By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 17, 2021 at 10:01 AM

The Milwaukee Film Festival is back – already! Someone must've realized that we had a rough past year and decided to gift everyone two festivals in less than 365 days time, moving its fall film-stravaganza to May and opening up the summer movie season with a bang – at least for us here in Brew City.

But while the timing of the festival has changed, this aspect certainly hasn't: Milwaukee Film's got a ton of terrific movies to show you – ranging from shorts to scares to rock docs to dog docs to maybe even a mermaid, all at your fingertips thanks to the festival app and all showing whenever you want with no racing from theater to theater to catch as much as possible while defying speed limits as well as the concepts of time and space. (Though I admit, I can't wait for that rush once more too.)

With more than 200 selections, it's a thrilling amount of movies to parse through, binge like mad and make the time between now and May 20 disappear ... and also maybe an intimidating amount of movies too, trying to find the gems among gems both hidden and obvious in the bunch. 

So to help make the most of your MFF, here are a dozen selections that sit at the top of my personal Milwaukee Film Festival queue. They feature famous faces and unforgettable unknowns, pigs and puppers, dives into the past and explorations of our future ... and (why not?) a slasher running around a movie theater too. 

1. "Summer of Soul"

Critics and audiences made quite the noise when they got their eyes on Questlove's feature film debut, "Summer of Soul," at this past winter's Sundance Film Festival. Capturing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the rock doc won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize with its vibrant and jubilant celebration of music and Black culture.

Now, thanks to the Milwaukee Film Festival, this iconic earful of an event is coming to a screen near you, serving as the fest's closing night film and reminding audiences why they love live music and the movies. I can't wait; well, I'll have to because it's only available during the festival on May 20. (If you miss it, yes, it's coming to Hulu and potentially theaters this July – but just like a real festival concert, you'll want to get to this show early and claim your seats and fandom before everyone else.)

2. "Gunda"

Unless we're talking about "Babe" or barbecue, the words "beautiful" and "pig" don't often end up in the same sentence. But that's not the case with "Gunda," a sumptuous-looking black-and-white nature documentary telling the story of a pig's life on the farm – all without a single word. (There is a one-legged chicken, though.)

It's a gorgeously photographed, compelling and true animal's eye view of their world (none other than Paul Thomas Anderson, a guy who knows something about great movies, called "Gunda" "more like a potion than a movie") that might just make you regret that side of bacon you had with breakfast. 

3. "Cowboys"

Steve Zahn has made an impressive, if unheralded, career out of stealing scenes as side characters; now he gets a whole movie to steal with "Cowboys," an indie drama about a troubled dad who goes on the lam and treks through the Montana wilderness to get his trans son into Canada – with his disapproving ex-wife and police in hot pursuit.

Zahn gets a meaty role outside of his usual supporting goofs to sink his teeth into, the rest of the cast is filled out with great performers (from Jillian Bell taking a dramatic turn as Zahn's ex-wife to Ann Dowd as the lead officer on the case), the Western scenery looks gorgeous and its story about helping others live as their truest selves seems destined to hit audiences in the heart place. Prepare tissues – and maybe prepare to take some vacation time to venture through Montana for yourself. 

4. "Misha and the Wolves"

A documentary that sounds more like a journalistic thriller, "Misha and the Wolves" follows a woman whose life story – involving escaping the Holocaust by living in the woods with wolves – comes under scrutiny when her publisher starts to pick away at this harrowing and inspirational true tale that may actually be a tall tale. What is the truth to Misha's incredible story? And what does the truth actually mean?

This Sudance Film Festival breakout looks to ask increasingly fascinating questions to go along with its unbelievable answers – making this a perfect selection for any fans of the current streaming doc series boom. 

5. "Quo Vadis, Aida?"

Miss this war-torn dramatic thriller from Bosnia and Herzegovina when you were catching up with the recent Oscar nominees? Now's your chance – and even though it didn't win the Best International Film award (hey, the best movies never do anyways), it's still a winning potboiler of a movie, telling the harrowing and intense story of a United Nations translator who becomes trapped, along with many of her town's citizens, in the UN base when a Serbian army takes over the village. She's stuck trying to hold off the army and any violence while also trying to get her family out of potential harm's way – a task growing more tense and tricky by the second.

It may have been a runner-up in its category at the Oscars, but "Quo Vadis, Aida?" – which gained a lot of momentum and support near the end of awards season, turning into an intriguing underdog pick – is a first-rate pick at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

6. "Undine"

With incredible movies like "Barbara," "Phoenix" and "Transit" already under his belt, German director Christian Petzold has already proven himself to be one of the most interesting and compelling filmmakers working right now. I'd follow him just about anywhere – and apparently "anywhere" means into some fantastical territory with his latest, "Undine," reteaming his "Transit" stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski as two lovers who are tested when the latter starts to wonder if his new beguiling partner is secretly a vengeful mermaid of myth. As one does. 

It's a strange-sounding story, but Petzold's shown his ability to capably and quietly blend genre before – melodrama, Hitchcockian thriller, romance and realism – and I'm eager to see how he plays with fantasy in his latest. 

7. "The Pink Cloud"

Brace yourself: There's going to be a lot of indie movies about this past year of quarantining and caution. And a lot of them are probably going to be bad, especially considering none of us are going to want to hear the phrase "2020" ever again after we return to normal. "The Pink Cloud," however, is the rare exception that actually sounds pretty interesting. That's partially because it was incredibly filmed prior to the pandemic (talk about timing) so it doesn't feel like it's purposefully exploiting the past year's traumas – but also the premise, following a woman whose one-night-stand turns into something much longer after a poisonous pink fog engulfs the globe, sounds like a fascinating blend of dystopian horror and comedy that could make "The Pink Cloud" far more than just an of-the-moment curio. 

8. "The Inheritance"

Part seemingly documentary, part autobiography, part Godard-influenced cinematic political discussion and all unflappably fascinating, "The Inheritance" tells the story of a man who turns his inherited house into a Black socialist collective planning, debating, celebrating, learning and fighting for their art, their liberation and their lives. Written and directed by Ephraim Asili based loosely on his personal experiences in a similar community, "The Inheritance" moves at its own bright unique rhythm that defies neat politics or genre conventions – and if you can tap into that rhythm, you may just find the most vibrant, energetic and thought-provoking discussion on Black political life in America in the past, present and future. 

9. "The Last Matinee"

You may be able to watch almost all of the movies at the Milwaukee Film Festival whenever you want, but it wouldn't be a proper film festival without some late night midnight movies to shock and surprise you. Enter the Cinema Hooligante selection "The Last Matinee," a slick and cinephile-approved Uruguayan slasher flick that'll hit close to home for movie fans thanks to its perfect star and setting: a projectionist at a movie theater, battling a murderer gruesomely rolling the end credits on their customers. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movies. Drenched in Giallo references and blood, this stylish and terrifying tribute should remind film lovers why they love the movies (while hopefully not scaring them away from going to the movies ever again). Maybe it's a good thing this one's showing during a virtual festival safe and cozy on your own couch.

10. "Night of the Kings"

One of last year's buzzier festival circuit movies, a nominee for Best International Film from both the Independent Spirit Awards and the National Board of Review as well as the recipient of many critical raves, the hypnotic "Night of the Kings" drops the audience into a prison run by the inmates, where a new arrival has been annointed to the key role of storyteller to the entire camp – for better and for deadly worse. What seems like a confined tale, however, grows into a hypnotic epic as its lead's stories take flight in the minds of his fellow inmates and on screen. "Night of the Kings" is ambitious interwoven tale of tales that looks like a royal cinematic must-see. 

11. "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It"

Excellent EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) Rita Moreno is a legendary beam of light and loveliness on screen or stage, a Hollywood icon who helped guide the way for many Latina performers after her – so it's wild that it's taken this long for the "West Side Story" star to get the proper doc treatment.

Yet another Sundance-approved entry, "Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It" chronicles Moreno's rise to stardom, from the great to the grim, the moments we all saw as well as the moments behind the scenes and before her rise – complete with sit-down interviews from the living legend herself. And if it can capture and convey just a percentage of her megawatt personality and power, "Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It" will be a delight. 

12. "Stray"

Like you need me to explain why this documentary is on this list. It's got adorable dogs and puppers, just being dogs and puppers – what's not to recommend? Similar to past festival picks like "Kedi" and "We Don't Deserve Dogs," this dog-umentary takes an animal's eye view of the world – the eyes of a playful stray pup named Zeytin in particular, roaming around his home of Istanbul, interacting with his fellow road-roaming pups and cats, and taking in the world of humans around him (and hopefully stealing a few rubs in the process too).

Beyond simply looking "awwww"-some, I'm fascinated by the unique perspective "Stray" offers, seeing our human world and behavior through dogs' eyes – and since it's a virtual festival again this year, with everything available right at home, it should make the perfect pick to watch with my favorite four-legged cinephile too. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.