26 Films From Best to Worst
Update of my ranking of all films seen. Audiences, I confess, didn't necessarily agree.
Only one day to go at the Milwaukee Film Festival, but the films will live on much longer. While it will be tough to catch showings of more than a few select films at the festival at this point, many of the films will soon be appearing on Netflix or even at local theaters. And many are worth seeing.
The 26 films I’ve seen offer a wide range of subjects and styles. Without further ado, here are my rankings, from best to worst:
- Unbranded (documentary) – Incredible. The documentary follows a group of recent college graduates as they ride wild horses from the Arizona/Mexico border to the Canada/Montana border. An eye-opening look at public land, wild horses, and all of the politics involved (who knew about horse contraception?). If that’s not your thing, the core of film is actually a visually-pleasing road trip story filled with hailstorms, donkeys and a funny cast of characters. Will pair well with The Great Alone.
- The Great Alone (documentary) – I joked in my preview that I have no idea what would make someone want to race sled dogs over 1,000 miles through freezing temperatures. I still don’t know, but documentary subject Lance Mackey sure makes it look easy and the film is a winner. The documentary includes stunning visual images, moves at a steady pace and does a good job exploring the topic. Added bonus: Mackey and his dog Ampe were in attendance for the showing on Saturday night.
- Just Eat It (documentary) – We waste a lot of food, but not in the ways many would think. This films follows a Vancouver couple that decides to eat only discarded food for six months. Spoiler alert (pun-intended): they find so much good, quality food that they have too much to eat by the end of the film.
- 30 Seconds Away (documentary) – The highest ranking Milwaukee-made film on my list. 30 Seconds Away tracks a few homeless individuals over the course of many years in Milwaukee. It’s an emotionally-charged look at a too-often-forgotten element of our society.
- I Can Quit Whenever I Want (comedy) – This Italian comedy is clearly inspired by Breaking Bad, but it’s sufficiently different to not make you compare the two at every twist and turn. The film would definitely lose a step if it were played by English actors. The ending is bizarre, but it’s an enjoyable ride none the less.
- Call Me Lucky (documentary) – Barry Crimmins is quite the comedian, and it’s his intensity that he’s known for. An intensity that makes Lewis Black appear laid back. The film follows the life of Crimmins, starting with his rise in comedy, and then pivoting to explore where that intensity comes from — an incredibly painful childhood rape incident. Three cheers for Crimmins who not only has the courage to speak openly about this, but has been a leading advocate for more than 20 years of stopping child pornography (chronicled with vintage US Senate footage in the film).
- The Russian Woodpecker (documentary) – Count me now in the camp of Chernobyl conspiracy theorists. This film examines the link between the famed nuclear meltdown and a radio broadcasting tower. Very intriguing. I also greatly enjoyed that the film’s subject, Fedor Alexandrovich, is not only still alive, but was in attendance for the two screenings this weekend.
- A Girl Like Grace (drama) – Wow, this film is surprisingly dark. Film star Ryan Destiny delivers a strong performance, as does Meagan Good. The plot — a coming-of-age story about a Haitian-American teen — is a little underdeveloped at points, but still provides for a number of gut wrenching scenes.
- Youth (drama) – It’s not for everyone, which does make me wonder why it was the opening night pick. I enjoyed it though, so I suppose that’s all that counts. The film is very similar to director Paolo Sorrentino‘s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. In the end I think I liked The Great Beauty more, but this film – with Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel playing characters dealing with old age — was still enjoyable for it’s stunning cinematography, musical score and seemingly random plot.
- Welcome to Leith (documentary) – Leith, North Dakota. A town of 24 residents, and almost overthrown by a racist revolution. The documentary tracks the changes planned for the town after Craig Cobb moves in, starts buying up land and plots to make Leith a white supremacist stronghold.
- Dreamcatcher (documentary) – Dreamcatcher follows the work of former prostitute Brenda Myers-Powell in Chicago as she works to intervene in the life of troubled teens and young adults. It’s at times depressing and at others inspirational as Myers-Powell seems to have an endless energy to help others build confidence in themselves.
- Cartel Land (documentary) – This documentary nails the ending, bringing everything full circle in a clever way. It’s steady throughout as it follows an Arizona border patrol citizens’ militia responding to a drug war, with perspectives from both sides of the border.
- 7 Chinese Brothers (comedy) – Jason Schwartzman delivers a great performance, but the pieces don’t come together around him. It’s funny at times, but mostly you’re left waiting for this slacker comedy to go somewhere which it never does. The short that runs before it, Seth, is deranged and quite funny. Seth director Zach Lasry was in attendance at my showing, as well as a sizable contingent of his family and friends including father and Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry as well as Bucks coach Jason Kidd and general manager John Hammond.
- He Named Me Malala (documentary) – Clearly, many viewers liked this documentary far more than I did, but I couldn’t help feel something was missing. The film is a carefully constructed positive look at Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for daring to suggest women should be educated. It’s tightly-organized film that moves at a steady clip (87 minutes), but it left me feeling like information was either being withheld or the film was just too short.
- Most Likely to Succeed (documentary) – The film feels like two documentaries in one. The first one is your standard interview of experts, including Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings. The second follows a San Diego charter high school (High Tech High) and how their teaching methods vary from traditional methods. The film definitely would have been benefited from following more than one school.
- Sex(ed): The Movie (documentary) – America is a country of prudes, and this movie is exhibit A. The documentary tracks the history of sex education from World War II to the present. The packed showing I attended certainly drew many laughs as out-of-touch clips from old films are interspersed in the film, but the film as a whole lacked any real punch.
- Eden (drama) – The film tracks the rise and fall of key members of the French techno music scene. I could have used more of the story of Daft Punk. The iconic duo makes only a few short appearances in the film.
- The Milwaukee Show II – I think it’s time for me to break up with the Milwaukee Show. The collection of films always offers a few great films but too many duds, and 20-plus movies into the festival I was a bit too impatient to see back-to-back losers. Congratulations to Erik Ljung who directed a documentary on the family of Dontre Hamilton. Ljung won a $25,000 cash prize and $10,000 in production services for his film under the Brico Forward Fund. The grant will help Ljung expand the piece into a feature-length film.
- Havana Motor Club (documentary) – Havana Motor Club tracks a group of under-the-radar racers in Cuba. With the embargo in place and restrictive rules by the Castro family, the group has extremely limited access to automobile parts, which leads to a lot of creative solutions for problems the average Wisconsinite would simply head to an auto repair shop to get resolved.
- Breaking the Monster (documentary) – The music industry regularly exploits artists, especially teen groups. This documentary captures that in a way that’s a bit too long and repetitive. Focusing on and tracking the rise of the Brooklyn-based, teenage metal group Breaking the Monster, the documentary might benefit from an update in a year or two depending on how the group fares.
- British Arrows Awards (shorts, comedy) – Television commercials for products not even for sale in the United States. A weird, but strangely enjoyable concept. A fun respite from many of the serious dramas and documentaries. The audience in the theater seemed to enjoy it.
- King Georges (documentary) – The film tracks the end of famous chef Georges Perrier‘s restaurant Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia. Make sure you’re watching this on a full stomach or you’re going to get awful hungry.
- In A Perfect World (documentary) – A powerful documentary about growing up with a single mother, which includes filmmaker Daphne McWilliams turning the camera on herself. I would have ranked the film higher, but it gets repetitive.
- Wisconsin’s Own (documentary) – A showing made up of two films that total 85 minutes. The first film, Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club, is well done, features a number of clubs and includes surprise narration from my high school English teacher Tom Eastman (who has likely printed this and corrected any errors in red ink). The second film, Tale of the Spotted Cow, is more like an extended commercial for New Glarus Brewing and owner Deborah Carey. I walked out of it after about five minutes.
- Court (drama) – The Indian judicial system appears to be a corrupt joke. This film took the longest and slowest way possible to illustrate that. The rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it more than me. It’s well made, but really slow.
- Last Night (drama) – It’s your last night in Washington D.C. before moving to North Carolina to be with your boyfriend. What do you do?: spend the whole day with a enigmatic stranger. The premise of the film seemed intriguing, but the execution is weak and unconvincing.