Wisconsin Film Festival unreels a week of flicks

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Movie buff Jim Healy’s life is governed by a single credo: There are no new films or old films, only films that he hasn’t yet seen.

The sentiment aptly describes the Wisconsin Film Festival, Madison’s annual cinematic blowout that this year will unspool some 160 films of varying lengths for a growing body of rabid film fans. 

Healy has been the festival’s head of programming for about four years, and started as the first programming director of the UW-Madison Cinematheque, the longstanding on-campus film program. He’s deeply steeped in the cinematic arts — before coming to Madison, he worked at Chicago’s International Film Festival and spent time as an assistant curator at the George Easton House film archive, and he says he watches 650 films a year, only about 150 of those repeat viewings. At the Wisconsin Film Festival, in its 17th year, he and his fellow programmers will be featuring what he says is one of the best film lineups in several years. 

“We try and show the best possible films from around the world that otherwise might not be available to Madison audiences,” says Healy. “We’re looking for film artistry and craftsmanship that provide greater insight into the human experience.”

Multiple themes emerge throughout the 2015 festival’s short films and full-length features. There are internationally known documentaries and a “Wisconsin’s Own” section, which honors the work of local filmmakers and those with Badger State roots. There are titles from the new German cinema, as well as a handful of films from emerging French women directors.

This year’s lineup also features an homage to Orson Welles, one of filmmaking’s first great auteurs. Welles was born 100 years ago this May in Kenosha, and spent part of his childhood in Madison. 

The biggest Welles picture in the bunch is 1966’s “Chimes at Midnight,” which depicts Shakespeare’s character Falstaff in a mashup of the Bard’s three Henriad plays, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Richard II,” and is rarely screened due to ongoing legal battles. The festival will also show the documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles,” romantic drama “Crack in the Mirror” and even “Too Much Johnson,” Welles’ first film, which was made in 1938 and has been lost and unseen for more than 70 years. (A silver nitrate print was discovered in Italy in 2013 and preserved by the George Eastman House.)

Healy urges fans to look for new films from countries or done in styles the viewers may not have seen before, and there are certainly a great many of those. Some films are presented in partnership with each other for added effect. “Gunman’s Walk,” a 1958 western that makes innovative use of CinemaScope and features ‘50s teen heartthrob Tab Hunter, is paired with “Tab Hunter Confidential,” a 2015 documentary that examines the decline of Hunter’s career after the public discovered he was gay. Hunter himself provides some of the candid narration.

Healy admires many films on the program but, when pressed, identified three must-see features:

La Sapienza (2014) is a joint French/Italian production, which celebrates art, architecture and human relationships in a very unusual way, Healy says. In the film, a childless French couple encounter teen siblings while visiting Italy. The younger girl is subject to fainting spells, so the elder woman stays to watch over her while her husband takes the brother, an aspiring architect, to see the great buildings of Rome.

“It’s a little bit off the traditional narrative path,” Healy explains. “It’s almost rigorously straightforward in the way it tells the story of artistic and spiritual renewal by an architect who has reached a rut in his life.”

The Great Man (La Grand Homme) (2014), a French film that’s part of the French women director’s series, is deeply moving and very compelling, Healy says. Its main characters are a pair of French legionnaires, one of whom saves the other’s life, and the savior’s son, whose status in the country is jeopardized when his father chooses not to leave him again and return to war.

“This strikes me as one of the most urgent contemporary films about undocumented immigrants and friendship and parents raising children and international issues,” Healy says. “The film’s great strength is that you’re not quite sure where the story is taking you, and that’s best left unsaid because of all the surprises in the film.”

White God (2014) is a Hungarian film that reimagines Lassie Come Home as a canine revenge movie, says Healy.

“This is another unpredictable film that begins like a coming-of-age story and ends as a violent revenge fantasy told from the viewpoint of a dog,” Healy says. “With its great use of sound, imagery and filmmaking technique, it’s a film of surprises that successfully changes its tone halfway through.

“It’s one of the best and most entertaining movies I’ve seen in the last year,” he adds.

And for someone who sees as many films as Healy does, that’s saying a lot.

Wisconsin Film Festival: by the Numbers

Now in its 17th year, the Wisconsin Film Festival attracts a very strong following locally, as well as from around the state and the Midwest. We’ve crunched some of the festival’s more important numbers so you can appreciate its magnitude. For a full schedule, visit wifilmfest.org.

Dates: April 9-16, 2015

Number of films: 160 films of varying lengths shown in 107 programs, many of which repeat twice.

Number of venues: Eight screens in six different venues, including three screens at Sundance Cinema. The venues are:

• UW Cinematheque, Rm. 4070, Vilas Hall, 621 University Ave.

• UW Chazen Museum of Art, Auditorium, 750 University Ave.

• UW Union South, The Marquee, 1308 Dayton St.

• Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Overture Center, 201 State St.

• Capitol Theater, Overture Center, 201 State St.

• Sundance Cinema, Hilldale Shopping Center, 730 N. Midvale Blvd.

Ticket prices: A festival pass is $300; individual showings are $10 each, $8 for students, seniors, UW affiliates and military. All venues are general admission, but festival pass holders get priority seating.

Total attendees: Arrive early for each showing to be guaranteed a seat. Past festivals have attracted upwards of 30,000 people annually.