I really should have written as I went along, but since I was sick for most of the festival, just attending the films seemed like enough. Now I have given myself the difficult task of recapping the past five days. Because what fun is the film festival without being able to write about it? Well, actually, it’s pretty fun either way. The Wisconsin Film Festival, I do declare, is the BEST festival in the universe. And I’ve been to Carnival in Venice and Oktoberfest in Munich and Sundance in Park City. Ha. Ok, but I am serious — it runs so smoothly, there are a ton of great movies and the venues are mostly awesome and you can walk from one to another unlike, say, Sundance. It has the added advantage to have been held on a gorgeous April weekend. First outdoor Farmer’s Market of the season, spring game, New Heather was in town…Ah, there is nothing like Madison in spring. I just love it. Now, to the films. And I apologize in advance for the long post. But there’s a lot to say as there was a lot to see.
We bought tickets to 14 films, knowing that we wouldn’t make it to them all. As my Dear Reader knows, I tend to need an “opt out” button in nearly everything I do. This includes even things that I love, like the festival. I need to be able to skip things. So, we made it to 11 movies and I think that’s great.
Number one movie of the festival in both senses — it was the first movie we saw and I dare say it was the best. At least it wins Kate’s Official Selection for Best Documentary. And who wouldn’t want that award? It’s called The Art of the Steal and it was produced by IFC so I imagine it will be widely distributed. The movie was screened in a sweet little movie theater in the Overture Center/MMoCA that I had no idea existed. It’s the story of Albert Barnes and his enormously wonderful collection of art, which is currently housed in the appropriately named Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA, outside Philadelphia. The story traces Barnes’ life and his preeminent desire to keep his collection housed in the mansion he built in Merion and outside the hands of the Philadelphia art world. As you may have guessed from the title of the movie, or if you know this story, his efforts and his will have been usurped by self-interested politicians and “charitable” groups who assert their good intentions. Excellent movie. It made me ask questions such as who has the right to see privately-owned art, if anyone; when should a person’s will be ignored, if ever; what interest do these huge charitable foundations really serve; and why have I not heard about this amazing collection earlier. I gave it a 5 (the fest hands out ballots and viewers get to rate the movies on a scale of 1 to 5), of course, though I was tempted to give it a 4 just because the ending is so upsetting.
Next we saw the newest OSS movie: OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which is a French parody of spy movies and is, as its predecessor was, hilarious. It was fun to see at the Orpheum and the house was packed. A fun 4.
Then we hit a bit of a road bump. We saw Cooking History at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Sidenote: I almost always forget how much I love that theater. It’s just gorgeous — art deco-y and so cool. Great place. Cooking History, we thought, was going to be a light-hearted look at cooking for soldiers during war time. I know that that must sound really stupid and naive, and rereading the description I see now that we kind of made that up, but it’s what I had envisioned. Instead it’s pretty much a depressing tale about people who cooked during Europe’s nastiest wars. And it really doesn’t say too much about the cooking. And it’s laden with Eastern European and German languages so I found myself audibly breathing relief when the French came on the scene. Gosh I really don’t like those icky “Schiepa, Ein, Schma, Tannenbaum” sounds. Anyway, in all, I really have no idea what this movie was about and gave it a 2 because it didn’t totally stink, but it was a bit of a dud.
We rebounded nicely, though, when we walked back up State Street to the Orpheum to see The Most Dangerous Man in America, which is about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. This movie was exactly what you’d expect: a movie about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It was really interesting as I learned that I had previously known very little about Ellsberg. I gave the film a 4 because, while it was rivetting, I became confused a few times. Wait, who’s that guy? Wait, when was he a marine? Wait, why couldn’t the FBI find him? Anyway, it was a pretty perfect documentary. It was no The Art of the Steal, but it had a lot of those elements you really want — a real hero, intrigue, Nixon swearing, etc — in a movie.
So, those were the ones we saw on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday brought us to Human Terrain and Harmony & Me. The former was billed as a documentary about the military’s training ground in the California desert that serves to mimic the conditions in Iraq and to act as a role-playing model for the soldiers. Instead, the movie was really more about this one particular social scientist who decides to work for the military and be sent to Afghanistan in his effort to reduce the human toll the war has taken. The movie explores the role of social scientists/anthropologists in war, which is an interesting question no doubt. Should social scientists remain purely academic and stay out of the conflicts or do they have a duty to act and to try to change outcomes? I gave it a 3 because it was an ok movie, but I felt misled. Additionally, it really didn’t become clear that the movie was asking those questions, and centering on this one particular man, until about half-way or two-thirds of the way through. Harmony & Me, on the other hand, was a delightful tale about a guy who can’t get over his ex. Familiar terrain, yes, but light and cute and bright and fun. It elicited true laughs from the crowd and true feeling. A solid 4.
Saturday we hit three movies, all at the Orpheum. We were sort of on a conveyor belt…Get in line for the 11 o’clock show, see the movie, exit; get in line for the 1:15 show, see the movie, exit; get in line for the 3:30 show, see the movie, exit. The first movie was Sweetgrass, which is the tale of modern-day Montana shepherds who move sheep across many miles (why? I don’t really know. We missed the first few minutes) of public land. There is very little dialogue and even that which there was, it was hard to understand. Except for the one cowboy/shepherd who curses at the sheep so severely that I worried there would be scarred children in the audience. Mostly it’s just a really beautiful picture of Montana punctuated by lots of “BAAAAA!”s. I found myself wondering if I could handle all the baa-ing without just screaming, “Shut up already!” I think I gave it a 4. Next up was the supremely wonderful, must-see, star of the narratives, A Matter of Size. This movie is so good that it should be shown in cineplexes across the country. It should be mandatory viewing in schools. It should be shown every New Year’s Eve. Or something like that. This movie was so sweet and funny and original and adorable that I can’t say enough good things about it. It is the story of overweight Israelis who tire of being called fat and tire of unsuccessful dieting and tire of feeling ashamed of themselves that they decide to take up sumo wrestling. It’s also a love story. It’s also a great story about friendship and loyalty and understanding and family and everything good in this world. It’s also completely hilarious. If I could have given it a 6, I would have. We rounded out the day with a gem of a stop-action flick called A Town Called Panic. It’s a Belgian movie (in French) that defies description. But I’ll try. It’s the story of Horse, Cowboy & Indian who live together in an oddly-shaped house. Cowboy & Indian decide to build Horse a barbecue for his birthday. Instead, though, of ordering 50 bricks for said barbecue, they accidentally order 50 million bricks. What to do with the extra bricks? Put them on top of their house of course. And that is just the beginning of the hilarity. Keith Phipps from the Onion AV club introduced the film and I think he summed it up well when he said (something like), “There is a line in the film that goes, ‘Horse, my tractor is broken. Can you pick up the animals from music class?’ And any movie that has that line is alright with me.” A definite 5.
Yesterday was the festival’s last day and we ended on a high note — we saw Truth in 24 at the Chazen Art Museum and Paddle to Seattle at the Union Theater. Both complete 5s, as far as I’m concerned. Truth in 24 documents the car race at Le Mans and is narrated by Jason Stratham. Great voice (though everytime he said ‘Peugeot’ I thought he was saying ‘Prussia,’ which was confusing for awhile). The movie is so compelling that even me, a person totally uninterested in car racing, was on the edge of my seat. I felt adrenaline rushes, nausea and physical exhaustion as I watched the Audi team give the race everything they had and more. 24 hours of car racing = crazy. A similar type of crazy was on display in Paddle to Seattle, a documentary made by two fit young guys who got it in their heads that they should build kayaks (which were stunning) and sea kayak the inside passage from north of Juneau to, you guessed it, Seattle. That’s 1300 miles and it took them 97 days. The movie is so beautiful — close-ups of humpback whales, seals & grizzly bears — but it is also hilarious and totally charming. These guys know how to make a movie. It’s going to be on Wisconsin Public Television in July and I can’t wait to see it again. Really, do not miss this film if you can avoid doing so. You won’t regret it.
And now it’s Monday. And the film fest is over. But it’s still spring in Wisconsin and I have lots to look forward to. The film fest is scheduled for the end of March next year, which I’m a little bummed about since I love the spring-y-ness of it in April. But I’m not too bummbed because it means I don’t have to wait a whole year until I do it all again. Thanks, WFF! Best year yet.