The Wisconsin Film Festival has reached the age of majority — 18 years strong — and it’s celebrating by kicking off this year’s celebration of film with a Hollywood-style opening at its newest venue, the Barrymore Theatre, April 14.
Unfortunately, if you don’t already have a ticket, you’re not likely to catch the Madison festival’s opening night screening of Hunt for the Wilderpeople at 7 p.m. or the afterparty at Harmony Bar at 9 p.m. — festival coordinator Ben Reiser says the premiere sold out quickly online. But there’s still time to find seats for the next seven days, as Reiser and festival organizers bring 157 more features and shorts to six venues throughout Madison through April 21.
Reiser says the interest in the premiere and other nights is an indication that Madison moviegoers have only increased their appetites for films from the familiar and foreign to the classic and contemporary. This year’s festival will retain a format similar to previous years, with a mix of old and new features and documentaries, as well as restorations, rediscoveries and rarities.
This year marks a significant increase in the “Wisconsin’s Own” category, dedicated to work by filmmakers with Badger State ties. Reiser says there will be 50 such features and shorts in the festival, chosen from among 160 submissions.
From the “Wisconsin’s Own” list, Reiser recommends The Boy on the Train, the world premiere that takes place in Budapest and is directed by Green Bay-born director Roger Deutsch. The film sports Hitchcockian twists and a leading character who, not coincidentally, is also an experimental filmmaker named Roger Deutsch.
Another state-based film has already attracted significant attention. The Smart Studios Story chronicles the history of the legendary Madison recording studio run by record producer Butch Vig, now the drummer for alternative band Garbage. In its day Smart attracted the cream of the indie crop, including Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, with Vig himself producing Nirvana’s 1991 diamond-selling album Nevermind.
Wendy Schneider, the film’s director, as well as Vig and Garbage guitarist Steve Marker are scheduled to appear at the film’s opening. But if you don’t already have your ticket, you’re out of luck, Reiser says again. This showing too is sold out — a sign that haste is needed to catch any remaining films in this increasingly popular festival.
The festival will also spotlight a selection of rare films from director Robert Altman, including 1974’s California Split with its original soundtrack and HealtH, a 1980 feature starring Carol Burnett, James Garner, Lauren Bacall and other celebrities that was never released commercially.
Festival programming director Jim Healy highly recommends California Split as “funny, loose and shaggy, the pinnacle of American road/buddy comedy.”
Healy also recommends Tickled, a documentary that focuses on endurance tickling and the lengths that an openly gay New Zealand journalist and blogger (David Farrier, who also directs) will go to uncover the secrets behind this soft-core empire. The 2015 Belgian/French film Valley of Love, in its Wisconsin premiere, also ranks high on Healy’s list.
“Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu are reunited on screen for the first time in 35 years, this time as fictionalized versions of themselves,” Healy explains. “They’re both excellent, but Depardieu is especially funny and touching.”
Fellow film programmer Mike King takes a more esoteric view in choosing his festival favorites. The 2015 film John From, directed by Portugal’s João Nicolau, paints a dreamy portrait of two Lisbon teenage girls pining for their new neighbor. The film will receive its U.S premier at the festival, with director Nicolau in attendance.
The 2016 documentary Unlocking the Cage, which examines the struggle to provide legal rights to chimpanzees, was co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker, best known for his 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. Conversely, Paths of the Soul is a 2015 Chinese documentary of a very different type.
“This visually stunning odyssey takes us on a Buddhist ‘bowing pilgrimage,’ in which a group of Tibetans walk over 1,000 miles of mountain roads, stopping to lie flat on the ground every few steps,” King says. “A road movie like no other, this is a truly spiritual cinematic experience.”
On the classics side, Reiser’s recommendations include Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words, a 2015 Swedish documentary comprised of clips from Bergman’s own never-before-seen home movies, audio clips from interviews with the actress and excerpts from personal journals and diaries. The film is paired on the program with Europe ’51, a rarely seen Bergman feature from 1952 directed by her lover-turned-husband Roberto Rosellini.
On the more contemporary side, Reiser suggests Nothing Lasts Forever, the only feature film directed by former Saturday Night Live staff writer Tom Schiller. The offbeat 1984 musical fantasy revolves around a young artist (Zach Galligan) and his adventures in a New York City of the future. The equally quirky support cast includes Imogene Cocoa, Mort Sahl, Larry “Bud” Melman and extended cameos by Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd.
MGM had no idea how to promote the comedic gem, and it was never formally released. The feature will be accompanied by Schiller’s Reel, a series of shorts that did see airplay on the long-running NBC show, as well as a festival appearance by Schiller himself.
The Fest will also take place at venues both familiar to regular festivalgoers and new this year. Sundance Cinema at Hilldale Mall will again devote three screens to the festival, and other locations include Vilas Hall, the Chazen Museum of Art, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Marquee Cinema at Union South.
Unlike last year, WFF will not include the Capitol Theater in Overture Center — which became too expensive to rent, Reiser says. He adds that a number of other potential venues had to be dismissed due to the increasing technical sophistication of the digital film industry.
“To have the highest quality possible we have to rent these incredibly expensive projectors,” Reiser says. “That’s why we concentrated on digital-ready venues.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Festival Dates: April 14 to 21
Number of films: 158, of varying lengths.
Number of venues: Eight screens in six different venues, including:
Ticket prices: A festival pass is $300; individual showings are $10 each, $8 for students, seniors, UW affiliates and military; $5 for the Big Screens, Little Folks series. All venues are general admission, but festival pass holders get priority seating.
Total attendees: Past festivals have attracted upwards of 30,000 people.
Complete schedule: 2016.wifilmfest.org.