Our first look at highlights from first-time directors and established auteurs alike. | By Kailee Andrews, Jason Fuhrman, Grant Phipps, and Mark Riechers
The 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival’s schedule dropped Thursday, giving filmgoers just shy of a month to sift through a lineup of about 150 feature-length and short films. As usual, the festival’s programmers have shown a fondness for idiosyncratic documentaries, and regular WFF-goers will recognize many familiar names from across America and International Cinema. This year’s festival, running April 4 through 11, will also be the first to include 3-D screenings, a deepening interest of late for WFF and the UW Cinematheque. To kick off Tone Madison‘s preview coverage, four writers took an initial run through the list of films and picked out these highlights. Tickets go on sale on Saturday, March 9; the full festival guide is available online and in print editions of Isthmus.
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Dava Whisenant unearths the the forgotten world of industrial musicals in Bathtubs Over Broadway, one of the most unceasingly fun and zippy documentaries of the year. These lavish stage shows, produced only for the employees of mega-companies like Ford, GE, and Xerox, were meant to cheer and educate the corporate community. However, cast recordings from these slickly produced extravaganzas were never distributed, and were mostly lost to the ages after their heyday in the ’60s and ’70s.
When worn-out comedy writer Steve Young came across rare artifacts from these musicals while seeking sketch material for The Late Show With David Letterman, he found himself bizarrely transfixed and welcomed by the community of artists and record collectors who keep a candle lit for this lost cinematic world.
Bathtubs Over Broadway has the dual appeal of hilarious recovered musical numbers and the uninhibited joy they inspire in Young’s feel-good investigations. The once-cynical comedy writer now operates as passionate archivist of this toe-tapping era of American corporate community-building. The doc won the prestigious Writer’s Guild Award for Best Documentary Screenplay, an honor it shares with acclaimed docs like Inside Job, Taxi To The Dark Side, Stories We Tell, and Jane. —Kailee Andrews
In the latter half of this decade, previously unsung French New Wave auteur Jacques Rivette’s work has been receiving newfound attention from various US distributors, including Criterion, Arrow, Cohen, and Kino Lorber with this recent restoration of his 1966 sophomore effort, The Nun [La Religieuse]. Adapted from a late 18th-century novel by Denis Diderot, this unconventional amalgam of discomforting memoir and erotic melodrama details the trials and tribulations of Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina), whose family has her committed against her will to a convent.
If Rivette’s debut, Paris Belongs To Us (1961), is any indication, the director’s idiosyncratic style tends to revel in the outré, the conspiratorial, and the simply inscrutable. The Nun shares the earlier film’s pitch-black humor and social commentary, pondering the nature of freedom and tearing into organized religion’s patriarchal hierarchy. (The Catholic church greeted the film’s initial release with outrage.) Karina’s performance also influenced Emily Watson’s daring turn in Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves some three decades later. For more on nuns of the 1960s, see another WFF ’19 selection, the documentary Inquiring Nuns (1968). —Grant Phipps
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Bi Gan’s strikingly surreal debut feature, Kaili Blues, ranked among 2015’s most ambitious efforts (and screened in Madison via the Spotlight Cinema program in 2016). It immediately placed Bi in the pantheon of great art-house directors like Weerasethakul and Tarkovsky. With this hotly anticipated follow-up, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the director pulls from his more literary influences as a poet, lending it the same name as the famous four-act play by Eugene O’Neill.
In contrast to the contained space of O’Neill’s domestic drama, though, Gan offers up yet another epic, surrealistic mystery fixated on the aspect of time travel and shifting of perspective. The film’s cryptic synopsis suggests the mining of memory, as a man returns to his home in the subtropical Guizhou province of mainland China (also prominently featured in Kaili Blues) after a decade to hunt down a woman who may be the lover of his friend’s killer. Paired with an intoxicating and darkly vivid, almost noir-ish color palette that recalls classic films of the Taiwanese New Wave (by Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien), Long Day’s Journey Into Night also reportedly features an unforgettable use of 3-D in an extended and unbroken mid-film take. —Grant Phipps
Peter Strickland is one of the most innovative and perceptive writer-directors working today, with not only an elegantly conceptual eye but also an audiophile’s ear for sound design—his last two masterful features, Berberian Sound Studio (a 2013 WFF selection) and The Duke Of Burgundy (personal favorite of 2015), featured original scores by Broadcast and Cat’s Eyes, respectively. In a sense picking up where the chicly tactile, fetishistic luxuries of Duke left off, his latest from A24, In Fabric, also takes a historically deep dive into cult horror and what he’d deem “Eurosleaze,” transforming the genre film with a deliberate sense of style and wicked humor.
The plot revolves around a demonically possessed garment (red, of course) that destroys the lives of all those who wear it, in a riff on the “cursed item” trope in popular fantasy. From this template, Strickland constructs an intricate two-part commentary on the idolization of consumerism and beauty. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays the dress’ first victim, an unfulfilled bank teller pining to reinvent herself. In Fabric also seems to bear an amusing, perhaps coincidentally reciprocal relationship with Phantom Thread and Paul Thomas Anderson. —Grant Phipps
The Image Book
At 88, Jean-Luc Godard remains one of the most revered (and reclusive) living figures of the original French New Wave. And while he’s only produced a series of fragmented narratives and essay films in the last few decades, each one is seen as an international cinema event, and the last few that have been part of Cinematheque’s regular programming (in addition to the 3-D presentation of Goodbye To Language at a Marcus Point fundraising effort in late 2014). Godard’s latest, the five-part Image Book, is a continuation of the aforementioned experiments in 3-D—a philosophically narrated collage of film and video from the past century that’s been re-cut and re-contextualized to further ruminate on the presently tenuous, even apocalyptic state of global affairs. (The trailer below even features the doom-laden sounds of Scott Walker’s “Cossacks Are.”) The essay film is also a collaboration with Swiss producer, cinematographer, and editor Fabrice Aragno, who helped shape Godard’s painstaking visions and enveloping sound design. Perhaps first and foremost, though, The Image Book is a love letter to the authenticity of editing, which manifests in quotes by Brecht and cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont about “thinking with one’s hands.” Surely, the only proper way to experience its saturated, kaleidoscopic montages will be on the big screen. —Grant Phipps
The Hidden City
Of all the new documentaries featured at this year’s festival, Victor Moreno’s The Hidden City promises to be the most visually arresting, evoking the collective memory of science fiction with a plunge into the underground architecture of Madrid, Spain. Carrying viewers through the city’s system of storm drains and subways, José Ángel Alayón’s innovative cinematography captures these spaces as if they’re cosmic frontiers or uninhabited planets, blending (occasionally literal) concrete imagery with textural, dreamlike abstraction.
The overall effect of The Hidden City at times recalls the stark lunar landscapes of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Moreno and crew use darkness/light dynamics and long shots to create an immersive atmosphere that frames the scale of human beings within the context of their own constructions. In the trailer, we see areas that resemble cavernous airplane hangars and underpasses before a lone owl swoops through them, fading in and out of sight in the fluorescent lighting. This enlightening meditation also wouldn’t be complete without the ambient sounds of alternately sleeping and waking urbanity, completing the perspective that’s offered in the film’s subtitle, “a symphony of the underground metropolis.” The Hidden City‘s experimental origins should resonate most strongly with audiences who were drawn to Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (WFF 2013). —Grant Phipps
Woman At War
The adventurous plot summary of Woman At War promises a film that exists somewhere between the grounded social critique of Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake, WFF 2017) and the epic moral fables of Bong Joon-ho (Okja, Snowpiercer). The focus here is on climate change and the main character, Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir), is a 50-year-old choir teacher engaged in secret, solo warfare against a toxic aluminum factory. Her covert operation includes disrupting power lines, evading search helicopters, spreading anonymous manifestos that remind her community that they are “the last generation that can stop the war against our Earth,” and other such badassery. The shots of Halla bounding across rugged Icelandic highlands rival any Jedi training montage in majesty and grandeur.
However, Halla’s vigilante strategy of building a future for herself and her planet is called into question when a long pending adoption application is approved, and she may be welcoming a Ukrainian orphan into her life. RogerEbert.com’s Tomris Laffy lauds Woman At War for its “a near perfect balance between delivering a character study, an urgent environmental and societal message and some good old-fashioned entertainment.” —Kailee Andrews
Knock Down The House
Low-budget and born of energy and insistence, Rachel Lears’ documentary Knock Down The House has a great deal in common with the underdog political candidates it profiles. This brisk, 86-minute documentary tracks the campaigns of four progressive women running for Congress in 2018. These candidates are united not only by politics or gender, but by their refusal to take money from corporate PACS, rejecting the premise that candidates must bow to business interests.
Although best known for tracing the ascendance of the now iconic New York Congresswoman and Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Knock Down The House is also the tale of three compelling candidates who lost in their first runs for office. Cori Bush, a Missouri nurse, got into politics after the shooting of Michael Brown and ensuing protests against police brutality. Amy Vilela, a Las Vegas mother, began advocating for affordable health care after her daughter died of a preventable condition. And Paula Jean Swearengin, a West Virginia activist, railed against the human and environmental abuses of the coal industry.
It might seem unfortunate for the doc’s narrative that only one of its profiled candidates made it to Congress. However, Lears’ subjects make the cogent case that losses play as much a role in the democratic process as victories. For every woman who makes it through to Congress, hundreds try. And all of them help build the infrastructure, energy, and sense of normalization that allows women to win and to govern. In one of the film’s most energizing moments, Cortez explains this persistence to her young niece. Cortez explains, “For every 10 rejections, you get one acceptance. And that’s how you win everything.” —Kailee Andrews
Christian Petzold’s last film, Phoenix, entranced audiences at the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival with its luminous, haunting journey through a ravaged 1940s Berlin and a Holocaust survivor’s fractured identity. In the new Transit, Petzold returns to that era more obliquely, adapting Anna Segher’s 1942 novel about World War II refugees but changing the setting to the present day. In the film’s grim alternative present, violent fascism has advanced across Europe, leading our main character, a German refugee, to adopt the identity of a deceased French author. As German troops assault Paris, he seeks passage out. But his desperate odyssey is complicated when the dead author’s wife shows up.
Filled with pulsing chase scenes, tense interpersonal interactions, and complete sensory immersion in the cornered refugee community, this painful thriller charts how socio-political turmoil forces the rapid reconstruction of human identities and bonds. The A.V. Club‘s A.A. Dowd writes: “Transit refracts its own influences—not just Hitchcock, but also Carol Reed, noir in general, and Casablanca—through a house of mirrors to get at the decentering truth of being nationally unmoored… the maddening uncertainty and loneliness of the refugee experience.” —Kailee Andrews
Satanism is apparently having a cultural moment—first, the blood-soaked revival of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and here with documentarian Penny Lane’s Sundance hit about The Satanic Temple and one congregation’s attempts to torment Florida legislators by protesting laws that aim to take the “separation” out of “separation of church and state.” While it’s weird for a film about Satanists to play the role of a cute, fun Wisconsin Film Fest doc, Hail Satan? raises real issues about the core of American identity — religious freedom means tolerance for all religions, even the absence thereof, and efforts to put Christian traditions into schools and civic institutions conflict with that history. As for the Satan worship itself, in this case it’s less about blood sacrifice and more about dedication to anarchy and freedom—a value that’s tricky to maintain within the structure of a maturing religious organization. —Mark Riechers
An extended interview with the last leader of the Soviet Union has more than just historical relevance at the moment—with Russia-related investigations dominating the headlines and a belligerent U.S. government dredging up the nuclear and territorial conflicts of the Cold War—but Werner Herzog’s latest documentary doesn’t concern itself at all with Vladimir Putin. Instead, Herzog’s focus in Meeting Gorbachev is to try to unpack what was happening on the Russian side as the USSR collapsed, and, with a friendly ear, feel out the emotional weight of having half of a nuclear arms race on your shoulders. Composed of three shorter interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev broken up by historical footage, the doc promises a retrospective on a titanic geopolitical figure, and a chance to step back from the present-day discourse on Russian influence. —Mark Riechers
One of the most critically dissected African films of the 1990s, Hyenas (1992) was the second and final feature by Senegalese cinema legend Djibril Diop Mambéty, who passed away in 1998. A restored 35mm print of his first feature, Touki bouki (Wolof for “Hyena’s Journey”), from 1973, screened at UW Cinematheque in 2015. Following that feature, Hyenas was conceived as the second installment of a trilogy on power and insanity, adapted from the Swiss-German playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s tragicomedy The Visit. Mambéty keeps the outlines of Dürrenmatt’s play intact, while transplanting the story from Europe to Africa.
Hyenas follows Linguère Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), a wealthy woman who returns from abroad to her birthplace on the fringe of the Sahara. Thirty years earlier, she had left the destitute, desert town of Colobane in disgrace after being seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by a local grocer, Dramaan (Mansour Diouf). Linguère offers to rescue the village from its financial despair in exchange for the life of her one-time lover. Deeply insulted, the townspeople at first side with Dramaan. But they gradually become seduced by her proposal as avarice corrodes their souls. As Mambety himself observed, the film shows how postcolonial relations in Africa are “betraying the hopes of independence for the false promises of Western materialism” and critiques the corrupting influence of an empty consumer culture. —Jason Fuhrman
With only one feature film under her belt, writer and director Nia DaCosta has been tapped to direct the upcoming reboot of Candyman (1992), which producer Jordan Peele calls “a landmark film for representation of black people in the horror genre.” Peele has cited the original Candyman as a major inspiration and expressed his excitement at having “a bold new talent like Nia at the helm of this project.” That’s a testament to what DaCosta accomplished with her dazzling directorial debut, Little Woods.
This modern Western stars Tessa Thompson and Lily James as Ollie and Deb, two estranged sisters entangled in a web of economic despair in their rural North Dakota fracking town. For years, Ollie had been obtaining medication through Canada’s healthcare system and smuggling it across the border for her terminally ill mother. Eventually, she was arrested for this well-intentioned crime. Now near the end of her probation, Ollie looks forward to starting a new life, until her destitute, pregnant sister shows up asking for help. In an attempt to save their mother’s house from foreclosure, Ollie finds herself pulled even deeper into a dangerous underworld she’d rather forget. DaCosta’s timely drama looks like a pulse-pounding thriller infused with trenchant social commentary, and signals the arrival of a promising new voice in American independent cinema. —Jason Fuhrman
In this candy-colored Kenyan romance, two close friends, Kena and Ziki, fall in love against the wishes of their rival politician parents. With anti-LGBTQ attitudes prevalent and legally enshrined, the young couple face an atmosphere of institutional, social, and physical threats. Director Wanuri Kahiu’s primary focus in Rafiki is to soak in the tentative eagerness and joy of Kena and Ziki’s relationship—their dances, trips to theme parks, and rooftop hangouts overlooking Nairobi. It’s a defiant approach: Kahiu has been critical of the cultural expectation that African films should be serious and severe.
After fielding repeated questions about why an African sci-fi film like her 2009 feature Pumzi was as worthwhile as a social-issue drama, Kahiu decided to establish AFROBUBBLEGUM, a young media company committed to “fierce, fun, and frivolous representations of Africa.” In an interview with Variety, she explains that “Africa is seen as such a serious continent. We need images of joy and frivolity as well. I feel like the whole dimension of the human spirit, or just everything humanity is, is not often reflected in Africans…. It’s time we created space for our Dr. Seusses and Andy Warhols.” Though Rafiki was initially banned in Kenya, this 82-minute coming-of-age love story has earned worldwide acclaim and is the is the perfect showcase of Kahiu’s radiant sensibility and style, and she is sure to remain a bold paradigm-shifter in international cinema. —Kailee Andrews