Wisconsin was all over the movies, big screen and small, in 2020 — even when it wasn’t really Wisconsin.
Jon Stewart came to Wisconsin to research his purple-state comedy “Irresistible,” about out-of-town political operatives turning a fictitious Wisconsin town’s mayoral race into an all-out war. But the movie, which debuted this summer, was shot entirely in … Georgia.
“Irresistible,” starring Steve Carell and Rose Byrne, played in only a handful of theaters when it debuted this summer, smack in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that left a lot of screens dark. But, in what was a sign of things to come, it also was available on demand — a release strategy that we’ll see more of going into 2021.
In fact, the “biggest” movie opening of the pandemic was a movie available both in theaters and on streaming: “Wonder Woman 1984,” which pulled in an estimated $16.7 million Christmas weekend while simultaneously debuting on HBO Max.
It has a Wisconsin connection, too: Green Bay native Zack Snyder, the guy behind the new-era DC movie universe, was an executive producer on the new “Wonder Woman” chapter.
Here are some of the other Wisconsin ties in movies in 2020. (With so much of this year’s movie output winding up only available on streaming services or on demand, films that actually made it to Milwaukee-area theaters in 2020 are marked with an asterisk.)
Netflix’s rush into the movie business continued in 2020, including some movies with a Wisconsin accent.
*”Mank”: David Fincher’s stylish old Hollywood homage about Herman Mankiewicz, the hard-drinking screenwriter who co-wrote “Citizen Kane,” features Tom Burke as Mank’s partner/nemesis, Kenosha native Orson Welles.
“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado”: Milwaukee native Cristina Costantini (“Science Fair”) made this delightful portrait of Mercado, the beloved, bigger-than-life TV astrologer who is an icon in his native Puerto Rico and Latin America.
“The Trial of the Chicago Seven:”: In Aaron Sorkin’s smart, surprisingly nuanced depiction of the trial of the activists who led the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Mark Rylance, the Oscar winner who went to the University School of Milwaukee, plays the defendants’ savvy attorney, William Kunstler.
Documentaries with a Wisconsin accent
Two issues that weighed heavily on 2020 — racial injustice and the sanctity of American elections — provided a lot of material for documentary filmmakers, some of whom found support for their narratives in deeply divided Wisconsin.
*”All In: The Fight to Save Democracy”: Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortes’ look at the impact of voter suppression on U.S. elections, which came out in September, focuses on Stacey Abrams’ run for governor in Georgia in 2018, but it also includes footage of Wisconsin’s problematic presidential primary in April; recounts future Supreme Court Justice (and Shorewood native) William Rehnquist’s role in trying to limit Black and Latino voting in Arizona in the 1960s; and shows the impact of Wisconsin’s Voter ID law on limiting voting in the state.
“America’s Socialist Tradition”: Milwaukee documentary veteran Steve Boettcher takes a look at Milwaukee’s Socialist roots in this documentary, narrated by Mike Gousha.
“Can You Hear Us Now?”: Tony- and Emmy-winning actor Tony Shalhoub was executive producer of this documentary, which takes on gerrymandering of legislative districts in Wisconsin.
“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.
“John Lewis: Good Trouble”: One of those who pay tribute to the civil rights icon and longtime U.S. congressman in this engaging documentary is someone who’s almost Lewis’ political opposite: Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner.
“Nationtime”: This time-capsule documentary on on the 1972 National Black Political Convention includes an interview with Owusu Sadaukai, the civil rights activist who grew up in Milwaukee and later returned both to the city and the name he was born with: Howard Fuller.
“Slay the Dragon”: Wisconsin plays a supporting role in this well-received documentary focusing on grass-roots efforts against gerrymandering, although the movie focuses on campaigns in Michigan.
“The Way I See It”: Former White House photographer Pete Souza, who took pictures during both the Reagan and Obama administrations, now lives in Madison; this documentary on his work and increasingly active political life spends some time in Wisconsin’s capital city.
Seeing the state’s stars
“The Argument” and “Babysplitters”: Marquette University alum Danny Pudi co-stars in these two adult-coming-of-age comedies — the former about a bickering couple making their friends re-enact a party so they can see which of them was right the night before, the latter about two couples who agree to “share” a baby.
*”The Call of the Wild”: Madison native Bradley Whitford plays a judge in this adaptation of the Jack London tale, which starred Harrison Ford.
“Elyse”: Anthony Hopkins plays a psychiatrist trying to help a comatose woman face her past demons in this drama; among the cast is Brittani Ebert, a Madison native and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee grad who plays a nurse.
*”I’m Your Woman”: Rachel Brosnahan (Milwaukee-born, Chicago-raised) is generating awards-season buzz for performance as a woman on the run in this 1970s-set crime drama.
*”The Last Full Measure”: Madison’s Bradley Whitford plays a disagreeable Pentagon boss in this true-story drama about military honors denied and a coverup; Phil Hall, an Army veteran from Johnson Creek, was a technical consultant on the movie.
“The Last Thing He Wanted”: Anne Hathaway uncomfortably steps into the shoes of her gun merchant father, played by Appleton native Willem Dafoe, in this drama.
*”Like a Boss”: Tiffany Hadish and Rose Byrne play BFFs who run a struggling cosmetics business; singer-actor Jacob Latimore, a Milwaukee native, plays Haddish’s easygoing lover.
*”The Nest”: Carrie Coon, who got her start at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in Madison-area theater, got some of the year’s best reviews for her performance as a woman whose life and marriage unravel amid her husband’s (Jude Law) pursuit of investment-world success in this drama.
“Songbird”: Madison native Bradley Whitford is among those trying to navigate life in lockdown during a 2024 pandemic in this drama produced by Michael Bay.
“Waiting for the Barbarians”: Mark Rylance, University School of Milwaukee’s most famous alum, plays a magistrate in colonial Africa who faces a crisis of conscience in this period drama.
Badgers behind the camera
“Fatima”: Born and raised in Green Bay, Jeanne R. Berney was behind the marketing of this historical religious drama in her role as president of Picturehouse studio.
“Herb Alpert Is … “: Prolific showbiz documentary maker John Scheinfeld, a Fox Point native, crafted this celebration of the chart-topping musician who helped revolutionize the music industry.
*”Let Him Go”: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane star in this tough drama based on Kenosha novelist Larry Watson’s book about a couple who will do anything to rescue their grandson.
“Scoob!”: Casting director and Nicolet High School graduate Ruth Lambert assembled the voice cast for this animated origin story of Scooby-doo and friends.
“You Should Have Left”: Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried play a mismatched couple whose vacation rental harbors something evil in this thriller written and directed by Pewaukee native David Koepp.
“Mags and Julie Go on a Road Trip”: Actor Ryann Liebl, who got into acting while going to Nicolet High School in the 1990s, wrote, directed, co-produced and stars in this buddy comedy, filmed in Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Sturgeon Bay with a mostly Wisconsin cast and crew.
“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.
“Small Town Wisconsin”: A deadbeat dad on the verge of losing custody of his son takes the boy on one last road trip in this affecting drama by veteran Milwaukee filmmaker Niels Mueller (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”). The road trip is to Milwaukee because, as the son tells his father, “Everything good comes from Milwaukee — beer, Bucks, Usinger’s.” Miller Park and the Pfister Hotel have cameos; the cast also includes cameos by Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt and Kristen Johnston, the former “Third Rock From the Sun” star who went to Whitefish Bay High School.