrete German bunker on the beach is splashed away by the high tide; in another, the photos will be demolished along with an abandoned village. Such ephemerality courses throughout the film, a natural extension of Varda’s recognition that she is no longer young. That private subject has been embedded in her work since at least “The Gleaners & I” (2000), and, as always, Varda maintains in “Faces Places” a gentle, playful fortitude that tips toward wisdom.
Coming to terms with mortality is also central to “Lucky,” an existential comedy starring 90-year-old character actor Harry Dean Stanton, who died in September. Stanton’s unsentimental performance as a crusty, retired cowboy in a sun-blanched desert town warrants every accolade, but all the Oscar buzz has, perhaps, overshadowed how rookie director John Carroll Lynch deserves equal credit for making live-wire entertainment out of simple, quiet encounters that are never as simple nor quiet as they seem. “I’m scared,” Stanton whispers, but it’s less a confession and more the sound of a man learning how to die.
By contrast, the future plays almost no role in “The Summer Is Gone,” a gorgeous, black-and-white drama that lives in the moment, capturing how Xioalei, a young ne’er-do-well, perceives the details of life on a Mongolian street while China’s privatization reforms clamor in the background. There’s a plot that merges the political with the personal—mom seeks a school for Xioalei, dad loses his job as a film editor—but director Zhang Dalei mainly tries to convey how memories, like movie cameras, record only fragments. Xioalei will always remember, in nostalgic close-up, how his mother watered her plants by spritzing them with her lips during one sweaty summer.
The mother of Dontre Hamilton, who was fatally shot by a Milwaukee officer in 2014, was seated five rows from me during “The Blood Is at the Doorstep,” which only amplified how Erik Ljung’s documentary seeks to restore nuance to an event that overnight was reduced to a political abstraction. It’s a bracing work of journalism that inspires mixed feelings, and I suspect it will only improve with age. Years from now, filmgoers can open this time capsule, which contains protests, town halls, elected officials and public meetings, to learn how American democracy, with all its messiness and competing perspectives, allowed for a push toward justice in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Anthropology is key to “Maliglutit,” a revenge tale set in 1913 on a small Inuit island in Canada’s Northwestern Passages. Still, with its dark blue skies and boundless snowy landscapes, it might just as likely be from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Much of the first half enshrines indigenous rituals, such as traditional hunting, cooking, sewing and igloo construction. There’s enough detail that when Kuanana’s wife and daughter are kidnapped by four tribesmen, the act carries an invasive force. The resulting dogsled chase—yes, it’s a loose retelling of John Ford’s “The Searchers”—has such knockabout physicality that Kuanana’s quest feels both sacred and true. That face and place yielded the most purely transporting experience of this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.
Five Favorite Films of the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival
- “Faces Places” / dirs. Agnès Varda and JR, France
- “Lucky” / dir. John Carroll Lynch, USA
- “The Summer Is Gone” / dir. Zhang Dalei, China
- “The Blood Is at the Doorstep” / dir. Erik Ljung, USA
- “Maliglutit” / dirs. Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq, Canada