Milwaukee Film Festival embraces variety, volume and diversity

Cream City cinephiles and film fans, prepare! This year’s Milwaukee Film Festival features the largest and most diverse selection of films in its eight-year history, as well as a brand new celebrity board member.

The 15-day festival, founded in 2008, will unspool more than 300 films in five different venues Sept. 22 through Oct. 6. The lineup of features and shorts, documentaries and animated films, offers some of the best film-festival fare currently being screened across the country, according to festival artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson.

“This is a ‘best of’-oriented festival, not a premiere-oriented festival,” Jackson says. “We try to present the best types of films that are screening heavily, winning awards and have become critical favorites.”

The festival offers a diverse array of films from mainstream to experimental. The selections are grouped into multiple thematic sections, and there are special lineups highlighting the work of Latino and African-American filmmakers.

Milwaukee native and film writer/director John Ridley, who won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, recently joined the MFF board. Ridley was instrumental in securing screening rights for Walt Disney Pictures/ESPN Film’s Queen of Katwe about Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. according to Jackson.

MFF also boasts an extensive slate of locally produced films from throughout Wisconsin. The category attracted some 246 entries from which 58 films were chosen to premiere. The entries represent a 56 percent increase over 2015.

“The category serves the Milwaukee filmmaking community,” says Cara Ogburn, MFF’s programming and education manager. “Both the quality and quantity of locally made films is increasing.”

The films in the various categories are recommended by an aggregate screening committee of some 50 people, led by lead programmers for each of the categories. Most of those committee members are volunteers, Ogburn says.

Women He's Undressed
Women He’s Undressed

“For film fans, it’s a sweet assignment because you get to watch and evaluate a lot of movies,” Ogburn adds. “In this case, it really does take a village to put on a film festival.”

In addition to MFF’s 15 year-around staff and 115 seasonal workers, that village also includes 3,500 MFF paying members, 125 sponsor organizations and 300 community partners that, like MFF itself, are largely not-for-profit groups.

“We’re striving to one day become a true cultural leader for Milwaukee and a world-class film festival” Jackson says. “The core of the festival is the great, great films we screen, but that’s just a part of it. Audience members tell us that because of the conversation among festival-goers in and around the showings, the city takes on a special vibrancy during festival time.”

Jackson, Ogburn and Megan Benedict, MFF’s communications and press manager, each picked out three must-see films as personal favorites. Here is their insider’s guide, in their own words.

Jonathan Jackson

Mom and Me (Ireland/USA, 2015)

This funny, emotional and smart documentary looks at the relationship between men and their mothers. This subtle, but exquisitely crafted film centers around a radio call-in show in Oklahoma City, “the manliest city in the United States,” and allows us to experience the bonds between mothers and their sons. It was the only time I cried watching a movie this year.

Cameraperson (USA, 2016)

Acclaimed documentary cinematographer Kristen Johnson (Citizenfour, Happy Valley, Fahrenheit 9/11, and The Invisible War) created this meditation on the relationship between storytelling, truth and the camera frame. This very personal exploration of an artist’s work had me transfixed from the very first frames through the credits.

Morris from America
Morris from America

Morris from America (Germany, 2016)

One of the most enjoyable films I have seen all year, this is a smart and well-acted comedy/drama from MFF 2013 alum Chad Hartigan (This is Martin Bonner). A star-making turn from Craig Robinson (The Office) highlights this coming of age/fish out-of-water tale set in Germany that both moved me and had me laughing throughout.

Cara Ogburn

The Fits (USA, 2016)

This film has been haunting me ever since I saw it at Sundance. We follow Toni, a tomboyish ‘tween in urban Cincinnati, who is torn between the boxing-gym world of the boys and the dance-team world of the girls. An exuberant celebration of youth, it’s also a film you can’t stop rolling over in your head. I can’t wait for more of Milwaukee to see it so we can all talk about it together!

Ghostland (Germany, 2016)

This documentary gives the viewer access to some of the most remote peoples of the world, the Ju/’hoansi of Namibia. But the film turns the normal experience of quasi-touristic cinema-going on its head as the subjects travel into the modernized, Western world and comment (often very humorously) on our own cultural idiosyncrasies.

City of Gold (USA, 2015)

If you like food (and not just haute cuisine) you’ll love watching Jonathan Gold eat his way around Los Angeles’ culinary neighborhoods, from taco trucks to ramen noodles and everything in between. This film doubles as a story about the cultural and social landscape of a city.

Megan Benedict

Carmin Tropical (Mexico, 2014)

Though she has carved out a successful career as a trans nightclub singer, Mabel is quick to return home when she receives word that her best friend Daniela has been murdered. Mabel decides to take matters into her own hands, although the deeper she digs into Daniela’s past, the more she realizes it overlaps to an unnerving degree with her own. This is a moody murder mystery noir from Mexico told from a fresh perspective, with an unforgettable ending that will stick with you long after the film has concluded.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (USA, 2015)

Pollock, Dalí, Rothko, Duchamp, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Cornell: What do all of these names have in common? Peggy Guggenheim, the unapologetic heiress, who collected lovers at a pace almost equal with her true passion — modern art. One of the most enjoyable documentaries I’ve seen in the last year, it’ll make you want to run outside, thank an artist and fill your walls with art.

The Fits
The Fits

Shorts: Surprise, Surprise! (Various)

We have a new shorts program in town this year! If you’ve never been to an MFF shorts program, this is the year to take the plunge. Surprises come in all shapes and sizes in these raucously funny, wildly inappropriate and occasionally serious shorts. This is the program that everyone will be talking about during the MFF 2016, so see it for yourself and don’t let anyone ruin the surprise!

For the complete schedule got to mkefilm.org.

Ticket prices

Festival passes are $400 (members) and $500 (nonmembers); ticket 6-packs are $60 (members) and $72 (nonmembers); individual tickets are $12 (adults), $11 (seniors and students with IDs); $10 (MFF members) and $6 (children 12 and under).

The opening night screening of Life, Animated at the Oriental Theatre is $25 for the general public and $20 for MFF members and includes the after-party at UWM Peck School of the Arts Kenilworth Building, 1925 E. Kenilworth Pl.; after-party tickets only are $15 for the general public, $13 for MFF members.

Super Secret Members-Only Screening

There’s one film during the festival that you can’t buy a ticket for. The Super Secret Members-Only Screening is 1) a secret, and 2) for Milwaukee Film Members only. You won’t know what it is until you’re in your seats and we introduce it. It’s a roll of the dice, but we always pick a winner.

Want to be a part of the event? Attend this year’s Super Secret Members-Only Screening by becoming a Milwaukee Film Member today. Sign up at any festival box office or visit mkefilm.org/membership.

The Super Secret Members-Only Screening is excluded from the Festival Pass, and tickets will not be available at the box office. Only current Milwaukee Film Members will receive an email to RSVP, and you must RSVP to attend.

Milwaukee Film Festival by the numbers

Festival dates: Sept. 22 through Oct. 6

Number of films: More than 300 films of varying lengths

Number of venues: Five unique theaters:

• Landmark Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave.

• Landmark Downer Theatre, 2589 N. Downer Ave.

• Fox Bay Cinema Grill, 334 E. Silver Spring Dr.

• Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St.

• Avalon Theater, 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Total attendees: Past festivals have attracted upwards of 70,000 people.

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