Discuss: Wisconsin Film Festival Programming, Part One of Three

2017 Wisconsin Film Festival, March 30-April 6

Film Guide available at wifilmfest.org/2017»

James Kreul continues the Madison Film Forum tradition of breaking down the “Big Three” categories at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Today: The Big Auteurs—International Narrative Features

The Big Indies—American Narrative Features»

The Big Docs—Non-Fiction Features»

For other entries in our 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival coverage, click on #wifilmfest in the navigation menu.


Which visiting filmmaker should provide the lede for coverage of the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival: Nick Offerman or Terence Davies (or Alison Maclean, or Dustin Guy Defa)? Well, that train left the station two weeks ago with one clear answer for most people. But we’ll suggest another answer with our Big Auteurs preview, the first of three themed schedule overviews between now and opening night.

Yep, we’re taking it slow this year with our Wisconsin Film Festival coverage, but we’re not taking it lightly. If all plans come together, we should approach last year’s mark of 20,000 words about the Festival by Closing Night on April 6 (at the end of this post, we’re already at 7,000+). We should have at least 10 full reviews and a handful of capsule reviews posted even before the Festival begins on March 30.

Waiting until two weeks after the appearance of the Film Guide has provided some perspective as we launch into our annual Big Three previews: the Big Auteurs, Big Indies, and Big Docs. The shape of the Festival is a bit clearer now that the frenzy over the opening of the box office has settled.

The Festival stands at an interesting crossroads. The quality of the programming remains very high. But does the Festival lead, follow, or exist as its own special island within Madison’s film culture? Has the Wisconsin Film Festival become, like the common quip about the 77 square miles of Madison, 8 days of a particular brand of film culture surrounded by reality?

Once there was hope that the Festival might spark more year-round international and independent programming in Madison’s commercial theaters. But the gap between Festival programming and the international programming that does actually play in commercial theaters has widened (not the Festival’s fault, of course). UW-Madison student film programmers appear to be more interested in doing their own thing in the spring than getting ramped up for the Wisconsin Film Festival. (They might not be alone: note the ample local coverage of WUD Film’s Directress Film Festival, the same weekend as the Wisconsin Film Festival box office opening.) The Festival continues to innovate new ways to outreach to the community—most notably the terrific, Wisconsin Idea inspired Sneak Peeks at several branches of the Madison Public Library. That kind of outreach seems to be more imperative as general audiences might not know why they should be excited about Festival programming.

The Festival-as-island hypothesis might be best exemplified by how local coverage of the Wisconsin Film Festival possibly buried the lede. One lede was obvious for the reality outside of the Festival. But most coverage buried the lede that represents that particular brand of film culture that the Festival as a whole attempts to cultivate each year.

Pop quiz: Do you know this man?

The lede in the reality outside of the Wisconsin Film Festival has been “Nick Offerman Day.” Most people I run into and discuss the Festival with, regardless of their interest in film, know that Offerman is coming. In fact, three of his four of his scheduled appearances have rush tickets only at this point. Offerman’s visit is a big get for the Festival, and his presence will help call attention to two Big Indies in the lineup this year, The Hero and Infinity Baby.

I don’t think that’s the lede, despite my excitement about Offerman’s visit. The lede is that Terence Davies will visit to present A Quiet Passion. I can’t remember a higher profile international director visiting the Wisconsin Film Festival (someone will embarrass me and jog my memory, of course). Very few people seem to realize he’s coming. As late as last week Tuesday—five days after the Film Guide arrived— when I mentioned the Davies visit to a friend who has followed the Wisconsin Film Festival very closely over the years, he was surprised. He was so surprised, in fact, that I thought for a moment that I had imagined the scheduled visit or had the details wrong.

Yep, Terence Davies will visit for one of his two screenings of A Quiet Passion. As we approach the third week of ticket sales, his Q&A at the relatively small Union South Marquee Theatre has not reached rush only status. Not to get too journo-navel-gazey, to borrow a term from Tone Madison‘s Scott Gordon, but the general public’s awareness about his visit is not likely to increase significantly now that the first rush of Wisconsin Film Festival coverage has passed.

I think that reality began to sink in for the Wisconsin Film Festival staff as they released a separate press release detailing all of the guests to the Festival this year on March 16, a week after the release of the Film Guide. The wording of the press release assumes that everyone knows who Nick Offerman is, and that he’s coming. Right after Offerman, the press release mentions that Davies is a “famed British director.” As I worked on this post, the Festival tweeted:


But fear not. The Madison Film Forum provides the Big Auteurs (notable names and selected titles in international filmmaking) survey each year precisely because not everybody knows that Terence Davies is a famed British director. Some people might need a little more than that to pique their interest.


The Big Auteurs—International Narrative Features

Old Friends

These filmmakers are old friends because most of them have been featured in previous Wisconsin Film Festivals. My comments do not include synopses for the films, so follow the links to the Film Guide for basic descriptions and context for each title.

A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies | Belgium, UK | 2016 | 125 min»

It’s unclear to me why the scheduled visit from Davies has had sluggish ticket sales. His Sunset Song was included in our Big Auteurs preview last year, and its single screening late in the Festival sold well, as I recall. Perhaps being showcased so prominently in back-to-back years has worked against A Quiet Passion sales. Or, who knows, maybe people didn’t like Sunset Song (there’s a big gap in its critics and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes, 81% to 52% respectively). Or maybe costume dramas about the life of Emily Dickinson are no longer box office gold.

[Update, hours after posting: A small bird wearing a Wisconsin Film Festival commemorative pin landed outside of my window Thursday evening to update me that the second screening of A Quiet Passion, without Davies, has now reached rush ticket status. A quick glance at the programming grid should have given me some hints about the slower sales for the Davies Q & A. If you go to the Sunday night screening of A Quiet Passion, doing so eliminates Personal Shopper (currently rush only) and Contemporary Color for that evening.]

Even if A Quiet Passion divides people again this year, the chance to meet one of the most respected English filmmakers of the last 30 years should be worth the price of admission. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) remain essential films.

The Rehearsal | Alison Maclean | New Zealand | 2016 | 102 min»

The other visiting filmmaker who should be getting more attention is Alison Maclean, whose previous work includes Jesus’ Son and Crush. Be on the lookout for a review from Grant Phipps at LakeFrontRow (we’ll link to it here when it appears).

Those who might be a bit disappointed in the generally guy-heavy American independent features and guest list might find New Zealander Maclean’s visit refreshing.

I, Daniel Blake | Ken Loach | UK, France | 2016 | 100 min»

The good news is that this Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or winner will finally arrive in Madison. The bad news is that its two screenings at the Wisconsin Film Festival represent an unfortunate pattern for Palm d’Or winners in Madison: the last three—Winter Sleep, Dheepan, and now I, Daniel Blake—have not received week-long theatrical runs in town. (Winter Sleep played once at the UW-Cinematheque, Dheepan played once at MMoCA’s Spotlight Cinema.) Theoretically, I, Daniel Blake could come back. But I think we all know that it won’t. Catherine Capellaro provides a capsule review of I, Daniel Blake in a survey of Festival films in this week’s Isthmus.

Afterimage | Andrzej Wajda | Poland | 2016 | 98 min»
The Traveller (Mossafer) | Abbas Kiarostami | Iran | 1974 | 73 min»
Take Me Home | Abbas Kiarostami | Iran | 2016 | 16 min»

Last year, the Festival featured Cosmos, the final film from Andrzej Żuławski. This year, we unfortunately observe the final films from two giants, Poland’s Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds, Man of Iron) and Iran’s Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry).

I contributed a short capsule review of Wajda’s Afterimage in this week’s Isthmus, and here at the Madison Film Forum you can read a full-length review from Jason Fuhrman.

The loss of Kiarostami really hit me. The last shot of his Through the Olive Trees is one of the most beautiful and exuberant in all of cinema. I don’t think his later works, like Certified Copy, which work more explicitly in a European art-cinema mode, are as vibrant as his earlier works.  So it should be interesting to watch a pairing of films from both ends of his career.

Frantz | Francois Ozon | France, Germany | 2016 | 113 min»
Personal Shopper | Oliver Assayas | France | 2016 | 105 min»
Things to Come | Mia Hansen-Love | France | 2016 | 102 min»

Ah, the French…they are a funny race. Based on the current rush only list, French cinema provides the meat and potatoes of the Festival’s international programming (or whatever they eat in France).

This year Ozon benefits not only from his auteur status but also from the link between his Frantz and the Restorations and Rediscoveries presentation of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby (based on the same material). One of two Franz screenings is rush only; we’ll see how Broken Lullaby does.

Assayas returns with another feature starring the divisive Kristen Stewart (their first being Clouds of Sils Maria from 2014). I assume that the response to Personal Shopper will depend on your response to Kristen Stewart in general, regardless of the general acclaim for her performance here. Craig Johnson’s capsule review of Personal Shopper in this week’s Isthmus seems to support that assumption. With that name above the title, of course, Personal Shopper has reached rush only status for both of its screenings.

I think the Festival might have short-changed Things to Come by emphasizing its tenuous Oscar connection in its early publicity last month. Sure, everyone knows Isabelle Hupert was nominated this year for Elle. But in a year where visitors like Alison Maclean seem to be overlooked, it might be nice to foreground another narrative feature female director. Madison viewers might know Mia Hansen-Love for her feature Eden, which played once at MMoCA’s Spotlight Cinema.

Illegitimate | Adrian Sitaru | Romania, Poland | 2016 | 89 min»

Seeing the name Adrian Sitaru brought me back to the salad days of 2014, when I had more time to do reviews featuring actual analysis, as I attempted with my review of Sitaru’s Domestic. While I’ve had a chance to keep track of other Romanian filmmakers since then (see my review of Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation from January), I’ve lost track of what Sitaru has been up to.

Needless to say, the Film Guide description for Illegitimate looks very promising, based on what I liked so much about Domestic.

I’ve penciled him in for a review this week, and I will update this entry with a link when it has been posted. But I’m already sad that I won’t have the time to go as deep with Illegitimate as I did with Domestic, which remains a Festival favorite of mine.

The Son of Joseph | Eugene Green | Belgium | 2016 | 115 min»

My only opportunity to write about Green’s La Sapienza was a capsule review two years ago in Isthmus. That was a challenge, because the performance style in that film was so divisive that I can imagine people who bought tickets based on that review could have walked out disappointed.

I liked La Sapienza. I’m curious to see whether Green plays the same note in The Son of Joseph, or introduces enough variation in his visual and performance style to keep the film fresh and engaging.

Yourself and Yours | Hong Sang-soo | South Korea | 2016 | 86 min»

I have to admit I was a slow convert to the films of Hong Sang-soo. I should have better appreciated The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors when Tony Raynes brought in a package of Asian cinema for the 2001 Wisconsin Film Festival.

Jake Smith took the reviewing duties when Nobody’s Daughter Haewon played the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival, so it wasn’t until WUD Film presented Right Now, Wrong Then in May of last year that I realized what I have been missing. I’ve even gone back to The Virgin Stripped Bare, and I don’t know what I was thinking way back when.

As much as I look forward to Yourself and Yours, reviewing duties have been assigned to Emily Caulfield, so look for her review to appear at Madison Film Forum soon (we will add link here when it is posted).

The Salesman | Asghar Farhadi | Iran | 2016 | 125 min»
Neruda | Pablo Larrain | Argentina, Chile | 2016 | 108 min»

One would think that the Academy Award winning Best Foreign Language Film The Salesman would return for a theatrical run after the Festival, but in the current Madison film market, I would not count on it.  As of right now, one of its two Festival screenings are rush only, so don’t wait for a Sundance engagement. Or, better yet, support a current GoFundMe project to start a new Iranian Film Festival in Madison, a collaboration between the Persian Student Society and WUD Film.

Larrain’s Jackie had a decent run at Sundance, but don’t expect the same for Neruda without the star power of Natalie Portman. One of the two Neruda screenings are rush only as of now. Larrain has been featured prominently at the UW Cinematheque, and last year Erik Oliver reviewed The Club during our Festival coverage.

Other Notables

The best survey of international programming at the Wisconsin Film Festival so far has been the highlights suggested by Grant Phipps at Tone Madison in their “first look.” Several of those titles overlap with those above, but a few are worth an additional mention.

I contributed a capsule review of Kati Kati in this week’s Isthmus, and you can read Emily Caulfield’s full length review here at the Madison Film Forum.

Nocturama has the most buzz among films that did not have advance screeners available. I’m intrigued by Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Gravesbut its 183 minute running time makes it an unlikely candidate for a pre-festival review. Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo; Lost in Paris; and Max & Leon look entertaining (the latter two have some rush only screenings).

Of course there are many other international films worthy of attention. That’s why we have film festivals. Let us know what you’re excited about on our Facebook page or tweet us @MadFilmForum.

Check back in a few days for our Big Indies and Big Docs previews.


Published by James Kreul

James Kreul has advocated for alternative screenings of independent, international, and experimental film in Madison since the 1990s.