Last year at this time, I wrote up my favorites from the 2008Wisconsin Film Festival for Dane101. (Sorry, I think all the apostrophes translated towingdings and assorted gobbledeegook in the article when the siterecently switched to a new blogging program.) It's been a week nowsince the festival ended -- ancient history, maybe -- but I'd liketo start a tradition and write up my top picks for this year,anyway.

Most films I saw at the festival, and a few I saw on screenersbeforehand. The only one I'm not including is Stroszek,since I saw that years ago and can't remember many details except adancing chicken and the female lead prostituting herself. That andloving the movie, of course.

Here goes:

13. Winter of Frozen Dreams -- I readKarl Harter's book, on which this film is based, back in collegefor a New Journalism course. I was completely taken with the story:the intricate and juicy Madison history, the psychologicalquestions it raises about Barbara Hoffman's motivations for murder,and Harter's deftness at recreating the icy mystery of Wisconsinwinters. It's one hell of a sexy thriller. Too bad I can't say thesame of the film version, which premiered at the festival. While Ido agree wholeheartedly with John Wiedenhoeft's assessment ofMadison's sadsack reputation on film, he panned"Winter of Frozen Dreams" on the Decider more harshly than I wouldhave. I believe "steaming dung heap" are his exact words. The filmis not actively bad enough, in my opinion, to warrant such vitriol.If I saw it on Friday night network television, I'd like it okay.But as a film? No way. It's spiritless, cranked-out schlock. Here'smy full review.And Adam Schabow's review of it over on Dane101.

12. Youssou N'dour: I Bring What ILove -- This documentary follows Senegalese popsinger Youssou N'dour as he organizes a cross-cultural world tourwith Egyption musicians. The concert footage is good, his singingis pheonomenal, and he speaks eloquently about growing up underoppression (and continuing to deal with it). The film lacks anarrative to tie it all together and often feels disconnected, butis still worth checking out for the music alone.

11. Of Time & the City-- I had a cocktail with dinner before seeing this.While that wouldn't matter for most films, I was feeling a bit toofoggy-headed for director Terence Davies' dense, philosophicalmemoir on his youth in Liverpool, England. Perhaps part of theproblem was that I came into it expecting lighthearted "And this iswhere I had my first kiss..." narration. It was nothing like that.Davies' voice is weighty, his accent thickly Liverpudlian and hisprose beautiful. The film is actually less about Liverpool's pastand more about Davies' meditation on mortality. Not post-cocktailfair. I'll hold judgment until I see it again after a shot ofespresso.

10. Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake-- It's impressive that this documentary was shot and edited by acrew of high school kids. The black-and-white concert footage isimpressionistic and creative and the interviews well done. Still,the movie as a whole isn't gripping. The kids bring a refreshingnaivete and enthusiasm to the project, but they don't seem tounearth anything noteworthy or new.

9. The Rock-afire Explosion --Director Brett Whitcomb slides by on the tried-and-true"Ain't-they-quirky!" formula for about the first half of thisdocumentary. His subject is rife with quirk: the lovable screwballsthat love animatronic musical bands. The film doesn't plod alongthis tired path too long. About 30 minutes in, magic happens. AsWhitcomb digs deeper in the characters' motivations, fears andfamily lives, we get to the passionate core of the movie. Ofcourse, it's not about animatronic musical bands. It's aboutnostalgia, broken dreams, delusion, obsession and all that goodstuff. It's hard to imagine this much devotion to a digitalcreation. Animatronic inventor Aaron Fecter revels in the analogearthiness of his invention. In a telling scene, he explains whythe art form is so exciting to him: "Animatronics is likeeverything put together in the universe because you're creating alife form."

8. Earth Days -- Well, no senserehashing what I've already formally reviewed. Istand by that review. Also, Emily Mills wrote a good reviewabout it for Dane101.

7. Tracks -- Speaking ofEmily Mills, she summedup my feelings about "Tracks" succinctly in her review onDane101.

6. Illegal Use of Joe Zopp-- I already reviewed thisat length. While I stand by everything I wrote, I've got somereviewer's remorse now because I didn't emphasize how much fun andhow technically good this film is. "Joe Zopp" does indeed sufferfrom length and scripting problems, no doubt. A big group offriends put it together, and I think they got carried away on awave of self-indulgence. They would have benefited from an outsidercoming in and telling them a few harsh truths -- stuff like: notevery joke needs to be run mercilessly into the ground, and no onebut your group of friends will appreciate how long it drags on.BUT, that said, this is a gem of an independent narrative film.It's quirky, novel, and full of heart and Sconnie charm.

5. Beauty of the Fight -- I chose tosee this because I'm a newbie fan of boxing, ultimate fighting andmixed martial arts. While boxing (and, disgustingly, cock fighting)are part of this documentary about Panama, its scope is farbroader. Photographer and self-proclaimed "Midwestern American boy"John Urbano shot it over a few years, documenting a poorneighborhood in Barraza and El Chorrillo. The people he interviewsare essentially victims of the U.S. military invasion of 1989 andof Panama's corrupt government, and while he wisely doesn't make aspecific political statement in the film, he paints a moving andvery important picture of war's ugly aftermath. The poverty, thestruggle, the injustice, the gangs, the loss of culturaltraditions. In the Q & A afterward the screening, he saidplainly that about 40 percent of the people in the film are nowdead. Chilling. Ultimately, he added, the film is not about Panamabut about what happens when cultures die off and leave sterility intheir wake.

4. Win or Lose -- A great little filmabout competition at a Wisconsin summer camp for boys. I alreadyblogged about it here.

3. It Takes a Cult -- I watched thisdocumentary as a screener and interviewed filmmaker Eric Johannsenfor a preview here. Whatmakes this examination of the Love Family, a religious community inWashington State, so unique is its intensely personal, humaneapproach. Instead of taking the expected, lurid angle -- thosecrazy cults! -- Johannsen interviewed his family and friends, allmembers or ex-members of the Love Family. He's captured the pathos,humor and the bond of the Family/family. Considering especiallythat this is his first film, it's exceptional.

2. Anvil! The Story of Anvil -- Whatcan I say that hasn't already been said about this fabulousdocumentary about Canadian heavy metal rockers Anvil? Besides allthe glowing local reviews, the Austin Chronicle wrote this about the "Anvil!" screening at South by Southwest, andthe New YorkTimes mused that it "might make you think in new ways about acruel cultural logic that increasingly obliterates the middleground between success and failure."

1. Beetle -- I fell in love with thissweet Israeli film, first shown on Israeli public television.Filmmaker Yishai Orian has documented his struggle to keep his40-year-old VW Beetle, despite objections from his pregnant andhormonally cranky wife. Also presenting a challenge is the factthat the car is practically on its last wheel and can barely makeit up and down the hills of Tel Aviv. Orian sought out the car'sprevious owners and interviewed them, uncovering the car's richpast. Then, he embarks on a foolhardy mission to take the vehicleto Jordan for a complete makeover. He ends up stranded in thedesert, begging squirts of milk off passing goat herders.Ultimately -- well, I really can't tell you what happens next. Butthe film is truly a moving story about family, fatherhood and whatit means to be an adult. Plus, it's hilarious.

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