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On the Undistributed Near-Masterpieces of the Milwaukee Film Festival

On the Undistributed Near-Masterpieces of the Milwaukee Film Festival

Milwaukee may be the mecca of meat and beer, but the place virtually erupts in film every year with the locally beloved Milwaukee Film Festival, which gets Cheeseheads so excited it can’t even close after its closing weekend (it continues through Wednesday). What marked the festival this year was a menu of movies that were not only near-masterpieces but also undistributed — and what the hell does that mean?

There are, we are sure, disadvantages to living in the home state of the former next president of the United States, but access to some first-rate movies — ones that audiences elsewhere may not even see — is not one of them. The competition lineup put together by Jonathan Jackson and his team included the hallucinogenic “Embrace of the Serpent,” a black-and-white fever dream set in the jungles of the Amazon (which Oscilloscope will be releasing) and “Cartel Land,” which has already had some theatrical exposure.

Among the revelations were “Imperial Dreams,” Malik Vitthal’s genuine (and genuinely moving) drama set in Watts, and which is not just a solid drama with a startling lead performance by John Boyega, but also an urgent examination of the Kafkaesque nightmares faced by ex-offenders trying to go straight.

READ MORE: Oscilloscope Now Has Two Foreign Oscar Entries

If Vitthal’s people are waiting for “Star Wars,” in which Boyega has a prominent role, they’re selling the film short.

Similarly, “No One’s Child,” Vuk Rsumovic’s archetypal drama, which won the jury prize Sunday, is a Serbian film with a near-mythic premise — in 1988, a feral boy is found in the forests of Bosnia, having been raised by wolves. How he adapts, suffers and is treated by his contemporaries — children are cruel — might have been the stuff of insufferable melodrama, but in the hands of the debuting Rsumovic is not just totally plausible but dazzling.

Elsewhere, the festival featured “Violet,” an impressionistic Belgian drama about an act of teenage violence and survivor guilt, which seems to have no U.S. outlet; the fabulous “Russian Woodpecker,” which won at Sundance and will be getting a release (whether that release extends to Milwaukee we don’t know). “Uncertain” is one of the more interesting and beautifully shot documentaries of the year, a drifting journey into the backend of Texas and a bayou-gothic dream. And “Krisha,” which features a terrific performance by the veteran Krisha Fairchild as an alcoholic tumbling off the wagon during a family Thanksgiving. (A24 will release.)

If that sounds a bit down, the antidote was offered last Saturday with the festival’s traditional screening of Jonathan Demme’s 1984 masterpiece “Stop Making Sense,” which had the patrons of Milwaukee’s rococo Oriental Theater literally dancing in the aisles. Qu’est que ce? Overall, an eruption of film love, and some curious orphans.

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