23 movies you should check out at the all-online 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival, and how you can watch them

October 7, 2020

“The Reunited States”: In an age when everything is pulling apart, this documentary profiles four people working to bridge the national divide, including Milwaukee’s Steven Olikara, founder of the Millennial Action Project.

Films are what attract people to film festivals. But they’re not the only thing that brings them in.

“People talk about one of the things they love about the festival is waiting in line,” said Jonathan Jackson, CEO of Milwaukee Film, which operates the Milwaukee Film Festival.

That waiting in line — sharing favorite movies, bonding over film experiences and just connecting with other movie lovers — is part of what gives film festivals their energy and identity.

But there’ll be no waiting in lines at the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival, which runs Oct. 15-29. This year’s festival, like many cultural events in the coronavirus age, is all-online, with 197 movies (including short films) streaming to TVs, computers and other digital devices at home.

Still, organizers say they worked to ensure that the connectedness that makes the film festival popular — the 2019 festival reported record attendance of 87,618 — was part of this year’s edition.

“As we kept planning, we were able to retain a lot of (what’s) traditional and essential for us,” said Cara Ogburn, artistic director of Milwaukee Film.

Keeping some essentials  

Some of the essentials will be there, modified for 2020 conditions. There’s still an opening-night film, but it’s not the only movie that’ll be available the first day of the festival.

Because Milwaukee Film made the decision to go online-only early in the planning process, another tradition — bringing filmmakers together with filmgoers — worked out better than it might have, Ogburn said.

“As the pandemic persisted, it became easier to show (filmmakers) the value of the virtual festival,” she said. “Filmmakers now ‘get’ it, and are eager to come to Milwaukee virtually.”

In an online format, when people are watching movies at different times, talkbacks after “screenings” didn’t make sense. So festival organizers are lining up filmmakers to take part in “The Nightcap,” a talk-show-like program that will stream at 8 p.m. each night of the festival on Milwaukee Film’s  YouTube,  Facebook  and  Twitter pages.

Fostering connections and conversations through movies has been Milwaukee Film’s guiding principle from the first. Doing it without people making those connections in person is the 2020 festival’s challenge, Jackson said. 

“We’re aspiring to create that kind of connection,” he said. “How to force that … connection is the question, and we are learning that on the fly.”

Advantages of going virtual

An all-virtual Milwaukee Film Festival does have some strengths the traditional, in-person festival doesn’t have. 

  • Flexibility: Many of the movies can be viewed anytime from Oct. 15, starting at 4 p.m., through Oct. 29. And, unlike in a theater, you can pause or rewind. (Note: A handful of movies in the festival have geo-blocking, limiting tickets to people in Wisconsin.)
  • Easier access: The whole reason for making the festival virtual is it’s not safe for large groups to be together. But for people with mobility issues, health problems or other responsibilities, access is just an internet connection away.
  • Cheaper: Tickets for individual movies are just $8, $5 for Milwaukee Film members, and go on sale Oct. 15, the first day of the festival. (That’s $5 less than in-person tickets were last year.) An all-access pass to the festival is $140 until Oct. 15, when it goes up to $160. For members, a pass is $75. (Note: Even though the festival is all-online this year, screenings can sell out, since some distributors limit the number of ticket buyers.) For details and tickets, go to mkefilm.org/ticket#mff. 

How to watch films at the festival

There are two ways to watch Milwaukee Film Festival movies: via Milwaukee Film’s site, at watch.mkefilm.org, and through apps available on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Android TV.

The film festival has an easy-to-follow guide at mkefilm.org/howtofestincluding a pretty useful quiz that steers you to which approach might work best for you.

Once you buy a ticket or festival pass, you type in the number and it takes you to the movie you purchased. Once you purchase a ticket, you have 48 hours to watch the movie.

Movies you should check out  

Here are 23 movies worth seeking out at the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival. There are many more worth exploring; explore the online guide, downloadable in PDF form at mkefilm.org. Viewing limits (dates or geographical) are included if applicable. 

“I Used to Go Here”: The festival’s “opening night” comedy stars Gillian Jacobs (“Community”) as a writer who, after her first novel is published, is invited back to her alma mater and tries to sort out her life. Jacobs is among those scheduled to take part in a Q&A; check the festival website for updates.  

“Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story”: This documentary is an overdue look at the life and musicianship of the former “Tonight Show” bandleader and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra pops-meister, putting his ceaseless energy and gaudy sport coats on full display.  

“Coming Clean”: Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner (“We Live in Public,” “Dig!”) exposes the opioid crisis from the inside by focusing on people in recovery and policymakers trying to stop the industries fueling the crisis in the first place. It’s been designated the festival’s centerpiece film. 

“Growing Up Milwaukee”: Three young Black people coming of age while trying to avoid becoming a statistic is the focus of this feature documentary debut by Tyshun Wardlaw. 

“Ema”: The relationship between a dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her partner/choreographer (Gael Garcia Bernal) unravels after a personal tragedy in this emotional drama by Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“Jackie,” “No”). 

“Coded Bias”: After discovering facial-recognition technology has trouble interpreting dark-skinned and female faces, an MIT student forms a “justice league” of programmers dedicated to exposing the biases of computer technology in this eye-opening documentary. 

“Small Town Wisconsin”: Veteran Milwaukee filmmaker Niels Mueller (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”) gets personal with this new road movie about a deadbeat dad who, on the verge of losing custody of his son, takes the boy for one last trip — to Milwaukee. 

“The Donut King”: This film-festival-award-winning documentary by Alice Gu celebrates Ted Ngoy, a 77-year-old Cambodian refugee turned entrepreneur, and the doughnuts he rules over.  

“Black Bear”: Aubrey Plaza stars in this reality-twisting drama about a filmmaker who gets caught up in another couple’s dramas while at a rural retreat. 

“Finding Yingying”: Botany student Yingying Zhang comes to the University of Illinois from China; when she disappears just three months later, her family journeys to the U.S. to find out what happened. This documentary, by her classmate Jiayan “Jenny” Shi,” won the award for best feature documentary at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. 

“Ringolevio”: Milwaukee filmmaker and poet Kristin Peterson’s feature-film debut, made with an all-Wisconsin crew, tells the story of a woman who travels up north with her girlfriend to visit her family and feels increasingly uneasy with the family’s outsider-unfriendly dynamic. 

“Us Kids”: Kim A. Snyder’s documentary follows the March for Our Lives movement and the young people giving it life, including the high school kids who survived the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and Milwaukee’s Bria Smith.

“Made in Bangladesh”: After a co-worker dies in a factory fire, two textile workers lead an effort to form a union, taking on corporate powers and the patriarchy in this drama, which has won awards from festivals from the U.S. to Norway. 

“Son of the White Mare”: Psychedelic animated classic from Cold War Hungary? Who wouldn’t want to check out this 1981 folk tale with princesses and dragons and more, streaming in a 4K restoration?  

“Down a Dark Stairwell”: An unarmed Black man’s death at the hands of a Chinese-American New York City police officer, and the protests that roiled both communities afterward, are the focus of this documentary. (Available to Wisconsin viewers only through Oct. 18.)  

“Farewell Amor”: An Angolan immigrant in the U.S. is reunited with his wife and teenage daughter after 17 years apart; can dance help them reconnect? (Available to Wisconsin viewers only.) 

“America’s Socialist Experiment”: Prolific local documentarian Steve Boettcher chronicles Milwaukee’s half-century of Socialist mayors, in a new film narrated by Mike Gousha. 

“The Reunited States”: In an age when everything is pulling apart, this documentary profiles four people working to bridge the national divide, including Milwaukee’s Steven Olikara, founder of the Millennial Action Project. 

“The Twentieth Century”: This dizzying biopic pulls out all the surreal stops to tell the story, sort of, of W.L. Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister. No, really.    

“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life”: Award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns offers a portrait of the legendary scientist and storyteller. (Available to Wisconsin viewers only.) 

“Shorts: The Best Damn (Expletive) Midnight Program Ever. (Expletive)”: This program of out-there short films is always a hot ticket at the in-person fest, but now you don’t have to stay up till midnight to watch it (though you can if you want to). 

“The Milwaukee Show” and “The Milwaukee Show II”: These made-in-Milwaukee shorts programs also are hot tickets and usually sell out, not least because they’re a glimpse into the city’s filmmaking future. 

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Rep. Sara Jacobs


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