The festival certainly got off to a good start, as the opening night film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, by American auteur Wes Anderson is one of the very best on offer. The quaint, whimsicality that alleviates the director’s work is matched on this occasion by a tender, emotional core to create one of his finest pieces yet. Polarising he may be, given his often contrived stylistic approach, but this seems to be a film that has everybody in agreement. Talking of American auteurs, without doubt the most audacious and arguably most accomplished piece of filmmaking in Competition this year, is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a stunning, innovative project that took the director 12 years to shoot, as he chronicles a young boy’s childhood, from the age of five to 18, with actor Ellar Coltrane in the leading role throughout.
The two aforementioned titles did come with a certain level of expectancy, however Dietrich Brüggemann’s profound drama Stations of the Cross is the surprise gem of this year’s Competition line-up. A poignant, disquieting piece about a young girl’s dedication to her religion is one to move and compel you. The other stand-out film is somewhat different in terms of content, yet equally as impressive in regards to its quality, and that’s the Norwegian filmmaker’s Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance, starring Stellan Skarsgård as a respectable plow-man, violently avenging his son’s untimely murder, in what is a brilliantly dark and comical piece.
The Not Too Shabby
This section compiles a list of the films that aren’t exactly going to blow you away, but are more than worthy of their Competition status, as accomplished, thought-provoking features of their own right. We start off with the one and only British production, Yann Demange’s hard-hitting war drama ’71, starring Jack O’Connell in the leading role. While that takes place in Northern Ireland amidst The Troubles, another war-driven piece Inbetween Worlds is set in the modern world, as the German picture, directed by Feo Zehrfeld, depicts the relationship between a German soldier and his Afghani translator in a volatile environment.
Another German film to have impressed on home soil, is that of Jack, by Edward Berger – a film that looks into the life of a young boy, abandoned by his mother and left to fend for himself, walking the streets of Berlin with his younger brother. Another film to explore the world of a troubled juvenile, is Austrian director Sudabeh Mortezai’s debut feature film Macondo, which has a little more depth to it than the aforementioned title, bringing in identity, politics and issues with immigration into an already layered piece.
The other European films worth mentioning are Yannis Economides’ Greek thriller Stratos, a pensive piece with severely dark undercurrents, while 91-year-old director Alain Resnais offers his quirky adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s Life of Riley, a rare comedy in a Competition made up mostly of profound dramas. However, another somewhat lighter option is the charming Japanese flick The Little House by Yoji Yamada, albeit unbearably melodramatic in parts.
Two of the more intense, provocative numbers both hail from South American, with Celina Murga’s The Third Side of the River, and Karim Aïnouz’s Praia do Futuro, from Argentina and Brazil, respectively. Both films trigger an array of emotions, and use subtext and distinctive visual aesthetics to tell their stories. Though certainly flawed, it’s difficult to get either out of your mind for days.
The Ones to Avoid
Staying within Argentina, one of the films to forget from this festival, is Benjamín Naishtat’s History of Fear, a convoluted, abstract piece that, to potentially be appreciated, may well need a second viewing, in order to fully get a grasp on the messages being conveyed. Talking of which, the stand-out flop of the Competition this year, is Claudia Llosa’s Aloft, starring Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy and Mélanie Laurent. It’s completely illusory and for some unbeknown reason, uses falcons as a metaphor, though a few days on, and we’re still struggling to work out exactly what that metaphor is.
It seems to have quite a poor year for falcons at Berlinale, as they also appear in the terrible Chinese western No Man’s Land, by Ning Hao, which is making such an attempt to appease a Western audience it loses all sense of its own identity. In fact, it’s been a somewhat underwhelming festival for Chinese cinema altogether, as the other two productions to appear in Competition from the nation are equally as disappointing, as both Lou Ye’s Blind Massage and Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, struggle to captivate their viewer, and while the former is a poignant drama and the latter a murder mystery tale, both fall at the very same hurdle, of simply not engaging nor entertaining the audience at all.
Another disappointment comes in the form of Rachid Bouchareb’s drama Two Men in Town, and though starring the likes of Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel and Brenda Blethyn, here lies a film blighted by its lacklustre screenplay, as the clunky dialogue and shallow narrative fails to quite match up to the beautiful cinematography on show. Finally, as you question whether some German films may make Competition simply to illuminate their own film industry, regardless of the quality of the piece, such cynicism seems to be backed up by Dominik Graf’s tedious period drama Beloved Sisters, a film that is three hours in length – and you feel every goddamn second of it.
The Best of the Rest
As with any film festival, those in Competition are not automatically the strongest films, so here are four productions that aired in other sub-sections at this year’s event that are certainly worth catching. First up is the absolutely brilliant Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter by David Zellner, as we delve into the life of a young Japanese girl on a quest to discover the briefcase buried into the snow in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. American filmmaker Ira Sachs also returns with a wonderful and touching piece Love is Strange, with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow playing a gay couple forced to live apart while searching for a new apartment to move into. John Michael McDonagh follows up from The Guard with his latest, Calvary, again starring Brenda Gleeson in the lead role. It’s got that comedic fervour as expected, yet this is a far darker piece, that obsesses over death to quite compelling consequences. Talking of dark, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian thriller Snowpiercer, a quite astounding piece of cinema that explores the human race and the social class system, as a blockbuster with a tangible, and profound message – as the only film to rival Boyhood in being dubbed the very best of the festival.
Berlin Film Festival runs from the 6th-16th February, and you can keep up with all of our coverage here.