Treat yourself to the 2023 Wisconsin Film Festival

Our film team takes a first look at the gifts of this year’s festival guide.
An image collage features the Wisconsin Film Festival logo and 2023 dates at top right. Underneath, a shot of Isaiah Lehtinen from Chandler Levack's "I Like Movies." Below that, Nyeisha Prince in Alison O'Daniel's "The Tuba Thieves." To her left, a shot of Jesse Wang in Andy Yi Li's short film, "After Sunset, Dawn Arrives." The top left features a shot of Nacho Sánchez in Carlos Vermut's "Manticore."
An image collage features the Wisconsin Film Festival logo and 2023 dates at top right. Underneath, a shot of Isaiah Lehtinen from Chandler Levack’s “I Like Movies.” Below that, Nyeisha Prince in Alison O’Daniel’s “The Tuba Thieves.” To her left, a shot of Jesse Wang in Andy Yi Li’s short film, “After Sunset, Dawn Arrives.” The top left features a shot of Nacho Sánchez in Carlos Vermut’s “Manticore.”

Our film team takes a first look at the gifts of this year’s festival guide.

Here at Tone Madison, we like movies. And we eagerly await the annual reveal of the Wisconsin Film Festival guide as if we’ve been transported back to our youth on the eve of a seminal birthday with a bounty of bow-wrapped gifts gleaming through a banister. Sure, Madison has its year-round cinematic delights, but they’re never quite as concentrated as they are during the spring months, and in April (my birthday month, btw) when the film festival has traditionally taken place. This year, it runs April 13 through 20; and, starting today, the lineup is available online and in copies of Isthmus. Tickets will be available for purchase on Saturday, March 11, at 12 noon.

Despite the graphics of sugary, tasty treats that adorn the front cover and some of the 2023 festival guide’s pages, a sense of the bittersweet pervades this year’s festival (the 25th). It’s the fest’s last year using the theaters at Hilldale, formerly occupied by AMC and Sundance before it shuttered last December. This change has left many of us envisioning how the space will be transformed and where the festival will come to relocate outside its campus anchor next year.

The layout of the guide comes with its share of familiarities in terms of font face and column blocking; but also a few design surprises as well. For the first time, art director Christina King has plainly offered glimpses at the festival’s 2023 merchandising designs, from the three pins on page 11 to the shirt on page 29. The crystalline theme of 2022 was super sharp, but this year’s more decadent, playful picnic palette has even more abundantly spilled over into the guide’s pages, with celebratory balloons, whipped cream and cherries, layer cake, a custom film-savoring face emoji, and even a custom-made graphic—a shushing finger in front of a red-lipped mouth—for the Secret Screening (another first) on Friday night, April 14, at the Marquee Cinema at Union South.

Below you’ll find thoughts from a bulk of our film team—Jason Fuhrman, Hanna Kohn, C Nelson-Lifson, Lewis Peterson, and Steven Spoerl—after their initial perusals of the film guide. Some lend an obsessive eye to one particular film and others take a broader, more wry look on what may suit their fancy, but they all hopefully capture the distinctively offbeat tastes and points of view at the heart of our publication. Grant Phipps, Film Editor

Jason Fuhrman: As always, the Wisconsin Film Festival really seems to offer something for everyone with its dizzyingly eclectic lineup. At first glance, the selections I am most excited about are The Connection, Mami Wata, Manticore, Masquerade, Metronom, Sanctuary, Sick Of Myself, Tommy Guns, Without Her, and World War III. Considering its comparison to David Lynch in the festival guide and a premise that recalls David Cronenberg’s 1983 techno-surrealist body horror classic Videodrome, Manticore will probably end up being my most anticipated pick of the festival this year.

Like everyone else, I am intrigued by the tantalizing and unprecedented Secret Screening. And the radically inventive multisensory experience of The Tuba Thieves will involve audience members holding latex balloons to feel a broad range of vibrations. After viewing Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi’s latest multilayered masterpiece No Bears earlier this year at UW Cinematheque, I’m looking forward to discovering his 2000 film The Circle. The epic Iranian family drama Leila’s Brothers also ties in nicely with the Cinematheque screening of The Godfather later this month.

Both Mother And Son and Tommy Guns indicate an affinity with the films of Claire Denis, whose caustic psychosexual drama Both Sides Of The Blade screened at last year’s festival under the working title Fire. I also cannot wait to see Margaret Qualley as a dominatrix in Sanctuary on the heels of her scintillating performance as a down-and-out journalist in Nicaragua who resorts to sex work in Stars At Noon, the second feature directed by Denis that was released in 2022.

The festival’s opening night film, Ukrainian black comedy Luxembourg, Luxembourg, definitely feels appropriate as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rages on. Of course the presentation of The Last Picture Show on the final night at Hilldale is a simply elegant choice.

Hanna Kohn: To me, the sweetest thing about this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival is the inclusion of After Sunset, Dawn Arrives, screening as part of the “Strangers In A Strange Land shorts collection. I got to know the film’s writer and director, Andy Li, when we attended classes together at UW’s Communication Arts program, and I’m thrilled to see that her strikingly beautiful story of love and desire, which premiered at UCLA in September 2022, will be available to Wisconsin audiences. (Full disclosure: I was a financial backer for this film on Kickstarter.) Set in 2000s Chinatown in Los Angeles, the film depicts the nuanced longing and trepidation of a widowed and secluded 65-year-old man dipping his toe into a pool of unknown pleasures. Supported by a strong selection of five other short films (with filmmakers scheduled to attend) that offer diverse cultural perspectives, I am pleased to see the “Strangers In A Strange Land” offering what are sure to be a lovely array of narrative and documentary expressions.

The cherry on top of the festival’s selections in this year’s undoubtedly sweet guide is the 2022 Canadian documentary Geographies Of Solitude. Its inclusion is a nod to Wisconsin’s Earth Day connection, and I am curious to see director Jacquelyn Mills’ execution of eco-friendly filmmaking techniques unfold to depict the story of naturalist Zoe Lucas and her catalog of details of an isolated island off the coast of Nova Scotia. With the promise of found objects from the island incorporated with 16 mm film stock, this feature has a Mothlight-like glow I am irrevocably drawn towards. Overall, I am hopeful to see sustainable filmmaking practices get attention, and look forward to how this film will raise consciousness for the best planet we humans have. 

The last dust of crushed-up cookie crumble that caught my eye, nestled near the end of this year’s guide (and above a cute WFF T-shirt design), is the 2021 documentary Yung Punx: A Punk Parable. With its focus on the adolescent band Color Killer and their rise to internet fame, this feature is poised to tackle the ills and joys of youth creativity, their connection to audiences in the Internet age, and the real deal about parenting them. Tucked in with the Big Screens, Little Folks offerings and resting right after The Devil Will Run—a 10-minute short film that looks appealingly semi-scary—Yung Punx is recommended for ages eight and up—all the punk (and aspiring punk) children and their parents looking to connect over some rocking and relatable cinema.

C Nelson-Lifson: After glancing at the guide, the films that immediately piqued my interest were Blue Jean, Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Connection, Hollywood 90028, Kokomo City, Sick Of Myself, and The Trial. While I have only seen a few Otto Preminger films, knowing The Zombies are featured in Bunny Lake Is Missing stirs my curiosity! I would love to be able to see that and the documentary about The Zombies that’s also playing, Hung Up On A Dream

The Connection is a great film by Shirley Clarke based on a play about jazz musicians’ addiction to heroin. I am looking forward to the discussion afterward with guest critic Manohla Dargis and professor / Wisconsin Film Festival director Kelley Conway about women and film. Kokomo City is a documentary made by and about Black trans sex workers living in New York and Georgia. It is important that these stories are told, and I am grateful to be able to see them on the big screen.

Sick Of Myself found itself on the best-of-2022 lists of John Waters and Annie Rose Malamet; it’s about a narcissistic woman who purposefully takes medication that she is allergic to, and markets herself as a chronically ill/disabled artist. I love movies about women who suck! I am both perplexed and elated that non-Eastwood monkey comedy Dunston Checks In will be shown, and also looking forward to the Q&A with Ken Kwapis afterward.

It will be bittersweet to attend one last WFF at the Hilldale location, but I am grateful that they were able to make arrangements to host the fest there again. I am also intrigued by the eventual reveal of the secret film. Last April I was able to catch six films, and I am hoping I will be able to see even more this year.

Lewis Peterson: Having spent nearly the last decade owning and working at a video store, a film about a socially maladjusted teen working at a video store at the turn of the millennium is, obviously, my most anticipated title of the festival (Chandler Levack’s I Like Movies). And as a video store guy, of course I also have to rep the Found Footage Festival through Chop & Steele, the chronicle of Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher pranking local news shows by posing as a pair of fitness gurus.

But there are a lot of other things that caught my eye—titles I was kinda anticipating like the politically and literally incendiary How To Blow Up A Pipeline, the transgressive Norwegian comedy Sick Of Myself, and Kelly Reichardt’s chronicle of the difficulties of the artistic lifestyle Showing Up—all of which have played at the big festivals like Cannes and Sundance. And there are things previously unknown to me like con-artist thriller Masquerade, possible heir to the Videodrome throne Manticore, and life-imitates-art Iranian drama World War III. (Agonizingly, Showing Up and Masquerade are programmed to play at the same time, so I’ve gotta start making tough decisions already!)

It’s good to see a few more returning speakers, like James Kenney, who will present a new lost cut a film mangled by producers, originally titled Exposed, now named Daughter Of God (along with director Gee Malik Linton), as well as Bob Furmanek of the 3-D Film Archive, who is appearing with the infamously campy sci-fi movie Robot Monster 3-D, and Bob Murawski, Oscar-winning editor who presented The Other Side Of The Wind back in 2019, also returns to introduce sleazy crowd pleasers like Army Of Darkness, Impulse, and The Tough Ones.

The secret screening on Friday, April 14 at the Marquee Cinema is very interesting, as to my knowledge the Wisconsin Film Festival has never done a screening like that before. Could it be something from the Racer Trash or Soda Jerk collectives, who both do re-edits of ’80s and ’90s movies with digital aftereffects? I believe Alex Jacobs, who has a short in the “Experiments” program (lake time) on April 15, is a member of Racer Trash.

Steven Spoerl: No film title seems more apt for this year’s Wisconsin Film Fest than that of Chandler Levack’s feature debut, I Like Movies. After premiering at Toronto International Film Festival—the same festival that premiered Levack’s debut short, We Forgot To Break Up, in 2017—I Like Movies earned notable praise. Centering on Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), a pretentious teenage video store employee harboring grand ambitions, I Like Movies is bound to strike into a number of attendees’ nostalgia, and perhaps a few familiar nerves.

Levack’s characterization of Lawrence comes from a place of honesty—the director has repeatedly pointed to her experience as a Blockbuster employee as evidence of the film’s semi-autobiographical nature. As a direct result, the film’s empathetic nature ensures there’s never an element of mean-spiritedness to its character judgments. Early reviews have indicated how the film’s measured sweetness is one of its biggest selling points, alongside its innate understanding of cinema’s inherent power. Levack’s fellow Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley sums it up thusly in the trailer’s most memorable pull quote: “I Like Movies will make you really like movies.”

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