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Conversation: Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival

Eric Beltmann covers the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Film festivals are about seeing tons of movies, sure, but they’re also about hanging out with people who love talking about all those movies. Not long after the curtain fell on the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival, Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon decided to continue a dialogue that started between screenings at the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill.

Eric Beltmann: Most conversations at a film festival begin the same way: How many movies have you seen? That seems like a good place for us to start. Now that the festival’s over, Shelly, what was your final tally?

Shelly Sampon: Conversations about films are my favorite kind, and I love how critics and film fans all wear the number of films they’ve seen like a badge of honor! Sadly, I was not able to see as many films as I wanted this year, and I only clocked in at about 24, including some shorts programs. The plus side is that I know that a couple of the films will be released commercially in theaters in the next couple of months, and there’s always Netflix, which seems to feature much of the MFF roster (especially foreign films) not too long after the festival ends. So like a true film nerd, I keep a list handy and check Netflix and Amazon periodically to see what I can pick up and review even after the festival ends. The bummer is that I feel like I should have seen more when I had the chance.

I know that you soundly beat me in the number of films category (38, was it?), but I’m curious about your thoughts on the length of the festival now that it’s in its second super-sized year. You and I are both in the position where film criticism is not our primary profession—Is the 15-day run time too long, or is it an opportunity?

Eric: Milwaukee has one of the longest film festivals of its kind, but as far as I can tell, everyone likes the expanded schedule except for my wife, who teasingly refers to herself as a “festival widow” every September. There’s no doubt screenings keep selling all the way through—I saw the documentary “Through a Lens Darkly” on the last day, and it was packed—so it’s likely a profitable venture for the festival. The two-week window probably helps unlock the festival for people who aren’t dedicated cinephiles and don’t hear about the festival until it’s a week old. In general, I think that helps nurture a culture of cinema in southeastern Wisconsin, which can only be good for the festival’s long-term health.

That said, I have to concede that by Day 15, I’m weary and ready to close up shop. Like you, I maintain a full-time job during the day, and then attend the festival nearly every evening. Plus, I live 50 minutes away from the Oriental Theatre, so the driving alone adds a huge chunk to the overall time commitment. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But we are a distinct breed; we’re trying to see a lot of films out of a sense of movie love, yes, but also out of a sense of professional duty. I’m searching for the movies that I want to recommend both in print and online, and you never know where they might be found. I think the stretched-out schedule makes it easier to go on the hunt, opening up more possibilities to see most of your top choices, and leaving room to make unexpected discoveries.

For example, I only saw the nonfiction “My Prairie Home,” about a transgender musician from Calgary named Rae Spoon, because it played before “Still Life” and “Evolution of a Criminal.” But it ended up being my favorite film of the night. What impressed me is the way the movie has original fun with the documentary format, eschewing talking-head interviews in favor of carefully composed, off-kilter segments, including staged scenes, that capture feelings rather than facts; it’s about Rae’s life on the inside. Even though it occasionally delves into dark territory about the psychological damage inflicted by fundamentalism, it’s always a soft experience, much closer to poetry than journalism. And when it stops from time to time to present inventive, miniature music videos, it somehow makes perfect sense.

So which movies took you by surprise, or didn’t live up to expectations?

Shelly: Well, like you I often find myself seeing films simply because they are between two other screenings I planned to attend, or since I don’t have the commute time you do, it’s not a big deal to grab an early screening before a film that looks interesting. Every year, this produces some pleasant surprises, like the Chinese film, “The Nightingale.” When I looked at the description, about a road trip between a grandfather and his young granddaughter through rural China, I yawned pretty loudly, but it was the 4 p.m. screening in an eight-hour film day, so I thought “why not.” It ended up being really charming, with breathtaking cinematography, and while it wasn’t a five-star film, it was quite enjoyable. I find that the documentaries at the Milwaukee Film Festival can be really touch and go, where I’ll think something sounds interesting and then the film isn’t quite what I was hoping for. However, a couple of documentaries surprised me this year. You mentioned “Through a Lens Darkly”—I wasn’t looking forward to that one either, but aside from some cinematic elements I didn’t like, it was a solid documentary with really arresting imagery. And finally, “Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists” was probably the biggest pleasant surprise of the festival for me—I was an art history minor in college and had never heard of this art movement. But “Hairy Who” is a nearly flawless and energetically paced documentary with incredible, original art and engrossing interviews.

A scene from “AninA"

“AninA”

Another strong program that shouldn’t surprise me every year, yet somehow does is the Rated K: For Kids program. Being naturally allergic to most things “kid friendly,” including Disney and Pixar (though I have immense love for my girl Ariel, the Little Mermaid), I’m not organically drawn to the kids programs. And sure enough, every year I screen a shorts program and/or a feature-length animated film and come home raving about it. I think the level of sophistication of foreign animated films is so much higher than what Hollywood has to offer, and the “Rated K” film I saw this year, “AninA,” an animated story about a naughty little girl who has to endure the punishment of not opening a secret envelope for a week, causing her imagination to run wild, was absolutely sublime. I do have to say I’m glad the MFF folks didn’t repeat the practice of reading the subtitles out loud like they did at “Zarafa” last year because it was distracting and kind of unintentionally hilarious at times.

And oh dear, the films that didn’t live up to expectations… I think I am uncharacteristically optimistic when it comes to the films featured in the Cream City Cinema program because having gone to film school at UW-Milwaukee I really want to see some successful films from alumni. Yet every year, those are the films that receive my worst ratings. The two feature films I saw of this program this year were a documentary, “Psychopath,” and a feature film, “Serial Daters Anonymous.” “Psychopath” was directionless and, frankly, boring with no connection to its subjects despite the fact they were members of the director’s family. And “Serial Daters Anonymous”—Oy vey. Based on the trailer, it actually looked like it could be an enjoyable, albeit shallow film, but in reality it was just completely ridiculous and implausible, with moments that left me so incredulous I just sat there with my mouth hanging open half the time, thinking, “Is this really happening?” I couldn’t even enjoy the Milwaukee location shots, which was a bummer since much of it seemed to be filmed within about 10 minutes from where I live. Oh well. I’m self-aware now, but believe me, 11 months from now I’ll be like, “Oooh, which Cream City films can I see?” It’s like I’m a selective Memento Mori or something.

"A Year in Burgundy"

“A Year in Burgundy”

In terms of non-local filmmaking disappointments, I’d have to say that the documentary “A Year in Burgundy,” about the wine-making process over the course of a year in the Burgundy region of France, was surprisingly disappointing. I generally enjoy most television shows and films about food and wine, and I thoroughly enjoyed the MFF selection “SOMM” last year, but “Burgundy” was just interminably boring and not very informative. I also expected more out of the film “Club Sandwich,” which was the first screening I saw at the festival this year and one of the films I had written down as a “must-see.” The film, about a mother and son on vacation in the off-season and the effect a young girl has on their lives, wasn’t terrible, but I was expecting it to be a richer story and with a little more oomph than it had.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as well about what films had a surprising effect on you, good or bad. Also, a lot of the success of films featured in festivals depends on word of mouth, and I do my fair share of sitting friends and loved ones down and saying, “You have to watch this movie!” Are there any films you saw at this festival that you plan on sharing with others?

Eric: I’m glad you mentioned the Rated K: For Kids division, because it’s strong every year and I fear that many patrons unfairly regard it as the redheaded stepchild of the festival. Last year, “Wolf Children” used allegory to dig deep into how parents often have misgivings about how to best raise their kids, and in 2012, my favorite film of the entire festival was the animated “Le Tableau,” a French political and religious allegory of startling complexity. (It’s now on Netflix, but re-titled as “The Painting.”) This year, the wise parable “Ernest & Celestine” was programmed, and the “Mary Poppins” sing-a-long was a super idea (although not my thing). I’ll confess that my 10-year-old daughter enjoyed the German-language “Windstorm” more than I did, but there was something special about Hanna Höppner’s confident, bright lead performance as a rebellious teenager who bonds with a rebellious stallion. She was the redheaded spitfire of the festival.

I’m with you about “AninA,” which beautifully communicates a child-like point-of-view (“Recess is responsible for everything”) and gives the main character a rich inner life reminiscent of, say, Ramona or Judy Moody, but is perhaps more visually imaginative and psychologically clever than both. For example, our heroine develops a more mature perspective after comprehending how “important things come and go.” That’s an insight that most typical family fare would never embrace, because it would undermine the inherently juvenile quests at their center. Which begs a question: Why see another “Madagascar” product when entertainment like this one exists? If there’s one movie from the festival that I’m likely to recommend to a wide range of people, it might be “AninA.” (My top choices—“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” and “Charlie’s Country”—would be much tougher sells, I think.)

"Living is Easy with Eyes Closed"

“Living is Easy with Eyes Closed”

To answer your other question, I think I was most sideswiped by David Trueba’s “Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed,” a Spanish comedy about a teacher who embarks on a road trip to meet his idol John Lennon and separately befriends two young, needy hitchhikers. I expected a saccharine farce—no prizes for guessing the trio learn lessons from one another—but there’s an elegance to the storytelling and Trueba mines deeper themes concerning the nature of success and loneliness. He’s aided immensely by lead actor Javier Cámara, an Almodóvar regular who once again mixes impeccable comic timing with convincing humanity.

That level of artful characterization is precisely what’s absent in “We Are the Nobles,” perhaps the most disappointing comedy of the festival. The premise has promise: Worried about how his children have grown into spoiled cretins, a Mexican millionaire fakes bankruptcy and forces the kids to, gasp, find work. The ensuing litany of humiliations isn’t much fun, partly because the targets are too easy, but mostly because there’s an ugly hypocrisy in inviting viewers to take pleasure in cutting these smug monsters down to size. Worse, the movie romanticizes labor and wage slaves in a way that I found patronizing—especially since the movie skimps on its timely hook of the 1% in favor of yet another generic, one-note sitcom about parents and kids coming together.

Speaking of bad experiences, I’m sorry to hear about your rough go with the local slate. While I usually skip the Cream City fare—I saw zero this year—I’m definitely glad Milwaukee Film serves as a booster for regional filmmaking. That’s a good business to be in, and it strikes me as symbiotic: The festival provides infrastructure to the local independent scene, and the local scene helps the fest establish a unique identity. On a related note, how do you feel about the addition of the Times Cinema in Washington Heights to the festival’s roster of venues?

Shelly: That’s wonderful that you share the “Rated K” movies with your daughter! I’m always impressed by the number of parents who bring their children to those screenings and encouraged that so many find it important for their kids to see these films. “Living is Easy with Eyes Closed” is one of the films that I missed but really wanted to see, especially since it did feature Javier Cámara, who I’ve enjoyed in Almodóvar’s films. (Almodóvar is one of my favorite contemporary directors.)

To some extent, I agree with you about “We Are the Nobles,” yet I still enjoyed it and had some good laughs, particularly during scenes with the family patriarch, German Noble. I think that sometimes a silly, easy comedy hits the spot, especially when so much of what I watch during the festival (and much of what I choose to watch in “real life”) leans toward heavy themes, or at best, ebony-black comedy. It’s kind of like when I find myself bored and not wanting to really watch something new… most of the time I’ll go with something like Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which is a mixture of drama and dark comedy but with serious laugh-out-loud moments. (Cliff’s [Allen’s] documentary skewering Lester [Alan Alda] makes me laugh until I cry every time I see it.) But then there are times like recently when I just want to watch something uncomplicated like “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” which is admittedly a pretty basic film, but it’s mildly humorous at times. That said, I choose to not watch most comedies put out by Hollywood, so I can’t definitively compare them, but I’d like to think “We Are the Nobles” is better than a lot of what we see of the genre here in general.

Your question about adding the Times Cinema in Washington Heights is such a great segue from discussing local filmmaking, because over the years I’ve seen several film premieres by local filmmakers at that theater, including James Marsh’s “Wisconsin Death Trip” and Mark Borchardt’s “American Movie.” It’s a unique experience to attend those premieres because the theater is filled not only with people who were involved in the film, but many of their friends and family members as well. That’s another reason why the Cream City Cinema program is so important. Those tend to be some of the screenings that sell out first, because much of the audience is personally invested in the film. As a critic, that can be a blessing or a curse, because if the film is not so good, you have to really keep a poker face and not allow the audience’s reactions to the film to influence your own opinions.

The Times Cinema (Photo by Eric Beltmann)

The Times Cinema (Photo by Eric Beltmann)

But back to the Times Cinema… On a personal level, I was thrilled to have it added to the venue roster this year because I have lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood for years and it’s my local (measured in blocks) theater. Plus, I have a strong personal connection to the theater since I grew up in the area and used to walk up to the theater to catch Saturday matinees when I was a kid, and later when it was run by Eric Levin (now the manager at the Oriental Theater) it experienced what I consider the heyday of its programming because Levin showed an impressive variety of classic films, mixed in with local films and traditional art house fare. So from a sentimental perspective, it was a wonderful addition, plus it also provided an opportunity to bring films to the west side of town. Logistically, however, it was rather another story. Despite living mere minutes from the theater, with the exception of a few screenings, I opted to drive the 25 minutes to the Fox-Bay because upon the first screening I attended at the Times Cinema (“Last Call”—definitely one of the shining films of the festival), I remembered what it was like attending screenings there when it hosted films for the Milwaukee International Film Festival years ago. The lobby is tiny, and impossible to navigate when people are in line at concessions, and the space for people to line up outside is awkward (never mind if there’s inclement weather). This year was particularly difficult because there is construction around the theater, causing already limited parking to be diminished further. I love the thought of expanding the festival west, and I know of a lot of people who live in the western suburbs of Waukesha and Brookfield who would attend more screenings if they were offered closer, but unfortunately there isn’t really anything but Marcus Theatres west of 60th Street.

You and I have both witnessed a lot of growth with the festival since we began our years of coverage. Is there anything that you feel has been lost as it has grown, and what would you like to see added or improved in the next few years?

Eric: When the Times Cinema was announced as a new participating theater, I too had flashbacks to the old Milwaukee International Film Festival. (Can you believe it’s been seven years since its demise?) I have wonderful memories of seeing many festival films there, including “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a blissful documentary with spectacular space imagery that washed over the big screen; and “Requiem,” a masterful psychological drama from Germany that still ranks among the finest motion pictures to ever play at a major Milwaukee film festival.

Those fond memories were tempered, though, by recollections of a cramped lobby, antiquated restrooms, poor sight lines, and dire parking options. Like you, I actively avoided the Times this year, spending only one evening there. This year’s road construction and traffic headaches were deterrents that should vanish by next fall, but those other problems will be perennial. I’m unwilling, however, to give up on the Times—it’s a single-screen throwback theater that counters the generic multiplex experience, and Milwaukee Film has rightly recognized how that has value.

Nevertheless, I might dance a little jig if MFF returned to the Marcus North Shore multiplex in Mequon, which hosted the first three years of the festival. Those were good years—large auditoriums, easy crowd control, a huge parking lot, varied food options at the attached restaurant, and, best of all, a much shorter commute for me. I understand why the festival decided to shrink its footprint—the logistics of stretching into the suburbs proved difficult, Marcus wasn’t always easy to work with—and now that the festival has re-cast itself as a tighter Milwaukee brand, I don’t have any illusions about North Shore being invited back into the fold. Still, if perpetual growth is the festival’s goal (and it sure seems to measure itself by whether new records are set for attendance and sold-out screenings), it’s going to have to reach beyond its East Side base. That means cultivating a culture of filmgoing in places where it doesn’t currently exist, which takes both effort and time. Think of it as a long-term investment: Memorable experiences at North Shore will encourage otherwise hesitant filmgoers to someday venture south to the flagship Oriental and Downer theaters. I think Milwaukee Film gave up on the suburbs too soon—they withdrew before the investment could start paying dividends.

"1971"

“1971”

This year the festival thankfully abandoned its recent practice of kicking off with a mediocre, crowd-pleasing comedy, scheduling instead the bracing documentary “1971” as the opening night selection. The movie has a great hook with current parallels: The Vietnam-era activists who broke into an FBI office and stole every file to prove the agency’s abuse of power were never apprehended and never came forward—until now. Director Johanna Hamilton seems to grasp that her story is a sidebar event, but one that puts an intricate human face on an era that is too often reduced to bell-bottoms and peace necklaces. (This was reinforced during the lengthy yet edifying Q&A session with Hamilton, film subjects Bonnie and John Raines, Washington Post journalist Betty Medsger, and FBI historian Athan Theoharis.) I was most interested in how the movie openly blends traditional nonfiction methods with extended, suspenseful sequences starring actors as the youthful activists. In its small way, “1971” seems part of the growing movement to redefine what “documentary” means.

I’m not even sure we can use the term “documentary” to describe “20,000 Days on Earth,” the experimental portrait of musician Nick Cave. It’s uneven, but at least it’s aiming to achieve something new. Most of the documentaries I saw at the festival were far less adventurous. I know you enjoyed “Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists” a lot, and while I found it informative, I also felt that it slipped too easily into uncritical hagiography. Having chosen a worthy subject, it then coasts on the natural draws of that subject. But shouldn’t great cinema do more? I felt the same way about “Kids for Cash,” “Big Men,” “The Starfish Throwers,” “Evolution of a Criminal,” “Born to Fly,” “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” and “Vessel.” Each one has a commendable subject, but watching them too often felt like reading a Wikipedia entry. Based on what Milwaukee had on display, a filmgoer might never know that right now the global documentary culture is having a transformational moment, with many directors like Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Andrei Ujica, and Jessica Oreck creating new-fangled, audacious works of reality-based cinema.

"The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga"

“The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga”

I know what you’re thinking: Hang on now, this year the festival did program “The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga,” Oreck’s ambitious and strange nonfiction essay film. That’s true, and I made sure to see it. It’s also true that the festival screened “The Act of Killing” last year, and “Tchoupitoulas” two years ago. But don’t these few examples (among others) function as exceptions that prove the rule?

I could be wrong, but I sense that as the festival has grown into a more mainstream cultural attraction, it has lost, to some degree, a willingness to take chances on films that are unlikely to put a lot of butts in seats. It’s telling that so many of the documentaries feel like TV, and so many of the spotlight presentations are variations on Hollywood product. I’d like to know your thoughts—has the festival somewhat succumbed to commercial instincts? I’m also curious about your recommendations for next year’s festival.

Oh, and it’s funny that you mentioned Mark Borchardt, because this year I ended up having a fun chat with him as we queued for “Man with a Movie Camera.” He was first in line.

Shelly: I couldn’t agree more with you about the Times, and I too have so many fond memories of that theater during the original run of the Milwaukee International Film Festival. I was probably in the same audience as you were for “In the Shadow of the Moon” (truly an exquisite documentary—it’s one that I immediately showed to my boyfriend as soon as it was available) and I also remember a particularly raucous screening of “OSS 117” starring Jean Dujardin and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, years before they broke through with the Oscar-winning “The Artist.” The theater was jammed for that screening, and the audience (including myself) were in tears laughing; it was such a great experience, and I felt a kinship with my fellow viewers. But yes, the logistics of the theater are just not good; however, like you, I’m not willing to give up on it either. It’s still “my” theater.

It was a schlep to the Marcus North Shore, but boy did I love attending screenings there! I could park my car and just set up camp for the entire day and know that I was going to be comfortable, even if the screening was really crowded. Those were years when we were able to see the opening and closing night films there as well as the Oriental, which was a really great option for people who didn’t want to deal with the insane crowds and impossible parking. I also remember attending a really special screening of Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” featuring a talkback with Martin Landau that was really memorable. I also wish that they would branch out to the suburban theaters again—I don’t think that the Marcus Ridge was a great venue because we were relegated to the old theaters in the back corners of the complex, so the seats were pretty awful and the auditoriums were cramped. (Though I did see the great documentary “Lemmy” about Motörhead front man Lemmy Kilmister there.) But going back to the North Shore or even the Majestic would be an interesting endeavor again.

I’m really glad you brought up “1971” because I had absolutely no interest in seeing it, but did end up seeing a screener later and thought it was really quite good. I was afraid it could become preachy, but it was actually incredibly gripping and presented itself not so much as a documentary, but also as a thriller at times. The subjects were so interesting, and Hamilton clearly did an astounding amount of research, which was accompanied by copious amounts of photographs and archival footage. It frankly ended up being one of the best films of the festival for me. Overall, it wasn’t a particularly strong year for documentaries in my opinion, though there were several that were executed well enough for me to keep my interest. I don’t know if you saw last year’s film “The Institute,” directed by Spencer McCall about the Jejune Institute, an organization in San Francisco which took its thousands of members on a weird, mind-bending journey that they didn’t know they were signing up for. It was a challenging, trippy and inspired documentary that kept me thinking about it for weeks following the screening. I did want to catch “20,000 Days on Earth” because I like Nick Cave, and thought the premise of the film sounded interesting, but I haven’t been able to see it yet.

I think you are 100 percent spot on when you say that the films are becoming more mainstream. In several of my reviews of documentaries, I made observations like, “I could have been watching this on the Travel Channel.” I also feel like I wasn’t challenged very much this year. Now to be fair, I saw 20+ films out of 100+ feature films, but looking over the ones I missed I don’t feel like there was anything that would have changed that, with the possible exception of “The Tribe” and “Manuscripts Don’t Burn,” two films that I have yet to see. There weren’t even any films that outraged me with how much I didn’t like them, like my go-to example, Attila Janisch’s 2004 film “After the Day Before,” which I saw at the 2005 Milwaukee International Film Festival. It was described as “inspired by Stanley Kubrick, Maya Deren and David Lynch” and it was none of that, just boring and bad. But it was still a really different kind of film. Another example of a great film from festivals past was Ti West’s “The House of the Devil,” which I saw at the North Shore theater. This was a film that was a throwback to 1970s and early 1980s horror films that looked like someone found a time capsule with this film in it, it was so authentic. And it was scary as hell and another fun crowd experience. Even last year’s film “Post Tenebras Lux,” directed by Carlos Reygadas, which was not so good but really stayed with me for days after, was surreal and strange and didn’t look like a lot of what I normally see.

I guess what I’m saying is that when I’m watching a film, particularly at a film festival, I don’t necessarily need to be entertained, or in some cases, even like it. I just want to know that I’m seeing something “different” and want to feel privileged to have been able to experience something because it was provided to us by Milwaukee Film at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Crowd-pleasers sell tickets, that’s very true, and ticket sales have increased every year since the festival rebooted. But I think that now that the reputation of the festival has been solidified, they can afford to take more chances with their programming, and they should.

I do love that the festival has continued to spotlight classics, and would like to see even more of those. (Heck, I would love to see a classic film festival in Milwaukee.) I remember seeing Godard’s “Breathless” at the North Shore a couple of years ago, and while I had seen it before, it was another experience entirely to see it on the big screen in an auditorium with other people. Walking out of the theater, I felt, for lack of a better word, inspired. I’d love to see more classic offerings at more venues (or at least more than once).

We’ve said a lot about what we think about the festival in general, and some of the films we liked and disliked about this year’s roster. I just have one more question: This year there were more guest filmmakers honored than I can remember, including “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik and directors Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, with “Top Secret!” (I love that they showed that one over “Airplane!,” by the way). Being realistic, who would your dream guest honoree be?

"Top Secret!"

“Top Secret!”

Eric: I’m still kicking myself for skipping those screenings of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Breathless.” Traditionally I’ve steered clear of the archival programs, for no good reason other than I’ve already seen them, but I’ve started to wise up regarding these rare opportunities. This year I made sure to revisit “Man with a Movie Camera,” because Alloy Orchestra, duh. And I just couldn’t pass up “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Top Secret!,” two key comedies of my formative years. (It’s been pretty wild to discover that I’m really not alone in thinking “Top Secret!” is the most inspired thing ZAZ ever did.) By the way, did you hear that Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams delivered to the festival a new, tighter cut of the movie, complete with a much improved ending? They said our screening would likely be its only public showing.

Your question is really great, and I don’t know quite how to answer, so let me cheat a little: The festival tends to program anniversary specials, so I’m going to pick something due for a 30th anniversary next year: “Lost in America,” with Albert Brooks in attendance. Too unrealistic, you say? No matter, because my real dream guest would be Savage Steve Holland presenting the stone-cold comedy classic “Better Off Dead.” Make that happen, Milwaukee Film!

I bet we saw the same North Shore showing of “The House of the Devil,” and you’re right—as a sinister throwback horror show, it’s terrific fun, mostly because it knows that the tense anticipation of evil is always more chilling than the payoff. If AMC were smart, they’d program a FearFest marathon of Ti West movies every Halloween rather than Jason Voorhees and Stephen King movies on a miserable loop.

We should probably wrap up, but I’d like to make one last observation. Maybe I saw the wrong movies, but I didn’t see many bona fide masterpieces this year. I’m not sure that matters very much, because one marvelous performance, image, or joke can justify any movie, and there were countless moments of exhilaration at this year’s festival. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of some of the ingenious upside-down visuals in “Patema Inverted,” a Japanese animated sci-fi allegory; or several absurdist flashes in “Zero Motivation,” a very funny Israeli military satire. You could turn the sound off during “The Nightingale” and be held rapt only by the velvety cinematography that records provincial China.

But let’s get specific: My favorite fragment of all was an isolated three minutes of pure cinema found in a realistic, semi-autobiographical drama from Georgia called “In Bloom.” It’s an unyielding story about Natia and Eka, two friends navigating the collapse of the Soviet Union, and at one point Natia is coerced into marrying a brute. At the reception, Eka performs a solo dance, and the scene, shot in a single enchanting take that refuses to quit, relies on movement, color, sound, composition, and depth of field to completely absorb the viewer in the moment. It deserves to be seen:

Absolutely mesmerizing, I say. That one shot makes me eager to see what directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross do next—and the same goes for the actress, Lika Babluani, who overall makes an extraordinary debut.

Shelly, what was your single favorite fragment of the festival? And do you have any other final words?

Shelly: I remember seeing “Top Secret!” with my mother at the old Mill Road theater on the north side of Milwaukee, and laughing so hard with her throughout the entire film. Yes, I was 10 years old and probably didn’t get half the humor but it was and remains my favorite ZAZ film. (My passion for film was fostered by my parents, who took me to see films that were probably wholly inappropriate from an age perspective, but they knew I could handle them. Heck, I remember seeing “The Year of Living Dangerously” with my dad at the Northridge mall theater at age eight! I was probably the only eight-year-old who thought Linda Hunt was cool.)

I was at that screening of “In Bloom,” and while I thought the film was decent but not outstanding, I had nothing but rave reviews for Babluani’s performance and I too was absolutely riveted during that part of the film. This moment of abandon and passion seemed to come out of nowhere, yet based on her dire surroundings, it was a stirring and emotional moment.

As always, I loved the Milwaukee Film Festival experience, and while I’ve given it my share of criticism in this conversation, I do want to say that I am grateful to have the festival in Milwaukee. I’m repeatedly frustrated by the number of films we don’t get to see here, and find myself traveling to Madison to the Sundance Theater and also have gone to the Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park, Illinois, when I wanted to check out indie or foreign films that we either don’t get in Milwaukee or only show for a week. So to have the ability to see films that I normally would not know about or be able to see, regardless of whether they are challenging enough or too commercial, is a really awesome thing. And I am continually awed by the number of people who attend the screenings. I really do feel a kinship with my fellow attendees, because I know that it’s not “easy” to find these films—you have to educate yourself about the festival and research the films you want to see, and then it’s not as simple as just strolling into your local multiplex.

On a personal note, I want to say that I enjoyed attending screenings and comparing notes with you again this year and look forward to a whole new debate next year! And with that, I leave you with one of my favorite moments of the festival, from the Kids Shorts: Size Large program: “Sniffles.” It’s short, it’s sweet, and it put a huge grin on my face.

About Eric Beltmann

Eric Beltmann has been writing about cinema for various print and web outlets since 1991, including an eight-year stint at the now defunct Flipside Movie Emporium. Currently he teaches film and literature at a high school in southeastern Wisconsin. He shares a birth date with Pauline Kael and considers Buster Keaton part of the family. Contact Eric at beltmann@criticspeak.com.