How to plan for the cinematic overload of the Wisconsin Film Festival

The guide is out, it’s a lot, and we have some tips for navigating it.

The guide is out, it’s a lot, and we have some tips for navigating it. | By Hanna Kohn, Grant Phipps, and Scott Gordon

The Wisconsin Film Festival unveils its 2020 lineup today—it’s out in print now and should be online by noon—giving film freaks just about two days to process a list of more than 150 films before tickets go on sale, and just a few weeks until the festival itself, running April 2 through 9. 

Before you get overwhelmed at the prospects, consider gutting this week’s issue of Isthmus for the printed version of the film festival guide. Grab a fabulous pen, light a candle, and get down with manically circling all the titles that strike your fancy. While you’re at it, follow these pointers from a few grizzled survivors of Wisconsin Film Festivals past.


Use the print guide

Print’s not dead. And, in this case it’s a better way to get your head around the offerings. The festival’s print guide (available as an Isthmus insert or on its own around town) pairs knowledgeable write-ups, arranged alphabetically, from the festival programmers with a schedule grid of all the films in the middle. Just circling stuff and marking out a plan lets you swap between potential itineraries for the festival.

Check your work schedule, and don’t bet absolutely on attending everything

The films that you may really want to see may be off-limits due to their scheduled times in the most desirable evening slots, especially during the Monday-Thursday run at AMC Madison 6 (April 6 through 9). Some films only play once, so be mindful and aware of that when looking over the guide. Fortunately, some of those one-time-only screenings are at the fest’s largest venue, the Wisconsin Union Theater. 

Keep an eye out for filmmaker talks

In addition to hosting a plethora of new and repertory films, the festival curators also make conscious efforts to include post-screening Q&As and the occasional filmmaker panel to enhance the overall experience. Although they don’t have any features screening in the fest this year, Transparent creator and UW-Madison alum, Jill Soloway, will engage audiences at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Friday, April 3, at 4 p.m., where they will no doubt share their industry experiences in addition to the significance of nonbinary and transgender representation. The latter will certainly factor into further discussion about Topple, a media company they founded on prinicples of equality for women, people of color, and gender-nonconforming people.

Watch some trailers

As the platitudinous adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” So, a movie trailer at 24 fps must be equivalent to hundreds of thousands, or something? While the printed WFF guide can provide succinct synopses and quick stylistic comparisons, it’s additionally worth forming an impression from a clip or trailer before passing final judgment. Case in point: the Brazilian film, The Invisible Life (Of Eurídice Gusmão), is conveyed in one light through advance written word (and Rotten Tomatoes), and another entirely in its current trailer cut. For other specific recommendations, see our initial picks below and keep up with our WFF 2020 preview coverage over the next few weeks.

Follow your gut

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a cinephile or die-hard, the festival is still curated for you. And you know your own tastes. If you’re responsive to a description or even the sound of a title that seems fun, just go for it. Taking random chances can be extremely rewarding.

Try something new, something weird in the freedom the festival permits

It’s fun to watch something entirely different from your normal recycle of media titles. Dare to believe that there are some really good titles out there that algorithms won’t find and won’t be on streaming services anytime soon, or ever. 

Don’t treat the festival guide blurbs as the final word

The staffers who wrote the blurbs in the WFF guide know what they’re talking about, as they’ve sifted through hundreds of submissions and traveled far and wide to put this whole lineup together. That said, their experience of a given film and the comparisons and reference points they use for context won’t always align with your sensibility.

Let genre films be a guardrail

Festival programmers consistently include a healthy dose of crime thrillers, neo-noirs, and other genre films, especially international ones. So, why not try a foreign language version of something you’d traditionally watch in English? This makes for an accessible entry point into the density of the full lineup. Be reassured that the festival treats these titles with as much care and reverence as anything else.

Take chances on shorts and experimental offerings, especially from local directors who will be in attendance

The festival is the one of the few times during the year that Madisonians have the opportunity to see so many experimental films in theaters with inquisitive audiences. Throw a dart at one of the programs of live action and/or animated shorts. You’ll often have the chance to hear from local filmmakers about their process. You may learn something about your own community, city, or simply catch something truly surprising or rewarding. 

Keep an eye on the credits

Often you may walk into a film without the knowledge of the composer(s) or those involved with sound design or Foley work, but those elements may actually be the most enduring of the whole production. It can be incredibly valuable to keep a pen and paper on hand to jot down a few notes during the credits. When others are scrambling to tear their audience award votes on the way out, you can be making some deeper connections to explore after your moviegoing or fest experience.

Make a thing of it

The AMC Madison 6’s location in the Hilldale Mall can be advantageous for anyone looking to make a day of both seeing films and dining out at Dumpling Haus, Bartaco, or Café Hollander, to name a few spots right there. As for on-campus screening locations, The Marquee allows patrons to bring in beer from the Sett if you’d like to risk spilling a pitcher in the dark, and options within a reasonable distance range from fancy Belgian beers at Brasserie V to pounding some utilitarian starch pockets at Paul’s Pel’Meni. Also, it’s just a good excuse to dress up in your finest spring sweater and bring a date (or a frenemy) to soak up the general ambiance and ticket-holder line chatter. 

There’s always next year

Don’t fret if the films that you pick don’t manifest into the dreamy experience that you had imagined. Next time around there will be new rides to try, and you’ll be a whole year older. You’ll also learn some things from your festival experience that will help you navigate it next time around.


Oh, and here are some additional feature titles jumping out at us on our own first browse of the guide (in alphabetical order):

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